Communities adapt to growing Hispanic population, but cultural change comes slowly
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Isidro Mendoza, left, listens intently as last weekend’s Mass during the parish festival at St. Patrick’s in Elkhorn. The Mass was bilingual — in English and Spanish — as the parish strives to unite its English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members. Terry Mayer/staff.
DELAVAN — When Oscar Nicia came to Walworth County from El Salvador almost 13 years ago as a 10-year-old, he didn’t see many Hispanics in his Lake Geneva neighborhood, and there was only one Mexican supermarket nearby.
Today he can think of at least three local Mexican grocery stores, and he’s even noticed the local Wal-Mart carries more ingredients for preparing Mexican dishes, like tamales.
As Walworth County's Hispanic population continues to grow, communities are learning that bridging cultures has hidden benefits.
Read the full story in the e-edition of Walworth County Sunday, HERE.
Nicia, who works at Aram Public Library in Delavan, reads aloud in Spanish during a story hour on Wednesday afternoons as part of the library’s summer reading program. Anywhere from 10 to 16 children participate each week, he said.
Nicia said the story program, which is preceded by an English language conversation class, was offered because the library has noticed more Spanish-speaking patrons. He hopes the seven-week program can be extended or run again in the future.
“As the (Hispanic) population is growing, there is a need to reach out to those individuals in the community,” Nicia said. “It would really be good for businesses to hire more people with a knowledge of (Spanish).”
Tracey Hennessey, who owns Tracey’s Tax Services in Elkhorn, doesn’t speak much Spanish, but a businessman who shares space in her office serves as her interpreter for clients. Hennessey completed 1,500 tax returns this year, and estimated between 80 percent and 85 percent of those clients are Spanish-speaking.
She saw a need for her services within the Hispanic community years ago when she worked for H&R Block during the tax season and for Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan in the summer.
“There were many Spanish-speaking people who needed tax help and had gotten bad experiences,” she said. “They’re family people and they pay their bills. And with the Hispanic community, once you have the trust of one person, they bring their family to you.”
She also invited two immigration attorneys from Chicago to use her office twice a month for anyone who needs help.
Final numbers from the 2010 U.S. Census aren’t available yet, but projections indicate an increase in America’s Hispanic population. People of Hispanic origin are already the nation’s largest ethnic minority, making up 15 percent of the total population.
In Wisconsin, the number of Hispanics increased by 48 percent from 2000 to 2009, to a total of 285,827. That’s 5.1 percent of the state’s population. In Walworth County, the Hispanic population increased 41 percent from 2000 to 2006; the county’s Hispanic population in 2008 was 8,943 — making up 9 percent of the county population — according to census data.
That growth is visible locally in the Hispanic restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries in cities like Elkhorn, Delavan and Whitewater. There are other signs, too. More language options are offered on automated telephone systems at organizations like schools and libraries. The Walworth County Health and Human Services Department website has duplicated much of its information in Spanish.
Southern Wisconsin Interpreting and Translation Services, with offices in Delavan, provided translation of the website. SWITS also has contracted with the county to provide interpretation services, not only in the health and human services department, but in the courts and for the sheriff’s offices as well.
SWITS’ database shows 120 interpreters for a dozen languages, from Chinese to American Sign Language. But its requests for Spanish translators is consistently high. Saul Arteaga, SWITS founder and director, said Spanish interpreters have at least 10 appointments, ranging from funerals to court appearances, in Walworth County each day.
Sgt. Erik Voss, a 17-year veteran of the Town of Delavan Police Department, has used his knowledge of Spanish “from day one” on the job.
Voss, who minored in Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and has substituted for Spanish teachers on medical or maternity leave at Elkhorn Area High School, has used the language on duty when handling everything from domestic violence calls to criminal complaints.
Many older Hispanics who don’t speak English will come to the police department with a family member or friend who can interpret for them, since they assume no one in the department speaks Spanish, Voss said.
“With my pasty white skin, I’m the last person they’d expect to speak Spanish,” he said. “But it helps to speak with them directly. It puts them at ease.”
Voss also has run into a few people who “play the system” by initially speaking in Spanish before realizing he understands them. They then speak in English.
He’s taken calls that come to the department from Hispanics who don’t speak English, and has translated for area departments when necessary. Two other part-time officers in the department also speak Spanish.
It’s a skill than comes in handy when translators can charge $50 an hour for services, Voss said. He encourages the students in the criminal justice classes he teaches at Gateway Technical College to learn the language as well.
“I tell them, ‘If a job is between you and another candidate, and you speak Spanish and the other person doesn’t, you’re going to get the job,’” he said.
Hispanics who don’t speak English can find themselves in serious trouble, particularly when it comes to the law.
