From the iconic Fountain of the Rings to Turner Field, the legacy of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is evident in the city’s skyline. Yet the impact of international games can also be seen in Georgia’s growing Latino community.
Before Georgia State University had its stadium, Atlanta had Buford Highway. Prior to the creation of a Centennial Olympic Park, the Latin American Association and Plaza Fiesta were taking shape – some of the earliest evidence was when Latinos began building a community in Atlanta before building the infrastructure for Olympic Games.
“I had seen data that said there were 100,000 Latinos in Georgia, and we were amazed. I mean, we thought, ‘oh my God, how could there be so many Latinos here in Atlanta?’ said former state senator Samuel Zamarripa, recalling the early 1990s.
“Well, that number has grown exponentially over the decade.”
Before becoming Georgia’s first Hispanic state senator, Zamarripa worked under Andrew Young as the former mayor offered to bring the games to Georgia.
Atlanta won – championing a new era of growth.
Zamarripa explained how the South was going through an economic boom in the 1990s. Data shows that Latinos were already in Georgia in the 1970s and 1980s and were a strong agricultural labor force. Zamarripa, who also owns a vineyard, explained that much of the community has moved to the southern part of the state to help harvest crops like peaches and pecans.
“The Olympics just overstated the need for labor because things had to be done quickly,” he said. “In the early 90s, there was no real debate on immigration.”
With new economic prowess, Atlanta raced to prepare for the Olympics.
Crews broke ground in infrastructure, built new arenas and sports facilities, which changed much of the setting from Atlanta to essentially build a host city large enough to host the 100th modern Olympics.
Atlanta needed help, so leaders sought a source, which would also become the source of what researchers call the Southeast’s “Latino boom.”
“I think there’s been a lot of frank discussion at the Olympic Committee in Atlanta,” Zamarripa said, calling the infrastructure work a huge undertaking.
Despite funding and years of preparation, Atlanta’s Olympic plans for infrastructure were three months behind schedule.
“So immigration has become an economic issue,” Zamarripa said. “There were opportunities, there were good salaries, there was a shortage of that workforce. And so, I think a lot of people were willing to look the other way because there was so much at stake .”
Latinos, mostly Mexicans, came in droves to help build the infrastructure the city lacked, but it wasn’t just the work that attracted this new group.
Zamarripa cited the warm Southern weather, restaurants and shops on Buford Highway and daily bus service between Atlanta and Houston.
“Two or three buses would come in every day from that area,” he said, nodding near the southern border of the United States.
He said Atlanta was even more familiar because of the Braves’ groundbreaking decision to broadcast games internationally.
“The best-known baseball team in Mexico was the Atlanta Braves,” Zamarripa said. “So the Mexican community knew about Los Bravos.”
Build a community:
Immigrants came to help build Olympic venues – and stayed to build new lives and, in turn, helped Atlanta’s Cultural Corridor flourish.
“The Latino workforce not only discovered Atlanta and the area, they found a lot of their cousins and siblings here. And they all came – they opened stores, they opened businesses. laundromats, they opened tiendas, they opened bodegas,” Zamarripa said.
Soon the community created its own Atlanta monument.
“And the next thing you knew, Buford Highway was kind of Ellis Island for Atlanta’s Latino community,” he said.
As Latinos built their community, a new conversation began to unfold.
Census trends show that Latinos already discovered Georgia in the 1980s and the population grew rapidly. The population grew as Olympic opportunities beckoned.
“Let’s just say the Olympics was the first domino,” said Daniel Vargas, owner of the Vargas and Amigos ad agency and established leader of Georgia’s Latino community.
Lack of Olympic glory:
Vargas, a proud Puerto Rican, moved to Georgia in the 70s for a work transfer and explained that the state was not yet on the map at the time.
“I mean, when I started working here, we had to tell people where Georgia was because it wasn’t recognized by the international community,” he said.
In turn, people also did not understand his ethnicity.
He said he would explain he was a minority, but in the 1970s people equated the term with African American. From his experience, he said it wasn’t dark enough to be black but not light enough to be white – so he still had to explain.
“When I got here, people were like ‘oh, it’s great that you’re Puerto Rican, what’s a Puerto Rican?’ he called back. “So they said, well, you know, we better take care of you because you’re the only one we have.”
He embodied that – and got to work.
Vargas rose through the corporate ranks, working for well-known brands like Coca-Cola, guiding his career in Hispanic advertising and marketing in Georgia just as the state was striving to attract the Olympics. He also noticed how the community grew in importance. He said he joined boards and committees and made sure everyone knew he was Hispanic.
His agency has managed accounts with Coca-Cola, Pizza Hut and the Olympics, working to attract new audiences.
Over time, he adopted a new profession.
“People would say, ‘what do you do for a living?’ and I was like, ‘I’m a Hispanic leader,'” he explained with a laugh. “Lead who? I do not know.
Slowly he gained popularity, and he said he noticed his work growing with Atlanta’s efforts to become an Olympic city.
“We had to sit down and improve,” he said of the Latino community. “Because you have to lead by example.”
But it wasn’t easy; as Vargas explained, Atlanta’s Olympic history hasn’t been all glory.
He said that with the influx of immigrants, cultures clashed, work was plentiful but resources were scarce, and new residents of Atlanta didn’t always get the benefit of the doubt and were sometimes laid off. profit.
“I have an agency called Vargas, Flores and Amigos, right? They do research and think I’m a lawyer,” he explained.
Latinos shared stories of weeks without pay, despite working non-stop in construction. People found it difficult to find accommodation and move around and felt they were mistreated. Vargas said he even helps people get out of jail.
“No one talks about evil,” he said. “The Latino community, as a whole, is trying to gain acceptance.”
gateway of dreams:
So, after the medals were presented and the athletes returned home, Vargas and others helped the workers build a new vision of what their lives — and Atlanta — could be.
“When I came here, I used to tell people, I had to look in the rear view mirror to see Hispanic groups. And, you know, that all changed because of the Olympics,” he said. he declares. “What happened is that they came to work, but they also brought their wives and children and very quickly they developed a community here.”
A community that looked and sounded different than when Vargas first arrived in the Peach State.
“It allowed us to hear our music, it allowed us to hear our story from our side, it allowed us to get food we weren’t used to,” he said. . “So it was a really welcoming opportunity.”
Hispanics and Latinos are among the fastest growing groups in the country; US Pew Research shows that this is also the case for Georgia.
More than one million Latinos now live in the state of Peach, according to the 2020 census.
“Optimically, the future looks bright. We’re going to college, we’re getting an education, we’re the next generation,” he said. “The world will never be the same again.”
Vargas said that was the real Olympic victory.