Cultural evolution: Hispanic population carves growing niche   (2000)

Published: 8/19/2016 7:22:31 PM

Cultural Evolution : Hispanic Population Carves Growing Niche (Oct. 12, 2000)

French-Canadian culture in Turners Falls, like the strong Irish and Polish heritage in the region, were fascinating to me from the day I arrived, and I wrote about the various ethnic communities, just as I did later in in-depth looks at about immigrants from Moldova and other former Soviet republics. Together, we create the rich social fabric that we know as community. This is an in-depth look at the growing Latino community in Franklin County.


El Partido de Franklin esta cambiando. Change, in other words, is sweeping through Franklin County.

Ask your neighbors: Alicia Diaz or Aida Martinez, Jorge Naranjo or Isabelo Flecha.

If you don't believe them, ask the U.S. Census Bureau, which estimates that the county's Latino population grew from 1.2 percent in 1990 to 1.8 percent last year. That's still relatively small compared to the 6.3 percent overall for the state, or 12 percent for the nation as a whole. By 2025, Massachusetts' Hispanic population is estimated to hit 16.4 percent.

''Hispanic people keep multiplying. We like having babies,'' quipped Marina Linez, who moved to Greenfield from New York five years ago to escape an abusive relationship. The daughter of a Salvadoran mother and Italian father, she now lives with her Mexican-American husband and their two children at Leyden Woods.

The Latino population is exploding most visibly in Greenfield, where two Spanish-language churches have already established themselves and in Turners Falls, where a Spanish-language church began earlier this month and where La Borinquena Latin Market-Restaurant is scheduled to open sometime this fall.

Although it's too early to glean information from the 2000 census, the 1990 census shows that nearly two-thirds of the county's Hispanic population was of Puerto Rican origin, with another 16 percent from Mexico and 6 percent identifying themselves as South American. Another 2 percent identify themselves as coming from Central America, 2 percent were Cuban and 2 percent Dominican.

The Puerto Rican segment of the Hispanic community was much greater in Springfield -- 89.4 percent -- and Holyoke -- 93.5 percent, according to 1990 census data, while in Boston it was only 40 percent. For the nation as a whole, meanwhile, Mexicans represent 65.2 percent of the Hispanic population, with Puerto Ricans accounting for less than 10 percent, according to a 1999 census report.

The distinctions among the various Latin cultures are clear to their members but blur as soon as anyone tries to generalize about one group or another. In fact, some argue, there is no Latino community per se.

''In Puerto Rico, there's a direct impact from the United States. It's 90 percent Americanized,'' said Nannette La Fosse, pastor of Inglesia Fuente De Salvacion Missionera (Fountain of Salvation Missionary Church), which conducts Pentecostal services at First Baptist Church several times a week for about 15 parishioners. These are primarily Puerto Ricans, with Mexican, Salvadoran and ''New Yoricans'' -- transplants from New York of Puerto Rican descent, many of whom have never been to Puerto Rico, though they have a Latino background. The church also attracts visitors from Colombia, Nicaragua and other Latin countries, she said, some of whom come from neighboring communities because the Roman Catholic church does not conduct Spanish language masses in this area.

There's even a Segunda Inglesia Pentecostal Alpha & Omega, or Second Pentecostal Alpha & Omega Church, operating in a Pierce Street space.

'It's safe here'

Rhina Naranjo escaped the war in her native El Salvador, fleeing by herself to San Diego when she was only 16, in 1986. Her father had been murdered, and her family -- four brothers, six sisters and their mother -- had moved from rural San Vincente to San Salvador.

''In my country, I was so afraid all the time, I couldn't sleep,'' the 31-year-old refugee recalled softly. ''You were sleeping in the middle of the night, and you could hear people getting killed. You couldn't do anything. It was very hard to find a job, even for a professional

''Coming here was scary, but for me it was worth it,'' said Naranjo, who soon moved in with her sister in Amherst. ''I love this country. It is beautiful. More opportunities to work, live in peace, express your feelings.''

In Amherst, she learned pizza-making at her Italian brother-in-law's pizzeria, and met her husband, Jorge Naranjo, a Mexican who had left his country in 1988 after sampling soils for the Guanajato state government. He'd worked in a Texas factory, then a Cape Cod restaurant, then in construction in northern Virginia before settling in western Massachusetts to work in Chinese and Italian restaurants.

In May the Amherst couple opened their own Greenfield pizzeria, Roberto's on Federal Street, named for the youngest of their three sons. It was a dream come true.

''I come from a very big family with four sisters and four brothers,'' he said. ''We work so hard all the time. I want my kids to have an education. I'm doing this for them. It's something to make you happy when you see one of your sons graduate from college. We have to work hard to do whatever we can to help them. My father used to be a farmer. I grew up in the (avocado) fields.''

They chose Greenfield to set up their business, he said, because ''for us, it is not too small, not too big. It fit the budget. We saw the space was empty. I fixed the floors, the counter, walls, ceiling.

