Salvador Gutierrez, 37, owns Taqueria Los Charros in Lincoln Park, Michigan, with his parents. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

Expanding Latinx influences into new territory is what Lincoln Park and parts of Downriver is all about these days. My niece, who grew up there, was eager to show me all the Latinx small businesses in Lincoln Park. 

“That’s my dentist’s office. He always speaks Spanish to me,” Frances said, as we drove past an aging strip mall on Fort Street. She showed me Lincoln Park’s two Mexican grocery stores; a panaderia; the boxing gym with its Spanish-language signs and Mexican flag above its entrance; the drive-thru ice cream and coffee shop offering Mexican fruit-based drinks; the restaurant that serves Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken and Salvadoran pupusas; a new Mexican restaurant whose most popular dish is the TikTok-inspired birria ramen; and even the Sam’s Club in Southgate full of Latinx customers. I was experiencing something I haven’t felt in Michigan outside of Southwest Detroit: I was in a community where visible signs of Latinx culture and people are everywhere.

Spanish-language speaking and other Latinx residents are breathing life into many small municipalities southwest of Detroit — the area collectively known as Downriver.  Thanks to steady growth of Latinx residents last decade, the cities of Allen Park, Lincoln Park and Melvindale saw slight gains in their overall populations for the first time since the 1970s, according to Census data compiled by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). 

Most Downriver communities had double-digit percentage growth of its Latinx population last decade. That helped municipalities such as EcorseSouthgate, and Wyandotte keep their overall populations stable last decade, even as its majority white populations declined, according to SEMCOG’s analysis of Census data.

Lincoln Park is the epicenter of this change. At some point last decade, it became the city with the highest percentage of Latinx population of any municipality in Southeast Michigan. One out of every four Lincoln Park residents is Latinx. The city’s Latinx population grew 82.8% over the last 10 years. The Latinx population is at 10,380 in a city with 40,245 total residents.   

By comparison, Detroit had a 5.3% gain of its Latinx population last decade. Detroit still has the largest number of Latinx people in Michigan and probably undercounted by the 2020 Census, city officials and others contend. (This policy brief by the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions group shows most Southwest Detroit neighborhoods had among the lowest self-response rates in the nation to Census 2020.)

Southwest Detroit may still be the Latinx stronghold in Metro Detroit. But thousands of Latinx residents have decided Downriver now provides more opportunity than Detroit. Many are hard-working residents with growing families. That’s a precious demographic for Detroit to lose.   

“…the place to be.”

Lincoln Park resident Laura Mercado epitomizes why many Latinx are moving Downriver. Mercado was born in San Ignacio Cerro Gordo in the Mexican state of Jalisco. People from the town have played a huge role in reviving Southwest Detroit. Many have emigrated from the town, along with people in the nearby towns of Jesús María and Arandas, to Detroit for decades. Mercado’s family moved to Detroit in the 1990s, a time when many Mexican immigrants set up authentic taquerias and other small businesses; bought and renovated homes; and pumped new energy into Southwest Detroit. 

For 25 years, Mercado’s family lived in a big house next to the I-75 service drive in Southwest. Mercado, now in her early 30s, graduated from Western International High School in 2006. The local economy began to struggle and then cratered in the Great Recession. The influx of Latinx immigrants slowed considerably. 

Even in high school, Mercado had friends who began moving Downriver. 

“I was one of the last in my group of high school friends who moved,” she said. “Lincoln Park, Allen Park and Melvindale were like the place to be.”

Mercado stayed in Southwest despite some challenges. Immigration crackdowns increased in Southwest after Mercado graduated high school. Because the neighborhood is close to the Canadian border, there is a heightened presence of immigration officials. The father of Mercado’s son was deported. Then in 2016, her family sold their home to the State of Michigan to make way for the expansion of I-75 due to the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will cross over to Canada.

“One of the new freeway exits will be where my front porch used to be,” Mercado said.

Downriver seemed like the logical place to move because of rising housing prices and crime in Southwest. 

“In terms of crime, it got really scary,” Mercado said. There were multiple attempted break-ins of her family’s home and cars. 

