Tri-State Hispanic, minority growth

September 18, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The number of Hispanics living in the Tri-State region has grown by 66 percent since 1990, signaling a rapid rise among the area's still small minority community.

Population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week show that the seven-county region added 13,809 minorities between 1990 and 1998, a growth rate of 43.5 percent.

That's more than four times the percentage of non-Hispanic whites.

The area's Hispanic community is still tiny - just 1.2 percent of the overall population - but it is growing at the fastest rate of any group.

The new residents are slowly but surely changing the region's landscape, from the growing presence of Latino community centers to Spanish-language church services.


Mary Ann Harrison, special projects coordinator of the West Virginia office of Telamon Corp., a nonprofit agency that provides job services to poor people, said she has watched her clientele change over the last 15 years. Among its services, Telamon provides job and vocational training to seasonal farm workers as they move up the economic ladder.

"Traditionally, these were jobs done by the native folks," she said. "The face of the farm worker has changed with the face of the various ethnic groups in America."

Today, Harrison estimated about 90 percent of West Virginia's temporary farm workers are Hispanic. Dealing with them poses different challenges, she said.

"Obviously, the language difference was a biggie. But there were cultural differences as well," she said.

For instance, Harrison said immigrants from some Latin American companies are used to relying on a crew leader to get them laborer jobs.

Telamon teaches Hispanics job acquisition skills such as writing resumes. Harrison said staff members prepare clients with mock interviews.

Institutions from government to churches have changed over the last decade as more Hispanics have settled in the area.

Several churches from Chambersburg, Pa., to Martinsburg, W.Va., have begun to offer services in Spanish.

About five years ago, the Hagerstown Church of the Nazarene figured it would add Spanish services when the growing Latino population in Frederick County began spilling over.

But the Rev. Richard Wilson, pastor of church, said his congregation moved the timetable up when several Hispanic families from New York relocated to Washington County along with Phoenix Color Corp.

Now, a Hispanic minister preaches to between 30 and 40 parishioners at Latino Church of the Nazarene - a church within a church.

"It works wonderfully - better than I could have imagined," Wilson said.

Wilson said English services are held twice on Sunday mornings and once at 6 p.m. In between, the Latino congregation meets.

"In true Latino style, it lasts a couple of hours. You can't get away with that in the Anglo community," he said.

While many of the area's new Hispanics are migrant workers who come during busy farming periods, Wilson said that is not the case at his church. Many of the parishioners have purchased homes.

"They're putting down roots. This is a good place to live," he said.

St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Martinsburg, W.Va., began offering Spanish Mass about six years ago. Sister Grace Calivisi, who coordinates the program, said the church provides a haven for recent immigrants who do not speak English.

"The majority of the ones I have met do not speak English. Or if they do, it's so poor that they find it difficult to understand the readings," she said.

Although the census estimates do not provide explanations of where the Latinos are coming from, many said the Tri-State area draws Hispanics from big cities.

They come for many of the same reasons other people come - low crime, better schools and a higher quality of life.

Melesio Rodriguez, a construction foreman who also gives Spanish services at Zion Assembly Church of God in Maugansville, said he has seen a huge change during his 12 years in the area.

"It was difficult for us who came first to this area, because we had to struggle with a lot of racism," he said. "I don't think they do anymore."

It is easier because there is more of a support system, Rodriguez said.

He recalled a court appearance he made for a drunken driving charge he received in 1989. He said he barely spoke English and was told it was his responsibility to bring a translator.

But Rodriguez said it has become much easier to find Spanish speakers in the court system and social services agencies.

"Right now, they have Hispanics just about everywhere you go," he said.

Officials in local governments said it has become a priority to hire workers who speak Spanish.

Grace Burrows, the Franklin County, Pa., human services development coordinator, said two of her staffers speak Spanish.

"There still are very few bilingual people in any of the agencies. The language barrier is a problem," she said.

Without Spanish speakers, Burrows said, it is difficult to provide services to Chambersburg's Hispanics, many of whom are poor.

"They tend to keep to themselves. It's harder to trust someone you can't talk to," she said.

Areli Breese, a bilingual case worker on staff, works part of the time out of the Hispanic Center, an organization that operates out of Chambersburg Community Improvement Association building on South Main Street.

The center offers English as a Second Language classes and GED classes in Spanish.

Once the language barrier is erased, Breese said poor Latinos seek help with government bureaucracy or training programs.

"Basically, the challenges are the same as for any low-income community," she said.

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