“Pregúnteme donde tienen yo sido y le diré”
Thoughts Concerning Delaware’s Latino Communities
by Vivian A. Houghton
July 30, 2002
Phoenix Community Center Forum on
La Vida Dura (The Hard Life)
A Forum on the Challenges to Hispanics in Delaware
From Georgetown’s “Little Guatemala” to Wilmington’s 4th St. just north of I-95, the statistics concerning the growth of Delaware’s Hispanic population aren’t just numbers, they’re flesh.
We’re talking here about the Puerto Rican Independista who stands outside a bodega not far from Judy Johnson Park,. And we’re also talking about a Mayan cleaning woman from San Marcos whose first language is an Indian dialect and whose second language is Spanish. And we’re talking too about a relocated Mexican peasant who works for Chem Lawn in an effort to earn enough money to bring the rest of his family to Odessa to live.
All of these people, and thousands of others, are who we refer to when we discuss Delaware’s expanding Hispanic population, a population far more diverse than the generic term “Hispanic” indicates.
The truth, of course, is that under the single term ”Hispanic” is combined a variety of cultures, language-groups and motives for migration. Some come here in search of work, others in the hope that their children will have a better life, still others because of political oppression at home, and even others because their homelands have been torn apart by conflicts stirred by outside forces. On more than a few occasions the U.S. has been one of those outside forces. Our intervention at such times usually takes the form of supporting American business interests, as in the push for petrochemical development in Puerto Rico, or in pushing for White House military and political aims within supposedly independent countries like Guatemala and the other Central American nations and also Mexico.
All of these facts impact in one way or another on a number of the questions that touch upon tonight’s discussion.
In the year 2000, the Voice of America ran a story on Georgetown. They called the story “Guatemala City, U.S.A.” because of the number of Guatemalan immigrants living in the area.
During the Voice of America radio show, Tony Malone, representing the Georgetown Perdue plant, said that 52% of the plant’s workforce was Spanish-speaking. He also described his immigrant workers in complimentary terms, saying that they were – and this is a direct quote –
This quote from Mr. Malone more or less sums up the Perdue company’s vision of the American dream. According to Perdue vision, poverty-stricken Latin American immigrants find their way to Mr. Perdue’s doorstep and he then blesses them with jobs, which shows the newcomers how superior their adopted country is in comparison to their original homeland.
Of course, the story isn’t quite so simple as the Perdue world view would like us to think it is.
As Pilar Gomez, a community activist, told the same Voice of America interviewer who interviewed Malone, the plight of Hispanics is more complicated than the business community admits. Gomez, a labor organizer, explained that although Hispanics were valued as cheap labor, they were rejected by the dominant community as being somehow less than full human beings. She said, “They don’t want the Hispanics here. They don't want to help. They don’t want to do anything. They don't want to know anything.” To drive home her point, Gomez cited how area officials canceled the weekly soccer tournament that the immigrants loved to play so much. The soccer games were prohibited because long-time residents considered the Hispanic sporting event a noisy mob-like affair that caused traffic jams in their otherwise peaceful city.
Gomez concluded her comments by stating that mounting numbers of Hispanics were becoming exasperated by such second-rate treatment. “My impression from talking to the community,” Gomez offered, “is they are fed up. They’ve had enough. They say they are taxpayers. They deserve 'something' in return."
Gomez is right: Delaware belongs as much to the Hispanics who live here as it does to you and me and anyone else. The fact is that Latinos’ growing prominence as a political entity within Delaware will make it increasingly impossible to ignore their demands. Their numbers are growing too rapidly for the status quo to passively sit around praying for the immigration wave to pass. It’s not going to pass, not, anyway, in the near future.
Between 1990 and 2000, Delaware’s Hispanic population grew by 136%. The center of this expansion was Sussex County where the population growth rate for Hispanics was an astounding 369%. And there is no sign of this trend reversing itself. In fact, some census estimates predict that through the year 2025, Delaware’s Hispanic population will expand at a rate that is three to four times the national average. So, if there are any anti-immigrant forces in the state who are hoping that our growing Latino population might disappear, they are doomed to be frustrated, and let them be so, since the truth is that our companeras and companeros from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador and other nations bring to us as much in terms of cultural vitality as we give to them. This is because immigration is never a one-way street. We all learn from each other and develop a broader view of the world as a result.
Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately, it’s not always like that, which is why Pilar Gomez, whom I quoted earlier, speaks so eloquently about the frustrations within many of Delaware’s Hispanic communities.
These frustrations have been building for a long time.
Take, as an example, the 1993 case concerning a Guatemalan immigrant who worked in a Sussex poultry-processing plant in order to support his family in Central America. One night, after having drunk too much, the man hit and killed a local high school cheerleader. The accident, a tragedy to begin with, became more tragic when an anti-Hispanic furor developed in response to the young woman’s death. Long-time residents’ frustrations with the Hispanic community’s supposed negative impact on property values and the community’s alleged rowdiness and other so-called low class behaviors erupted into overt hostility after the cheerleader’s death. The situation became so bad that the arrested Guatemalan was severely beaten by group of racist inmates. Although the prison beating was rationalized by many in Sussex’s white community as merely a problem among convicts, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the inmates in fact were acting out the dominant community’s feelings of alarm at, and frustrations with, the Hispanic influx into the area.
Latinos are also targeted as a problem community in other ways – for instance, by the INS. In August 1996, as an example, the INS raided Allen Family Foods processing plants and took away 124 workers. The raid was planned after a truck carrying 40 illegal aliens from Mexico and Guatemala crashed into a bridge tollbooth in Delmarva. Given that the illegals were slated to work for Allen, the INS decided to raid the company to see if it had other undocumented workers there.
