Feeling the difference in Fort Wayne: A Latino business owner shares his journey

Jonathan Morales remembers the days when he accompanied his mother to visit his father during the lunch hour at his factory job. He remembers the ash that covered his father’s boots and hands—the same ones that greeted him when he came home from work.

But as a working adult himself today, Morales’s path has taken a different turn than his father’s. He runs his own business, Jonathan Morales: Allstate Insurance at 3714 South Calhoun St. in Fort Wayne, which he operates full-time, while juggling community work and family life. And he attributes his ability to step out as an entrepreneur to opportunities he’s found in Fort Wayne, the drive to work hard, and the inspiring community he sees developing here.

As a first-generation American with two immigrant parents, Morales understands firsthand the challenges immigrants face in U.S. cities, and when he was growing up, Fort Wayne was no different.

Although he was born in El Paso, Morales grew up in Fort Wayne and attended schools in the heart of the city’s south side—Fairfield Elementary, Geyer Middle School, and South Side High School.

In the 2000s, he remembers a time when Hispanic or Latino residents made up under 6 percent of the city’s population. As of 2017, that number has grown to 8.7 percent, and Morales feels the difference. He attributes the growth of the city’s Latino population—as well as its overall population growth—to inclusive downtown developments, like the Tin Caps Stadium and the new riverfront Promenade Park.  

But while downtown Fort Wayne is on the rise, driving growth, there are other parts of Fort Wayne that have yet to experience the same level of revitalization, particularly on the city’s south and southeast sides, Morales notes.

“I still see a lot of separation in our city with pockets of the city sticking together,” he says. “I know a lot of people who never came south; they wouldn’t go past Creighton or Pontiac Streets.”

Progress in these parts of Fort Wayne, however, is not completely absent, he says. Countless restaurants are making a home for themselves in the popular “07,” where businesses like his provide essential services to the area’s working-class families and non-English speakers.

Morales points out that the close relationships he’s seen cultivated on this side of town, which are exactly why he chose to locate his business on South Calhoun Street in the first place.

“There is a greater sense of community in the 07 compared to other areas,” he says. “You see families out walking with their dogs, enjoying each other’s company.”

Being located on the south side, Morales takes pride in knowing that his business serves people from various backgrounds, too.

“Being Mexican, knowing the culture, there are a lot of similarities in working with the Burmese populations and Latinos in the community,” he says. “I understand there can be language barriers, so we work with translators that come in. We are able to connect with people and help them.”

Through his insurance agency, Morales helps people who are in a bind financially, but need coverage. Part of this desire to serve this population stems from obstacles he encountered in his own life as the result of a lack of representation he felt growing up, the guidance he found in college, and the knowledge he’s gained about managing the financial burdens of school.

For him, enrolling in college was uncharted territory, and if not for an advisor who sat him down to explain how loans and grants worked, he likely would not have finished his degree. Instead of dropping out of college, he graduated with his associate degree in Business, a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership Studies, and minor in Communication.

Following a decade long career as a bank manager, Morales opened his own business, and he’s not alone. He’s has been encouraged by the rising number of other Latino-led businesses in Fort Wayne in the last 10 years, too.

“I am super pumped about it,” he says. “The only Latino business I remember growing up was Don Pedro’s Donuts, which is now the Burmese restaurant, Mahnin.”

Even so, Morales notes that starting a business, particularly as a minority, can be a challenging course, and he’d like more opportunities for Latino business owners to share stories and learn from one another.

“Everyone wants to be a success story, but it’s not as easy as many people think,” he says. “There are a lot of people I admire from afar. I don’t even know them, but I see them, and think to myself, ‘I want to go meet that person.’ Places like, La Fogata, Bravas, Mercadito Taqueria, Caliente downtown, Luis Castro, who does mechanic work, and Joel Ruiz who has a concrete company. There are just so many.”

Speaking of meetings, a few months ago, Morales met with Fort Wayne’s Mayor Tom Henry to discuss the city’s growth and his community work. He sees this opportunity as further evidence of Fort Wayne’s commitment to supporting entrepreneurs like himself.

It causes him to pause and reminisce on his upbringing and how far he has come.

“It’s been crazy,” he explains. “My dad worked in factories. Now I do tours of companies with the plant managers. I met with the mayor. It’s been crazy, and sometimes I’m taken aback.”

Coming from immigrant parents and meeting elected representatives for business is a tale as old as the American Dream. It’s why Morales has pegged the experience as one of the highlights of his career.

But while he’s determined to build a better future for himself in Fort Wayne, he has also not lost sight of his roots, pointing out that his Latino heritage is something he carries with him every day—in the workplace and beyond.

“When people talk about immigrants and immigration, that’s me; that’s my family; that’s where I’m from,” he says. “Even though I was born in Texas, I am also Mexican. We are Hoosiers by choice.”

Like many local citizens, Morales is excited to see Fort Wayne keep growing. As the city progresses, financial services, insurance agencies, restaurants, and non-profits will all help shape its future both socially and economically. Morales sees the city’s economic growth as a way to bring more opportunities to people from all walks of life.

These opportunities make Fort Wayne a vibrant and attractive city to experience, he says, and they are inspiring its Latino community to take chances.

“A lot of people want to move out, but we have a diverse community right here,” Morales says. “People don’t realize how much Fort Wayne has to offer. There are a lot of cool people, and great businesses and opportunities popping up.”

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