A line forms every morning at the counter inside of La Oaxaquena Bakery where the fresh baked conchas, chilindrina and empanadas smell way too good to pass up.
Ramiro Vasquez opened the bakery in the heart of the busy SW 29 business corridor about five years ago and the majority of his regulars are Hispanics.
“I think Oklahoma is one of the cities that has big potential for Hispanics,” said Vasquez, 42. “It's a city that is growing right now.”
But while the explosive growth of Hispanics living in Oklahoma might have helped fuel Vasquez business success, the surge appears to be slowing. In recent years, Hispanic population growth in Oklahoma has dropped considerably and, in fact, may now even be in decline, according to recently released census figures.
Some demographers attribute the falling numbers to a cooling state economy while others speculate that Oklahoma's strict anti-immigration laws may be playing a role.
The Hispanic population loss marks a sharp contrast to just a few years ago in the Sooner State.
From 2000 to 2010, the number of Hispanics living in the state grew 85 percent, to 347,000. Hispanics made up nine percent of Oklahoma's 3.8 million people. Nationwide, Hispanics represented almost 17 percent of the population.
But between 2010 and 2012, the number of Hispanics in Oklahoma is estimated to have declined by about a quarter percent, or about 900 people. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanics nationwide grew 1.3 percent during the same time period.
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute, noted that many Hispanics have moved away from traditional gateway states like Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona due to a lack of work.
“Usually they leave some of those places when the job opportunities dry up,” Frey said.
Still, Frey said it's too early to tell if the number of Hispanics leaving Oklahoma is a harbinger of a slowing state economy.
“Hispanics are a mobile part of the country, especially because they are new and not tied down,” Frey said. “Places that are growing are destinations for Hispanics and Oklahoma City is definitely growing so I think we'll just have to wait and see.”
A state economic development official downplayed the drop-off in Hispanics. State Department of Commerce spokesman Don Hackler noted that the number of people involved is small, less than 1,000. The state also just ended a decade of almost triple-digit Hispanic growth and now may be entering a period of more stable population gains, he said.
“I think it is more that the figure is settling down,” Hackler said.
In the neighborhood
Some who live in south Oklahoma City's Hispanic community find the declining numbers hard to believe.
In the heart of the Capitol Hill district, Carlos Ortiz sits in the kitchen of El Nacional de Oklahoma, a Spanish-language newspaper that bills itself the state's home for Spanish news.
A working journalist for 30 years, Ortiz has watched the rise of the Hispanic population in Oklahoma and sees little evidence that growth is slowing.
The median age for Hispanics in the state is 23 and Hispanic labor contributes $5.7 billion a year to the state's economy, Ortiz said.
“I don't believe we are shrinking,” Ortiz said. “We are probably just spreading out.”
Some observers have questioned whether Oklahoma's tough immigration laws may have played a role in driving Hispanics away. But Ortiz discounts that explanation and noted that many of the toughest provisions enacted by the state have since been relaxed.
“That used to scare away immigrants ... but the times are better for us now.” Ortiz said. “We love this state and we are proud of this state and we are here to stay.”
As the lunch crowd finds its way into his bakery, Vasquez pauses to consider the possibility of a decreasing Hispanic population and can't quite seem to fathom the idea. His day-to-day interactions with his customers lead him to believe just the opposite is happening.
“Right now, we see a lot of families coming to Oklahoma,” he said as he removed chairs from tops of tables and set out silverware and napkins. “A lot of our customers are moving here because over here you've got a lot of job opportunities. It's hard to get jobs in those other states.”
Right now, we see a lot of families coming to Oklahoma. A lot of our customers are moving here because over here you've got a lot of job opportunities. It's hard to get jobs in those other states.”
The owner of La Oaxaquena Bakery opened the business five years ago on the SW 29 corridor.