Latin American Life in Rural Ohio
by Darleen Feldman and Abigail Kennedy

You can't miss it. The green jalapeno lights and the bright sign that reads "Fiesta Mexicana" set the restaurant apart from the other shops and buildings on High Street. Inside the mood is festive--steaming platters of burritos and chimichangas, employees chattering in Spanish, sombreros, and Mexican paintings make visitors forget that they are in Knox County. This restaurant is a symbol of change in the area. But the Spanish-speaking population of the county, including those outside the restaurant, do more than symbolize change. They have their own stories and ideas about the county and their place within it. "Although sometimes I look at people with a big smile on my face," Fernando Origel, a restaurant employee, says, "inside I am saying: I have so much to tell you."

The Latino (or "Hispanic"--the words are used more or less interchangeably) community of Knox County is larger and more diverse than one might think. "I have seen many different types of Latinos and from many different places," Fernando says. "Such as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, El Salvadorians, but those are the people that work [in the restaurant]. I've also seen people from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Chile."

The Sunday soccer group

Their experiences living in Knox County have varied. It is difficult to make generalizations about the entire Hispanic population. Taken together, their stories tell us a great deal about these individuals and our county.

Fernando Origel moved to Mount Vernon only eight months ago. Most of his life has been spent in Mexico, although he has been in the United States for nine years. Fernando recalls having struggled with English when he arrived. "At first it was hard for me, but little by little you learn. In Mexico they teach English in school, but just the basics, like what is a chair, et cetera. But once you are here you have to accommodate and you have to take something that maybe you learned a long time ago and use it again. When you need to learn it you will."

Although the language barrier occasionally poses difficulties for Fernando, he understands a lot of what is going on around him. He knows that some people are surprised to see a Hispanic in Knox County. "It's like any other part of the world; there are some really nice people who don't really care where any one [of us] goes--they'll greet you on the street no matter who you are with a smile, and always want to talk, and then there are others who think we're from another planet."

Rosemary Rios, an employee of Glen Hill Orchards, is amused by the way people react to her and her husband. "Sometimes we get people looking at us like, ‘Oh look, Hispanics.' They've never seen any Hispanic women or Spanish people. They're like this," she says, widening her eyes and opening her mouth in a look of astonishment. "Me and my husband just laugh."

Fernando does not let it get to him, either. "But I don't pay much attention to those people, it doesn't really matter to me. I'm not going to make myself a martyr; I am a Mexican, I'm never going to change that. So there it is." For the most part, he adds, people have been very accepting and friendly. He has formed friendships within the larger community and feels comfortable here. He likes that people have seen him, not just his ethnicity.

Fabian and Carol Contreras have had a more difficult transition to the county. They moved to the area twelve years ago from California. "We had trouble with people considering us an interracial marriage, which they thought was really awful." Carol, a White woman from Ohio, was raised to believe that everyone was the same, regardless of race or background. When she married Fabian, who identifies himself as Native American and Mexican, she found that not everyone was so tolerant. "We never got a welcome wagon," Carol says. They tried their best to meet some of the neighbors and fit in with the local community but felt like people did not want to get to know them.

Carol confessed to one of her friends that she always had the feeling that people were whispering behind her back. Her friend agreed. "She said there's quite a few people that feel like because you've moved into the school district, now all kinds of minorities will move in and they don't want that to happen. And they didn't like the fact that they had three young Mexican girls in their classes."

The exclusion did more than hurt their feelings. "It really hurt us financially, because I could never get a good paying job," Fabian, a licensed welder, recalls. "You know, I always had to get the job that was below the laborer and then prove to them what I can do."

"And that got to be tiring," Carol adds, "having to prove yourself again, and again, and again. No matter how good a person you were, or how nice, you constantly found yourself having to prove it to people because as soon as they knew he was Mexican, that seemed to put a barrier up. And it was twice the effort just to get them to talk to you."

After years of feeling rejected, Fabian and Carol have begun to isolate themselves. Carol speaks regretfully of this detachment from the local community, and the way this has affected their children. "Over the years, [Fabian] and I became more and more reclusive, to the point where we just didn't try anymore to make friends. Even though we didn't mean to I think the isolation that we put onto ourselves carried over to our daughters."

Although Fabian and Carol have grown comfortable having only each other for company, they occasionally feel lonely and left out. "Every year I'd go, ‘I wish we'd get invited to a Christmas party.' Because you'd be coming home and you'd see all of the lights on and you'd see in the window people having Christmas parties. And we never got invited to any of them."