Attorney Krystle-Marie Medina and legal assistant Laura Mercado of K-M Law in Lincoln Park handle cases that involve family-based immigration, criminal defense and more.

She now works as a legal assistant in a Lincoln Park firm, K-M Law, set up by a Latina lawyer, Krystle-Marie Medina. Medina specializes in immigration and criminal law. She is from Miami. Her fiance is from Lincoln Park. 

“For me, it just made a lot of sense to be in Lincoln Park. I could see there was a growing need for a bilingual attorney.” 

Both Medina and Mercado praise Lincoln Park. Mercado’s son is thriving in the public school system, which has steadily added staff to accommodate  Spanish-language students.

“It still has kind of a small town feel,” Mercado said. “Most people are pretty friendly. You see the mayor at all kind of events.” 

Overall, student enrollment in the district has hovered around 5,000 even as the number of non-Hispanic white students has steadily declined, said Terry Dangerfield, superintendent of Lincoln Park Public Schools. As Latinx student enrollment rises, so has attendance rates and graduation rates, Dangerfield said. 

“It’s been an absolute blessing for the Lincoln Park school community,” Dangerfield said, of the rise of Latinx students. “It’s been a nice infusion of people into our community. It has helped grow the culture and diversity within our school district and our city,” he said.

“… a good opportunity.”  

Salvador Gutierrez is another Southwest Detroit transplant. For 20 years, Gutierrez worked at Taqueria Mi Pueblo, a southwest Detroit restaurant started by his uncle. When Gutierrez and his parents decided to start a restaurant, they decided on a vacant building on Dix Highway in Lincoln Park. The building has been completely overhauled, and Taqueria Los Charros opened in October.

“I really just wanted to try someplace different than Southwest,” Gutierrez said. “I was 12 years old when I first started working at Mi Pueblo. Lincoln Park seemed like a good opportunity.”

Los Charros offers several items made famous on social media, such as the TikTok-fave birria ramen noodle and the Instagram-hyped quesabirria. Both are heavy dishes with plenty of cheese, marinated beef and broth. They taste like stoner food, or, possibly solid cures for a hangover. 

Taqueria Los Charros is a family-owned restaurant at 4090 Dix Highway in Lincoln Park. It opened in October 2021. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

The staff at Los Charros are young, many are bilingual, and many moved out of Southwest Detroit to Downriver. The customers are often Latinx families. There are also many groups of young Latinx. It’s the same clientele I saw at the other Latinx-oriented businesses in Lincoln Park and other parts of Downriver. 

Birria ramen noodle is a dish made popular on TikTok. Los Charros is Lincoln Park has it on the menu. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

Of course, some Latinx like Matt Martinez, 44, have deep roots Downriver. His Mexican-born grandfather worked at Great Lakes Steel in Ecorse who eventually moved his family out of the Delray neighborhood in Detroit to Southgate.

“I remember thinking as a kid that Southgate was upscale,” Martinez said, who is now married with children and works as a musician. Martinez’s parents still live in the Wyandotte home where he grew up. “I live literally 90 seconds away,” he said — from his parents and his wife’s parents. His younger sister lives a few blocks away. His younger brother and fiancee lives in the Southgate home that once belonged to his grandparents. 

As someone of Mexican descent with deep Detroit roots, I have complex feelings about the surge of Latinx Downriver. I am thrilled to see the diaspora spread in Metro Detroit and happy that so many Latinx are finding opportunity. 

I am a loyal Detroiter. It’s distressing so many Latinx feel they cannot find the same opportunities in Detroit. I’m even more distressed because they are right. Southwest, just as many parts of Detroit, is getting too expensive for many. Crime remains a major issue. So does lack of city services. 

I hope the spread of Latinx culture will be followed by more political representation; that there will be more recognition from the business community and media of the stabilizing force the Latinx community brings to an area. I hope those will be the stories I get to write this decade. 

Louis Aguilar is an award-winning reporter and author. It’s family lore that his grandfather is one of the central figures depicted in Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals. He can be reached at lostdetroit@gmail.com.