Detroit City Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero points to the double-edged sword qualities of Latinx people moving out of Detroit to live in Downriver communities.

Detroit City Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero knows full well the impact of Latinx residents in Detroit moving Downriver. She represents District 6, which includes Southwest Detroit. That’s long been the heart of the city’s Latinx community. Plenty of her relatives have moved Downriver. 

Louis Aguilar: How long has your family lived in Southwest Detroit?

Gabriela Santiago-Romero: I myself have been living in Southwest Detroit for 28 years. My immediate family — my parents, my brother — left the city back in 2014. A large portion of my extended family left around 2008. 

It’s myself, my grandmother, a cousin, an aunt, an uncle in Detroit versus my 20 other aunts and cousins who have moved Downriver. That’s an exaggeration, but not really. I have many, many cousins and aunts and extended family who live in Allen Park, Lincoln Park and Taylor. There’s only a handful of us left in Detroit. 

What we are seeing now has been in motion for years. Frankly, it is because the city had so little resources. I actually interviewed my mom briefly and she recalled a lot of people left, especially immigrants and Latinx folks, around 2007 and 2008. Around this time, Michigan rescinded the driver licenses of many immigrants. Many went back to Mexico. Many people moved Downriver because if they had an aunt or cousin there that could drive, they could still have some access to someone with a car that could drive them around. Because Southwest is by the border, we had a lot of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) activity.   

Again, the lack of resources in Detroit: You called the police, and they didn’t show up; the taxes were high. People started moving where services were better and taxes were lower. A lot of the jobs are in the suburbs. For me, I was a waitress at a Chili’s in Allen Park. Then, at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, but nothing in the city.   

Aguilar: I know, and I’m sure you know, many Latinx residents who moved out of Southwest simply because it’s getting more expensive to live there. 

Santiago-Romero: I think that is the most recent reason. It’s been a slow trickle of people moving Downriver; they have been building a base. And because there was a base being built, as the rise of prices began in Detroit, many people had the option to move Downriver. 

Aguilar: Having said all that, Detroit’s Latinx population did slightly grow last decade, according to Census 2020. But many claim there was a serious undercount in Detroit. Do you think Detroit’s Latinx population was undercounted? 

Santiago-Romero: We were completely undercounted. It was because of COVID and because of who we had in the executive office, which was (Donald) Trump. I worked the Census in 2010 when I was 18 years old. It was a great job. I went door-to-door in Southwest. I remember they were hiring way more in advance for the 2010 Census. This time around, I literally got anxiety because no one was talking about the Census, no one was hiring for the count. The efforts weren’t there to do the count.  

Aguilar: Overall, is this movement of Latinx people moving Downriver a good trend or bad trend?

Santiago-Romero: I’m optimistically sad, if that makes any sense. I see both the good and bad. The bad is that we are losing the culture, people to Downriver. The good is that our people are so resilient, are so incredible. Lincoln Park now has so many Mexican restaurants and other Mexican stores. It’s actually really beautiful. I think that is amazing. But that does make me a little sad because that could have happened in my immediate neighborhood.