Final Word: Small steps across the culture gap

|  May 28, 2009 |

It was the early ’90s when the first group of Hispanic workers showed up in my hometown. They moved into a low-rent trailer park out on Highway 82, kept to themselves and went to work. Most of them found their way onto jobsites working for local contractors.

Much has changed in Alabama since the dark, segregationist days that gripped my state a half century ago. But Alabama remains a conservative, xenophobic place. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion by whites and blacks alike. And yet, the response to the presence of the “Mexicans” was surprisingly muted.

There was some muttering about the language barrier and bilingual driver’s license tests… Hell, this is America, after all, isn’t it? Other folks looked askance at the large, colorful, Hispanic crowds that took over the trailer park’s common ground on Sunday afternoons. That many Mexicans in one place couldn’t be a good thing, could it?

But any misgivings proved unfounded. The crowds turned out to be cheering on a weekly children’s soccer game. It wasn’t the drunken, tequila-fueled fiesta many expected and feared.

Things in this town pretty much stayed the same. The crime rate didn’t go up, although the quality of food in the local Mexican restaurants did. And the schools handled the sudden influx of Spanish-speaking students with minimal fuss.

People adjusted to the newcomers, and life went on. That’s because Alabamians, like Americans everywhere, respect hard workers. And as more than one local contractor has told me, “By God, these guys work.”

Pretty much the same thing has happened all across our country. About 15 years ago, legal and illegal Hispanic workers, long a mainstay in the southwestern United States and in our larger cities, began to branch out across the entire country. Suddenly, there were Hispanic workers in sleepy Midwestern towns, Oregon communities and other places with no preexisting Hispanic culture, community or support system. And in overwhelming numbers, these migrant workers choose construction as their preferred occupation. And contractors seemed to have welcomed these workers, because – well – they work so damn hard.

There’s still some grumbling, of course. A few weeks ago, a lady wrote to the local paper, outraged at the dual English/Spanish store signs hanging in the local Lowe’s. She was appalled the store would dare offer Spanish signs in their store, because, after all, this is America – not Mexico. The writer went on to say that she would be boycotting Lowe’s until they came to their senses and reverted to English-only signage.

I don’t know the lady, so I can’t comment as to her resolve. But with 11 million Hispanic immigrants already firmly entrenched in the United States, it’s likely she’ll not be visiting Lowe’s any time soon.

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