Interestingly, this 1996 raid occurred two years after another clash between Allen Family Foods and the INS. During that clash the company ended up paying a $43,000 for consciously hiring illegal aliens and refusing to file the appropriate immigration forms. Clearly, however, the $43,000 didn’t stop Allen Family Foods from persisting in its desire to save costs by employing illegal aliens – none of whom can ever hope to earn more than $7 an hour. Given such exploitively low labor costs, it is clear that American Family Foods can afford to pay occasional INS fines without altering its methods of dealing with both legal and illegal workers. Such token fines in the poultry industry are similar to the ones frequently levied by the state against Delaware’s industrial polluters. A recent article in The News Journal pointed out that none of the relatively small fines that DNREC has forced Motiva to pay are viewed by business people as a serious threat to the company’s behavior. It is similar in the poultry industry: the oversight structure is biased toward the employers and against the workers. The employers receive affordable fines while workers lose their jobs and frequently are expelled from the country.
In addition to such problems, Latinos, as an often exploited labor force within Delaware, also suffer the social-economic problems faced by all low-income and/or marginalized groups. Here are some quick facts –
As everyone in this room knows, these aren’t minor problems. They are major ones, and must be solved.
But as with so many problems, these problems cannot be rectified if we are not aware of all the factors that have brought the problems into existence. Whether we like it or not there are past historical realities that often have an invisible influence on the relationship between gringo and non-gringo. If we don’t face up to, and learn to understand, these realities, gringos are doomed to not understanding some of the forces underlying Latino immigration into states like ours.
The anti-Hispanic bias that we sometimes see in Delaware doesn’t arise from nowhere. It is part of the same lingering manifest destiny assumption that guides the creation of some of our foreign policies. This manifest destiny idea, stated simply, is this: that the lives of darker skinned people in undeveloped countries, just like the lives of their counterparts here in the U.S., are less valuable than the lives of the world's supposedly "leading" race, people of European background. Not surprisingly, such manifest destiny notions have on more than one occasion led to the development of American foreign policies that undermined rather than supported democracy in other nations.
Guatemala, from where so many of Delaware’s immigrants come, is a case in point.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. supported Guatemala's ruling elites and encouraged them to deepen their relationships to U.S. business and military interests. Unfortunately, during much of this time, Guatemala’s rulers were involved in struggles against pro-democracy movements in their own country. This means that the U.S., with its ongoing financial aid and military support, aided the Guatemalan government in crushing these struggles – struggles that consisted primarily of peasants battling for agricultural reform, workers battling for labor reform, and coalitions of peasants, workers and middle class people battling for democracy and general economic reform.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a case of the U.S. government inadvertently helping the Guatemalan government to wage war against its own people; in truth, the U.S. played a formative role in developing this very policy of undercutting Guatemala’s reform movements. An example of U.S. behavior in this regard is what happened in 1954 to Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala’s democratically elected President. When Arbenz started dividing up the giant estates of the nation’s wealthy landowners and largest businesses so that he could distribute the liberated land to the poor peasantry, U.S. business interests became enraged since some of them, like United Fruit, owned huge amounts of Guatemalan land that they had no intention of ceding to the peasantry. As a result of this conflict between U.S. business and the Guatemalan government, the CIA orchestrated Arbenz’s overthrow and his replacement with a government more to the U.S.’s liking. This act of U.S. sabotage against Arbenz and Guatemala’s democratic reform movement set in motion a decades-long battle within Guatemala between the haves and have-nots. In the course of this conflict, tens of thousands of lives were lost, some in battles between pro-democracy guerrillas and government soldiers, and others anonymously when secret service death squads came and took people away in the dead of the night.
One of the most targeted populations within Guatemala during these years were peasants of Mayan decent. Thousands of them were slaughtered as the result of their participation in struggles for economic reform and democratic rights. In general, the carnage level eventually grew so great that it spawned an emigration trend that saw growing numbers of poor peasants looking for ways to flee their homeland in search of a better life. That emigration trend still continues. As a consequence, we today have thousands of Guatemalans living in Delaware.
I know we would all like to think that the kind of horror I just spoke of is behind us. I certainly would like to think this too. But sometimes things happen that make me wonder. And worry.
On July 14, 1999, Pedro Guerra Martinez died right here in Newark. He was killed while asleep in the back seat of a car that had been stopped by the police. As the car sat on the railroad tracks near the Deer Park while the police stood off to the side consulting with the driver, a train smashed into the vehicle, killing Martinez. How this could happen while Martinez was in police custody is clearly a question of importance. But that’s not what interests me tonight. What interests me is something that happened a few days later when Newark Mayor Hal Godwin grew frustrated with a group of questioners who were querying him about Martinez’s death. Godwin snapped at his questioners, insisting the incident had been blown out of proportion and that the controversy stemmed from – and this is an exact quote – "reporters and sensationalists all around Newark who like to make sensational-looking stories out of nothing.”
So, Pedro Martinez’s life was “nothing” in Godwin’s eyes. It’s doubtful the mayor would have made the same comment if the killed person had been Gov. Minner or UD President Rozelle or a member of Mr. Perdue’s family.
What we hear in Godwin’s comment is the same disregard for life that led to the deaths of so many Mayans in their home country and that results in the low pay and bad working conditions that immigrants have to endure in Delaware’s poultry industry. And it is also this lack of concern for life that makes the poultry industry so unconcerned about how its operations help to contaminate and render unhealthy the state’s waterways.
In response to such unconcern for people and the planet, we must dedicate ourselves to life. And to make this dedication real, we must pour over every law in the book to bring those responsible for suffering to justice. And we also must put pressure on the justice system by building coalitions that aren’t afraid to stand up to power when power is wrong.