Months ago, one of Hennessey’s clients came to her when his brother, a Mexican whose immigration file has been in process since 1998, was picked up down south while looking for work and kept in detention for weeks. She turned to Ira Kahn, an immigration attorney, who was able to resolve the situation.
“In many cases, if individuals who are incarcerated aren’t very articulate and don’t necessarily advise the interviewing officer of the nature and extent of the normalization process of their papers, the officer assumes they must be just undocumented aliens who don’t have appropriate family ties that would render them eligible for a bond,” Kahn said.
The demographics of Latinos nationwide reveal a younger population; the median age of Hispanics is 28, versus 37 years for the general population. Younger Hispanics who’ve grown up in the country are more likely to speak English, but that’s not always the case.
In the Delavan-Darien School District, students who speak more than one language are surveyed, screened and tested to determine English proficiency. Those who don’t meet a proficiency rating receive extra support services, such as a bilingual teacher, through a bilingual program.
Wisconsin law requires schools to provide a language program for English-language learners, and state aid is available to schools based on certified bilingual teachers employed.
DDSD, with 10 certified bilingual teachers, expects to service 599 students in the upcoming school year. That number has remained fairly constant over the last 10 years, according to Tracy Deavers, the district’s director of instruction and technology.
Pilar Melero, a professor of Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and the mother of two children in the Elkhorn Area School District, sees the benefit of bilingual education that takes into account the needs of the student. At 15, she attended bilingual classes in Waukesha schools.
“The classes were taught in English, but the teacher also spoke Spanish, so I could ask questions in Spanish if I needed to.
“And in my first semester, I even had a personal tutor to go with me to some classes. They spent a lot of money on me, but I’m a very effective taxpayer,” Melero said, laughing.
“People say, ‘These people are foreign. We shouldn’t be paying for the education of the children,’” she said. “Bilingual education costs money, and that’s a valid concern, but what is the cost if we don’t educate these children?”
“One way or another, we have to provide support for students whose native language is other than English,” Deavers said. “Social vocabulary is easy, but learning academic vocabulary is more difficult.”
Just 1 1/2 percent of Wisconsin households were not proficient in English on 2005 data; for the country as a whole, the rate is 4.8 percent of households.
The Walworth County Literacy Council is now in its seventh year of offering English as a second language classes at libraries countywide, where tutors are helping about 90 people, according to Abby Baker, the council’s coordinator.
She has seen ESL classes attended by people of all ages, many staying with the class for a minimum of five years, and even a few for as long as 20 years.
“Their goals all seem to be the same. The No. 1 goal everybody has is to be able to go to the doctor without an interpreter,” Baker said. “And those who have children want to be able to attend parent-teacher conferences and help their kids with homework.”
Baker said typically the ESL program has a waiting list of about 40 people needing tutors. Right now, that list is down to three, thanks, in part, to more volunteer tutors — who don’t need to know Spanish.
The Early Headstart program has referred people to the program, and the council also works with the Job Center in Elkhorn, Gateway Technical College and area libraries to get the word out about the ESL classes.
At St. Patrick’s Parish in Elkhorn, the 1:30 p.m. Sunday Mass in Spanish typically draws about 250 people, said the Rev. Jim Jaeger, pastor.
Jaeger understands the need for a Spanish Mass or providing information in Spanish on the parish website, but he doesn’t want to isolate the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities.
So the parish tries to unite, not divide. Jaeger noted there are a few Hispanic parishioners on the parish council and some committees. Last spring, a bilingual Holy Thursday service was held at the parish, and a bilingual Mass also was celebrated at the parish festival last weekend — a festival that included Mexican food as well as American fare.
Jaeger’s last assignment in Fond du Lac also was at a parish with a mixed population, and he knows joining the two groups isn’t always easy. At St. Patrick, he’s received both positive and negative comments about bilingual events.
“I think it’s just that people are uncomfortable on both sides,” he said. “Once we get together, we come to understand each other, and it’s easier.”
“We tend to be very attached to our cultures,” Melero said. “Wisconsin has had a very homogeneous culture for a very long time.
“If you’ve been in a small town that’s been white for 200 years and all of a sudden, there’s a whole new population, of course you’re going to resist it. People are afraid of change, and I’m not blaming anybody.”
Melero thinks Hispanics tend to isolate themselves too.
“We just go to work and go home and don’t interact much with the rest of the community,” she said. “We need community interaction on both sides.”
But she’s looking ahead.
“Our younger generation is starting to mix. I don’t think they have the attitudes the older generations do just because they’ve grown up with each other.”
Read the full story in the e-edition of Walworth County Sunday, HERE.