Thursday, April 13, 2006
Hispanics energize so voices are heard
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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
For many years, Hispanic people have come to this country. But this week's demonstrations across the country suggest they have arrived.
On the surface, the series of rallies and protests in places such as Washington, Dallas, Los Angeles and, to a much smaller degree, Virginia Tech, have been in response to federal legislation that calls for a crackdown on the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants and building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
But at a deeper level, the massing of hundreds of thousands of people suggests an emerging political voice within the nation's largest minority.
"This is good, yeah. This is the beginning of the good," said Roanoke grocer Angelica Quintero, who has U.S. resident status.
The 29-year-old native Honduran, who owns La Estrella Latina Grocery Store in Northwest Roanoke, came the United States 12 years ago and settled in Roanoke five years later.
Yolanda Puyana, a Hispanic community activist in Roanoke and also a columnist for The Roanoke Times, said all of the national attention on the plight of immigrants is a welcome "point of reference" for area activists. A local organization known as the Hispanic Community Center plans to launch a resource center May 1 at 137 Campbell Ave.
The office initially will serve as an information and referral site and assist with translations. Eventually, Puyana said, the organization would like to teach English to Spanish-only speakers and Spanish to those who want to learn the language.
The center should be a welcome refuge for what Puyana conservatively estimates to be the region's 7,000 Hispanics; she says the number is probably closer to 10,000-12,000. The number is imprecise for reasons that point to the national debate: Many immigrants are here illegally and live under the radar screen to avoid detection.
You don't understand the fear until you encounter it. Last year, after I rear-ended a car driven by a young Hispanic man who spoke limited English, my instinct was to call the police. He asked me not to, saying he was from Mexico and didn't have a driver's license. Because our cars sustained only slight damage, I didn't call the cops.
We both went on our way.
"For them, they're so desperate," said Puyana, a physician in Mexico who arrived in the United States 20 years ago with her husband, now an anesthesiologist for Carilion Health System. A naturalized citizen, Puyana, 48, is a stay-at-home mother.
"They're so tired of being in the shadows, afraid of being deported."
Puyana said the national efforts to urge lawmakers to help immigrants settle legally in the country demonstrate how different nationalities -- Mexicans, Dominicans and Salvadorans -- can come together to effect change.
David Pizarro, who was inside Quintero's store, said jokingly that people of those different nationalities may argue when they see one another on the street, but "we come together for this."
Puyana coordinated a group of about 40 people from the Roanoke and New River valleys who attended the protest Monday in Washington.
"It was like an awakening for us. Just being there and seeing all these people was very moving. The energy of the whole group, united," she said.
Puyana said the emerging voice likely won't lead to a national Hispanic leader commensurate with a Martin Luther King Jr., who engineered the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s.
Instead, she said, the energy created by the national protests likely will spur a grass roots movement and local leaders uniting to seek change within their own communities.
Since Monday's trip to Washington, Puyana has received calls from Hispanics in other communities with more established groups and organizations that want to work with her.
"I have seen so many people struggling," Puyana said. "I want to fight for some."
Shanna Flowers' column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.