Where the Contrerases connect the idea of isolation to loneliness, Louis Lovelace, the manager of Fiesta Mexicana, takes it to mean exclusivity. "I don't think [the Hispanic community] is isolated, because there aren't enough Hispanics to be isolated. I don't see them being groupies. There's not enough Hispanics to say, ‘Well, you can see they're being isolated because they're always together and they don't mingle with other people.'" If there is an element of isolation, it stems from practical reasons; Louis and the other restaurant employees work six to seven days a week. Their lack of free time might limit their social interactions and make them feel isolated.

Louis was born in Puerto Rico, and came to the States in the 1970s to attend college. He has lived in Ohio for the last twelve years. Right now, Louis lives in Columbus and commutes daily to work in Fiesta Mexicana. The community of Knox County is a wonderful place to work, in his opinion. "The community has accepted us very well. And everyone has been really nice to us," he says. Louis' outgoing personality probably makes it easier for him to adjust to life in Knox County. He has helped friends and colleagues who don't speak English as well: "If they need to go to the bank, the first time I might go with them and teach them how to open an account and things like that. And once they know the process, they can go and do it on their own. So we try to help each other."

Perhaps Louis and other Spanish-speaking employees of Fiesta Mexicana are lucky that they have a job that brings them together. Although almost all of their day is taken up at work, some time is set aside for activities, such as soccer. Louis comments, "it's good for the restaurant employees to interact with other people, to see how they live, so there is something different rather than being at work and speaking Spanish all of the time." Only half of the soccer players work at the restaurant. Several others work elsewhere in Mount Vernon, while some met Louis in the restaurant and expressed an interest in playing. "We like it when others come out to play," Fernando says. Other activities that bring the Spanish-speaking community together, according to Louis, are birthday parties or small get-togethers at the restaurant or someone's home.

What else draws the Latino community together? Alejandro Gomez believes that appearance and language play an important role in identification between Latinos. He recently came to Mount Vernon from Venezuela to be the sales manager for Latin America at Cooper. He notes: "If you see somebody from Latin America you can recognize them. You can't tell with everybody but you can tell a little bit and you can try to speak Spanish with them." One of the reasons "you can't tell with everybody" seems to be that Hispanic residents of the county have different nationalities. People tend to call themselves, ‘Venezuelan' or ‘Puerto Rican' rather than ‘Hispanic'. They do not see themselves as ‘Hispanic' just because they speak Spanish. Rosemary Rios does not see the need for ethnic labels. "I don't know why they use words like ‘Hispanic' or ‘Mexican', anyway. We're all the same; we're just different colors."

Louis also puts this label into perspective: "It's funny because in Puerto Rico, when you're born, in my birth certificate I'm White. But here in the United States, I'm Hispanic. So it's funny because a lot of people say ‘you're Puerto Rican, you're not White.' But that's like saying you're from New York, you're not an American."

Fitting in does not mean changing for Louis and some other Latinos. Louis insists: "I don't want to lose my accent! When I was in college I could have taken a course on phonetics to lose the accent, but what for? I am proud of being from Puerto Rico."

Fernando, the Contrerases, Louis, and others express a range of views about diversity both within and beyond Knox County. Fernando comments on the great number of Latino workers in the United States. "If the work of a Mexican does not affect the work of an American--does not take it away, then I think it's fine for them to work here. I believe that a large part of this country depends on the work, not only of the Mexicans, but of all the Latinos and immigrants from the rest of the world." He sees ethnic and racial diversity in a very positive light.

The Contrerases wonder about the nation's ability to accept increasing diversity. Carol and Fabian observe that prejudice comes and goes in cycles, and that intolerance seems to be growing. "It seems like these prejudices and hatred towards minorities is coming back. But, there's a majority of people who are fighting prejudice in their own minds and their own lives."

Louis notes the contrast between the city of Columbus and Knox County in their acceptance of different kinds of people. He thinks that Hispanic people in Columbus feel more aware of their difference. With a larger community, the Hispanic population of Columbus tends to group together and has less exposure to other people. Louis thinks that "they isolate themselves. They feel that people don't understand them, and they don't understand the Americans."

Fiesta Mexicana opened almost 2 years ago. Its physical presence shows the changes occurring in Knox County. It is a county that is growing, and is composed of people of different colors, languages, and backgrounds. But all its members have a common interest--to form a strong and tight community. One notices these common goals rather than the differences. Louis hopes that people will look past his and other Latinos' nationalities. "What I would like to see in the next twenty years is everybody being Americans." Fernando hopes for the same within the community of Knox County. "We want to be known as friends--just as people, individuals."

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