''This country has the most opportunities,'' said the 36-year-old businessman, who learned English primarily from people around him. ''No other country you can come with nothing in your hands.''

The Naranjos' struggle echoes those of other Latinos who came to Franklin County for safety:

-- Lisa Colon, 31, climbed onto a bus in New York City five years ago and headed north to escape an abusive relationship. With her three children, she got off in Greenfield and found her way to the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition's shelter.

''Like Christopher Columbus, I discovered Greenfield,'' the 31-year-old Leyden Woods resident said with a laugh. ''Greenfield is different from Brooklyn. It's peaceful and quiet. I love the corn on the cob and the fields of pumpkins. This is where I want to be for a long time.''

– Colon's friend and neighbor, Maria Tavarez, moved here 4 years ago after tiring of living with her son, surrounded by prostitutes, drugs and violence.

''I came from Springfield because it's safe here,'' said Tavarez, 30, who is originally from the Bronx. ''My son was seeing kids shot up and seeing dope on the streets. Here I don't have to worry about my son getting beaten.''

At Leyden Woods, she said, she found help from social worker Diane Sargent, including services for her son, now 11.

''She got me on the right foot,'' said Tavarez, who works as a cashier at Stop & Shop.

-- Marina Linez stepped off a bus in Greenfield late one night in March 1995 after her brother suggested she move here -- where his girlfriend had lived -- to escape an abusive relationship in Brooklyn. She sold her furniture and arrived with only a small bag of clothes.

''It is a place for me where I feel protected and safe,'' she said. ''If I had stayed in New York, no one would have found my body.''

Mexicans are also moving to Franklin County -- particularly Turners Falls -- to work on area farms.

According to La Fosse, who arrived in Greenfield directly from Puerto Rico two years ago to serve as pastor, ''The majority of Puerto Ricans come for economic reasons and to get out of criminal areas. We want to be in a peaceful place, to raise our children in a peaceful way.''

A 1999 census report found that Latino families are 82 percent more likely than non-Latino families to be headed by an unmarried female and that Latino children are more than three times (34.4 percent) more likely to live below the poverty level.

Alicia Diaz, who works as a hot line and legal advocate for NELCWIT, said, ''A lot of times, a woman leaves everything when she comes -- home, security, her children's security -- for a hiding place from those who are doing her harm, trying to get a new life.''

The bitter irony is that the price these Hispanic women pay for escaping oppression and control by one person, she said, is control and oppression by the overall community.

Her NELCWIT co-worker, Araceli Torres Shannon, said, ''Latinos feel hostility -- at hospitals, schools, agencies. Because we are moving in in large numbers, people don't know how to react to that.''

'We do exist, but we don't'

In fact, discrimination in Franklin County, which remains 96 percent white non-Hispanic, is one of the greatest difficulties that Latinos report facing here, along with communication and transportation.

''When I first came here, I asked a woman for directions. She ran!'' said Tavarez. ''She was scared of me because I'm Hispanic.''

Frances Ortiz, who teaches English as a Second Language at Greenfield Middle School, said, ''I've been told many times to go back to my country.'' Ortiz, a New York-born, Northampton-raised granddaughter of Puerto Rican migrant workers who picked apples and tobacco, asked ''Do you mean go back to New York City?''

Ortiz felt confused when she visited Puerto Rico -- as out-of-place as an 'Americano' there as she sometimes feels as a New Yorican here. Similarly, Shannon, NELCWIT's Latina outreach worker, said Latinos here are simultaneously too visible and yet invisible.

''It's like being watched by police, by neighbors, like you have to be three times or four times better than white people. I go to meetings and it's all whites and there's me. It's very uncomfortable. You have to watch everything you say and how you say it.''

The Panamanian emigrant, who has lived in this country for eight years and Franklin County for seven, said census questionnaires ask Latinos to classify themselves as white, black or American Indian, and police citations have check-off designations for either white or black.

''We do exist, but we don't,'' she explained. The price of assimilation can be steep, especially when the melting pot can't erase the visible difference of skin color, said Shannon.

''You stay here, and little by little things get taken from you,'' she said. But no matter how much of their culture is erased, skin color remains a barrier ''that's not going to melt.''

Even without direct cases of prejudice, Latinos say they face a hurdle of difficulties adjusting to life in Anglo-dominated Franklin County.

''People come up here because they want a better life,'' said Aida Martinez, a youth counselor who moved from Springfield to Greenfield in 1990 in pursuit of a quieter, safer place to live. ''Sometimes you go places where they look at you as if to say, 'What the hell are you doing here?' If you speak Spanish, they tell you you're not supposed to.''

The burden is hardest for those who don't speak English.

''A lot of things are not accessible to them,'' said Diaz. ''When I was doing the (NELCWIT) hot line, a lot of women called trying to get access to services in Spanish ... if they were needing interpreters, or simple things like a dentist or a doctor.''

