Latino History

The city was founded in 1764 by French fur traders Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau and under the French flag. Little did they know that the land had already been ceded to Spain via the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762. Spanish governors did not reach St. Louis until 1767 and St. Louis was still administered largely by a Frenchman named St. Ange until 1770, when Pedro Piernas took over as the Spanish Governor of St. Louis. He reported to the governor of Louisiana for Spain, Don Alejandro O’Reilly, who was headquartered in New Orleans.

The Third Treaty of San Ildefonso returned the Louisiana Territories (including St. Louis) to France, which was by that time under the rule of Napoleon. However, the French never sent a governor to St. Louis, so it was the Spanish governor, Delassus, who handed the city over to the Americans. One of the interesting things about the Spanish administration in Louisiana is that it reflects what a global force Spain still was. It attracted all nationalities to work in its ranks, including the Irishman O’Reilly and Delassus, who was a refugee from the French revolution.

St. Louis was built at a strategically important spot near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and it was named for Louis IX, the Crusader King of France. When U.S. President Thomas Jefferson took possession of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the size of the United States doubled overnight.

Today, south St. Louis bustles with Hispanic-American culture, particularly along Cherokee Street west of Jefferson Avenue. Since the early 1980s, numbers of Mexicans and other Latinos have arrived in this predominately working-class neighborhood, which has seen many changes during the last decade. In years past, it was a hub for retail business in the area before going through a period of decline. The 21st century Cherokee is thriving as a commercial center for the local Hispanic community. Over a relatively short period of time, numerous Latin-American grocery stores, taquerias, tortillarias, clothing stores and food stands have set up shop in the friendly enclave.

In addition to housing much of the local Latino population, Cherokee Street has become a hip and trendy arts district. Located in one of the city’s older neighborhoods, the area is filled with a mix of history and new sights, including a number of authentic Mexican restaurants and grocers, along with galleries and small businesses. Dancers frequently swing and salsa the night away at the neighborhood’s historic Casa Loma Ballroom with live big band performances. Cherokee Street also hosts the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the region.

For an overview of the region’s heritage, visit the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. In addition to being the site of the historic Dred Scott slavery trial, the building offers galleries that depict St. Louis’ French and Spanish roots and its role in westward expansion.

America’s largest outdoor shrine, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows is located in nearby Belleville, Illinois. Founded in 1958, the Shrine is open to people of all faiths and hosts a variety of special events including Hispanic and African cultural celebrations, the Our Lady of the Snows Novena and the popular Way of Lights. Visitors drive through the magical holiday display, which tells the story of the first Christmas in hundreds of thousands of tiny, white lights.

The Shrine of St. Joseph, which opened in 1846, is noted as the site of a miracle that saved the life of a dying man who was healed after kissing a relic of St. Peter Claver. The miracle was authenticated as one of two miracles needed to canonize the saint, known for his work among the African people of the Americas. The central altar, called the Altar of Answered Prayers, was installed in 1867 after the parishioners asked St. Joseph to intercede and save them from a deadly cholera epidemic that swept the city. On the second Sunday of the month, St. Padre Pio Devotion and Rosary is recited before the 11 a.m., and on the third Sunday, the choir sings the Mass in Latin in the Baroque-style church accompanied by one of the largest handmade Pfeffer tracker organs in existence. Annual events held at the site include the Shrine of St. Joseph Festival and the Feast of Corpus Christi in June.

Every June, the “Fiesta in Florissant” is held at the Knights of Columbus Park in nearby Florissant. The two-day event features continuous music and entertainment from Hispanic cultural groups, dancers, bands and more. Other attractions include Hispanic arts and crafts, a children’s pavilion, a variety of information booths, and foods and beverages from Latin and South America. The “Greater St. Louis Hispanic Festival” attracts a diverse crowd to Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis each September. Activities at the free event include live Latino bands, folkloric dancers, a children’s pavilion, giveaways, information booths and authentic Hispanic foods and arts and crafts.

In August, St. Louis celebrates the region’s myriad cultures and traditions during the “Festival of Nations” in Tower Grove Park. The multiethnic celebration features dance, music, food, cultural and educational exhibits, folk art demonstrations and a craft market. There’s even a free shuttle service available throughout the park. Produced annually by the International Institute of St. Louis, the free two-day event is held in a rare Victorian walking park filled with ornate gazebos and statuary that was created in 1868 and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Additional local resources for Hispanics include: the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis; Cambio de Colores/Change of Colors Annual Conference; and Hispanic St. Louis. Two popular Spanish media sources in the region include El Mundo Latino and La Voz bilingual newspapers.

For information on St. Louis’ many multicultural events, check out our events calendar. For more information on new immigrant communities, contact the International Institute of St. Louis at (314) 773-9090.