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Hispanics Flock to Forks

— Mike Dawson, Peninsula Daily News 1993, reprinted with permission

Immigrants: People from Mexico fast becoming a part of North Olympic Peninsula’s culture.

Forks - Sandra Velasquez remembers the day a woman in a grocery store referred to her as "just a beaner".

"The heat from the stomach went to the tips of my fingers," said Velasquez, 21, who was raised in Forks.

That kind of racial insult causes people to turn their backs on their culture, to feel ashamed of what they are, she said.

Names - PrideShe knows. Born in El Paso, Texas, to Mexican parents, she abandoned her native language and culture growing up, because children in Forks made her feel ashamed. She has seen others do it as well. However, about five years ago, after making friends among the new Hispanic community in Forks, she decided to preserve that part of her heritage.

"I’m Mexican and I’m proud of it, and before I was ashamed of it," she said.

That heritage is becoming part of the overall culture of the North Olympic Peninsula.

In the last four years, the Hispanic population in Forks has boomed. An estimated 900 live in and around the town. Parts of trailer parks and low-income housing complexes are starting to look like little barrios. Many are illegal immigrants, workers who come and go. But others are in the United States legally and plan to stay and raise families.

Evidence of the Mexican culture is everywhere in Forks- a Mexican store called La Tienda Latina; Catholic Mass at St. Anne’s Mission is often said in Spanish; groups of young men can be seen playing soccer at Tillicum Park; special classes in schools to help youngsters adapt to their new environment; and there are Mexican parent groups and a women.

But who are these people who came so far? And why did they settle in Forks?

Some Hispanics who have made Forks their home gathered recently to talk about those questions. They are parents, workers, contributors to the community. They came to America for work. More simply; for food.

Many risked their lives crossing the Rio Grande River and walking across deserts on foot, Velasquez said.

The illegal immigrants are drawn by work that does not require them to prove to an employer that they are in this country legally. Those jobs include cedar shake bolt cutting and brush picking. They also like the area, calling it "peaceful" and "tranquil."

Velasquez is a mover and shaker in the Forks Hispanic community. Her parents moved to Forks when she was in the third grade. It was supposed to be a short stint, while her father worked in a mill.

We came just for six months, and it turned out to be 14 years," said her mother, Manuela.

"This is nothing new," said Ginger Haberman, who works for the Forks Food Bank and various groups that assist Hispanics. "I’m an Anglo, my husband (Mayor Dick Haberman) came here in the 1950s, because there was no work in Seattle. It was temporary, and we’ve been here for 30 years."

Manuela added, "Bees go to where the honey is."

The Mexican population has grown in the last four years, and even more in the last several months, she said. First it was young, single men. Now their friends and families have followed.

Martin Guerrero, who moved to Forks about a year ago, is a relative newcomer. Though he speaks little English, he is already active in the school system, as chairman of migrant workers’ committee that works with the Quillayute Valley School District.

Rosa Sagrero is founder of the Hispanic Women’s Association, which sponsors cultural festivals, charity work and serves as an information resource for Hispanic women.

They live modestly, without welfare. But others are dirt poor. They live in trailer parks and subsidized apartments, which appear grubby to many residents. But in all, they say, it is better than what they left.

"At least you have food in the house," Manuela said.

Guerrero said through an interpreter: "That’s all we ask is a little bit of work and a little bit of food. It’s not just Mexicans. Everyone in the world would like to live a little bit better."

In his home state of Michoacan, in southern Mexico, he was a farmer working a small plot of poor soil with little water.

"You plant your own, you harvest your own and you eat your own; that’s it" he said.

There was nothing left to sell. He could not buy food, shoes and clothes for his three children.

Despite the hardships that drove them away, Hispanic people get homesick.

"Sometimes you think you are crazy for wanting to go back," Manuela said.

Guerrero agreed, saying, "I was born there. I have my family there, It’s my land," but it was too hard to survive.

So, Mexicans "must not give in to the longing," he said. "We take the sadness and the nostalgia and put it in our pockets and keep it there."

Sandra Velasquez has fond memories of Mexico, where she visits from time to time. But she is American. She is part of the first generation of Hispanic Americans raised in Forks. Still, she has felt the stabs of racism. As a child, instead of fighting back, she ran from her culture.

Her mother shares the experience. She said she is treated "beautifully" and has been hurt by prejudicial slurs once or twice.

"It feels really, really, bad," she said.

Americans are often surprised to learn that Mexicans understand when they are being insulted, Sagrero said. And some apparently think Mexicans cannot feel hurt or insulted.

A receptionist in a clinic once thought Sagrero, who was chatting in Spanish to a friend in the waiting room, was oblivious to English directed at her.

"These Mexicans are here, and they don’t know anything, and they are still here," the lady told a nurse who walked into the room.

The women looked shocked when Sagrero and the nurse began conversation in English, she said.

"That's the issue in bright lights, the language barrier," she said.

It blocks them from social services, from understanding simple laws and customs.

That is why its important for Hispanics to learn English, Manuela said.

It is humiliating not understanding the English spoken around you, she said. It is just as bad when Americans presume that you don't.

"It's like being deaf and dumb," she said.

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