English instruction is available through organizations like the Center for New Americans in Greenfield, but adults may feel too old, too afraid or too exhausted after a day of hard labor to take classes, for which transportation may be another barrier.

Food, customs and more

Diaz, who works in the courthouse as an advocate, said there are often long delays because there are no interpreters close at hand -- and said there is a similar scarcity of Spanish-speaking staff at other critical institutions: the welfare office, the hospital, banks and schools.

''The courthouse is all composed of Anglos,'' she said. ''The people of color you see there are all on the 'other' side, because they're doing something wrong.''

The cultural differences alone would be enough of a burden for someone trying to fit in, according to several Latinos and observers like longtime Greenfield ESL teacher Marilyn Barrett.

Whether it's parents uncomfortable with their children participating in the ''devil worship'' of Halloween celebrations or students who are used to giving their teacher in Puerto Rico a morning kiss, or rosary beads that are misinterpreted as a sign of gang membership, the cultural divide can be wide, said Maria Burge, who moved here from Mexico in 1972.

''We're loud people; we flail our hands,'' she said. ''We can be speaking at what we think is a normal level, and we're looked upon as crazy people.''

It can be rough going for foreign students to learn a new language while adapting to a new culture, plus mastering subjects being taught in that language. Greenfield schools assign a Spanish-language tutor in addition to ESL lessons rather than provide bilingual education.

At Sunderland Elementary School, where about 15 of 280 pupils are Hispanic, Principal Martha ''Marty'' Barrett -- who is no relation to Marilyn Barrett -- has enlisted community liaison volunteers to reach out with foreign-speaking parents in their own language to overcome some of those barriers. She recently called on one such ''point person'' to explain to Latino parents about an upcoming trip to Nature's Classroom: ''Why would parents let their kids go off for a week in the woods unless they understood what it was about?'' the principal asked. ''If you don't have that kind of communication, problems can exacerbate themselves.''

Yet in an area with no Spanish-language radio, newspaper or television -- with the exception of cablevision programming a few hours each day -- some Latinos say they feel cut off and alienated.

Greenfield Community Television Station Manager Martin McGuane has tried for a while to air Spanish-language programming, or at least put Spanish-language messages on the community bulletin board, but he has had difficulty finding Spanish-speaking volunteers.

Even though supermarkets like Foster's and Stop and Shop have expanded their selections, Latinos also face problems in finding food that fits their cultural diet. Locating bags of maseka, white corn meal flour, to make tortillas by hand and specialties like pupusas (meat-and-cheese-filled tortillas) means trips to Holyoke and Springfield for people, many of whom lack easy transportation.

''It's very important for us to have sofrito,'' said Brunilda Flecha, who with her husband, Isabelo, is renovating an Avenue A storefront into Franklin County's first Latin restaurant and bodega. There, Flecha, who does outreach for the Community Health Center of Franklin County, plans to anticipate the growing market for Latin groceries and produce like plantains, juca and jalita.

As the Latino community has grown, so has the expansion of services, according to Burge, a former Greenfield police officer who runs a translation and interpretation service as well as doing liaison work between Greenfield parents and the schools. She also helps immigrant families access services as part of the nonprofit, church-based Casa Maria Culture Integration Center.

But even while Greenfield police, the schools and human service agencies now have Spanish speakers in place, Burge -- with two Spanish interpreters to help her respond to calls from the hospital, lawyers and police -- said, ''I'm finding it's just not enough to cover our needs.''

NELCWIT has Shannon as a Latina outreach worker. The Greenfield Middle School recently hired a Latino psychologist and the Greenfield schools have begun training staff in cultural awareness.

But Shannon said that while even politicians are paying lip service to Latinos to acknowledge that their ranks are growing, not enough changes are being made to truly help the community. Several other Latinos interviewed agreed, saying the presidential candidates and others are trying to take advantage of Latinos.

But even if some Latinos are so discouraged by living here that they choose to return to a place where they can feel less conspicuous and more accepted, others are building their own community in Franklin County.

To help break down isolation and encourage leadership and empowerment among Latina women, Shannon has formed networking groups that discuss everything from domestic violence to cooking.

Youth counselor Martinez, who sees a lack of activity centers for Latino youth, directs the Asian Latino African-American Native-American (ALAANA) Dancers at Franklin Community Action Corp. Youth Programs, where they can explore their unique cultures.

And Flecha is painting her Turners Falls bodega storefront a bright shade of green that stands out even on Avenue A.

''I love all shades of green, to say, 'This is where I come from,' '' said the Puerto Rican native who moved to the Bronx as a girl in the 1960s and to Franklin County five years ago.

''It's like everywhere else,'' she said of the changes here, based on demographic changes where she's lived before. ''There were few of us, then it keeps growing. It's a non-stoppable thing. This is what America's all about. Get used to it.''


Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


Copyright © 2020 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy