Twelve years ago, Mario Guardado came to Las Vegas hoping to establish a tourism connection between the city and his homeland, Brazil.
“Nobody really knew about the South American market when I moved here,” said Guardado, managing partner of Latin Media Group. “But then little by little, big tour operators from Brazil started to come here. … Many realized there was a big market to go after.”
Today, Latin Media Group promotes Las Vegas tourism to Brazilians through its website and online publication, Casino Billionaire, and works with the Travel Wholesale Association of Brazil. The result of those years of effort, Guardado said, is the thousands of Brazilian visitors per week to Las Vegas, many of who have made the connection to the city through his company.
Guardado is among a growing number of Latinos who have made the Las Vegas Valley their home, fallen in love with its entrepreneurial spirit and are making their mark on the business community.
More than a quarter of Nevada’s 2.8 million residents are Hispanic, according to 2013 census figures, and there are an estimated 7,000 Hispanic-owned businesses statewide. The Latin Chamber of Commerce has more than 1,500 members, said Founder and President Otto Merida, a Las Vegan since the 1970s.
Marcel Schaerer, director of Imagine 2020, a state initiative that looks at how Nevada’s university system can support a more diverse region, specifically one with a growing Hispanic population, said the effort also looks at ways businesses and the community can effectively interact with the Hispanic population. It promotes efforts such as dual-language business training and tries to cull accurate Hispanic community business statistics on its website. It also provides an opportunity for Hispanic business owners to engage with the Internet. Many do not have company websites, Schaerer said.
Schaerer, who is from Paraguay, sees room for improvement when it comes to businesses marketing to the growing Hispanic population, and vice versa.
“I see some Hispanic-owned businesses that don’t even have signs in English,” he said. “That’s basically the challenge, to create business models that support a more inclusive customer base. On one hand, we’re taught about how market niche is important. But a lot of shops can be more inclusive of different populations.”
Graciela Olson came to New York from Argentina when she was 17. Now in her early 50s, she is the vice president of table games at Bellagio.
She started in secretarial roles in other industries. But in the late 1970s, with the expansion of gaming in Atlantic City, she was enticed by the idea of moving to Las Vegas.
She attended a card dealing school in New York that allowed her to train in Las Vegas. She expected to return to the East Coast to deal craps — a position largely held by men at the time — but chose to stay in Las Vegas, her home since 1979. She loved the long stretches of open land and large community parks, as well as the employment opportunities.
“In New York, the idea of a park was a piece of cement,” she said. “Right away, I could tell this was a place for someone like me who was looking for a better future.”
In her role at MGM Resorts International, Olson assists Hispanic employees throughout the company.
“I try to help them navigate the system,” she said. “I feel like I have to pay back … my community and other Latinos new to town.”
Carlos Lazarte, owner of Las Americas, a Peruvian restaurant near Sahara and Eastern avenues, came to America in 1986 from Peru and to Las Vegas in 1991. He worked in the facilities department of various casinos, paid off his home loan, then launched several business ventures. He owns a tax preparation service, and once had a money-wiring business whose primary clients were casino owners.
“No ideas really stay forever. You have to figure out a new way to do business all the time,” he said.
Today, Lazarte spends a good amount of time supporting the new Peruvian Chamber of Commerce and the local chapter of the Peruvian Foundation. He helps younger immigrants with skills such as importing and exporting and business management.
Young guns, the old guard
Along with the immigrant stories that make Las Vegas a multicultural destination, the children of these storytellers also are carving out their niche in the business world.
“We’re seeing the increase in the sons and daughters of immigrants,” Schaerer said.
Erick Sanchez, president of the contracting firm General Design and Construction, remembers working for his dad, Ramone, who came to Las Vegas from Mexico City when he was in high school. The younger Sanchez, now in his 30s, remembers receiving “a business education money can’t buy” working alongside his father, who started P & S Metals in 1979.
“Growing up, I was in charge of sweeping the warehouse,” Sanchez said. “Then I started working with the machinery in the metal shop. I didn’t like learning how to weld in a warehouse that was 115 degrees while my friends were all having fun. But now, I really do appreciate it.”
Rich Robledo, a broker and principal at Acclaim Real Estate, has been in the Las Vegas Valley since 1993. Robledo, whose great-grandmother emigrated from Mexico, came to Las Vegas to work on F-15 fighter jets at Nellis Air Force Base. He translated his technical skills into a career in cable television sales before entering real estate.
“I think it’s amazing to watch Hispanic business owners and others getting involved in politics, and those in the business world making names for themselves,” he said.
The next generation of Hispanic leaders is eager to lead with its own ideas of cultural norms and modern business practices, said Merida, the Las Vegas Latin Chamber president. He has been at the helm for more than three decades and sees no end to its potential for growth.
Now eyeing retirement, Merida and the chamber board are considering his successor. The founder is proud of the chamber’s success through the years but is adamant that a new leader must understand an emerging business environment — more heavily influenced by technology, millennials and the global economy.
“The board is doing that now,” Merida said. “They’re looking for someone younger and more in tune with this economy.”
For his successor, Merida leaves an organization with its own building, free of debt, he said. He also is proud of the chamber’s community foundation and its support of downtown’s Arturo Cambeiro Senior Center, which provides daytime social activities for seniors.
“These are seniors who need help,” Merida said. Some have health issues … and we take care of them six or seven hours a day and then get them back to their families. That allows those families to work. That’s something I’m very proud of.”