ELKHART — Coming to Elkhart County for the many Hispanic immigrant women here can be daunting.
"I isolated myself, I didn’t go out. I didn’t want to mix with American people,“ said Claudia Diaz, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico.
Years after arriving, even, it can be tough. The anxiety that can come from living in a different country, a different culture, doesn’t quickly fade.
Latino and immigrant advocates sound off
Here’s what a pair of area Latino/immigrant advocates have to say about the transition to life here for newcomers:
- ”If you look closely, you will find that many are involved in various community activities and are giving back to our community,“ Gilberto Perez, a Goshen College faculty member who works closely with the Latino community, said in an e-mail. He touted the Bienvenido Program, another effort geared at helping Latino immigrants adjust to life here.
- Among the issues for immigrants here are language and cultural barriers, adjusting to new work schedules and being away from family, said Perez.
- Latina immigrants lose the support of extended family on coming here. ”Much personal knowledge and practical support is transmitted through grandma-mom- daughter,“ Elkhart immigration attorney Rosy Meza said in an e-mail. ”A great amount of self-identity is tied into this.“
- Some immigrant parents have trouble with their kids ”as they will acculturate really fast through the school system, and there will be difference between how mother/father thinks and how child thinks,“ Meza wrote.
- The good outweighs the bad, Meza thinks, noting the access to quality schools and the increased earning power of workers here. ”The possibility of becoming who you truly are is real and a very beautiful thing.“
Lacking proper immigration papers presents its own issues and complications. Part of it stems from the different language, trying to master English but not quite getting there. Some of it results from the unwritten rules — unfathomable at times if you didn’t grow up here — that guide everyday interactions as an American, a Hoosier, an Elkhart County resident.
Add it all up and the differences create uncertainty, concern about being unfairly judged, the sense of being a stranger.
"For me, that’s the fear — that they attack us without knowing,” said Diaz, who’s been here 18 years and now lives in Osceola. That is, she worries about hostility from those who don’t take the time to get to know her or others in the Latino community.
More on Latinos in Elkhart County and immigration, from the archives:
For many Latino newcomers, the transition is a do-it-yourself, sink-or-swim effort, aided by others here in the Hispanic community in a similar position. There’s some help out there, though it’s limited. But the YWCA in Elkhart County has a new, year-old offering to help Latinas get a firmer grip on life here, a Spanish-language version of its Bridges Out of Poverty program, meant to empower women.
“They just want to learn, they want to integrate themselves,” said Diana Knight, bilingual advocate at the YWCA and the administrator of the program. Around 25 women recently graduated from the first installment of the program, which addresses self-esteem, financial literacy and job hunting dos and don’ts. Around 20 are taking part in it now.
The traditional Bridges Out of Poverty offering is geared to women, American women mainly, trapped by generational poverty and family dysfunction, unable to break the cycle and climb the ladder to new opportunities. The Spanish-language version — spurred in part by Elkhart County’s significant Hispanic population — is geared to women who may be held back by unfamiliarity with the culture here, uncertainty in dealing with their new home.
’YOU CAN FEEL RACISM’
Elkhart County’s Hispanic population, including a sizable chunk of immigrants, both legal and undocumented, has grown by leaps and bounds.
As of 2013, the group accounted for nearly 15 percent of the population, 29,806 of the estimated 200,563 people living here, up from about 2 percent in 1990, or 2,932 of the 156,198 residents who then lived here. Since 1990, Hispanics have been the main motor to growth, increasing by a whopping 916.6 percent and accounting for 50 to 60 percent of the overall rise in the local population.
Those in attendance at a recent meeting of the YWCA group — most of them homemakers, all originally from Mexico — said they had been in the Elkhart County area for anywhere from nine to 21 years. But even if they’re part of the motor that has kept the area growing, a sense of outsider status emerged as they talked, gathered at the YWCA’s Dunlap area offices, off U.S. 33.
She’d like to be more involved in her children’s school activities, said Ofelia Perez, speaking in Spanish, but her limited English sometimes gets in the way. Whether or not ill will is intended by native English speakers, a sense of hostility sometimes seeps through when there’s a language gap.
”You can feel racism because you can’t speak English like them,“ said Perez. She’s originally from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, but has lived here for 21 years.
Latino immigrants here would like to speak English, said Mirna Camacho, originally from Coahuila, Mexico, and now living in Elkhart. But earning money to keep the family afloat is the main focus.
"I think it’s the case of many — we come to work,” Camacho said. “There’s no time to study.”
Diaz said many here treat the Latino community just fine. But she hinted at the fallout from the simmering national debate over immigration reform and undocumented immigrants, who come chiefly from Mexico and Latin America.
"They truly make us feel like criminals,” she said.
CONTRIBUTING TO THE COUNTRY
Indeed, though no one got into the details of their personal journey to the United States, the thorny immigration issue hovered through the conversation at the YWCA. The ability to speak English would help with the transition to life here, but immigration reform, a mechanism to deal with the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the country, would go a long way as well.
As is, not being able to get a driver’s license and drive legally, for instance, is a huge cause for concern for the undocumented population. When undocumented immigrants get behind the wheel, they do so with a heavy dose of anxiety, hoping not to get pulled over.
"That holds us back a lot,“ said Diaz. ”The fact is, we’re here working, we’re contributing greatly to the country.“
She disputes the notion that undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs, arguing that if you really want work here in the United States, you’re going to find it.
"We’re Mexicans, but we come to work. All we want is to be given some rights,” said Camacho, who favors some sort of mechanism that would allow undocumented immigrants to get licenses, as possible in some other states.
’WE’RE WORTH IT’
Even as the debate over immigration reform simmers and calls continue by some for more forceful action against undocumented immigrants, Magdalena Morales senses a measure of change. Intermarriage is helping smooth relations between the growing Latino segment and the Anglo population, she maintains.
”That’s what’s starting to unite us more,“ she said. Morales is originally from Mexico City and now lives in Goshen.
More organized efforts, like the YWCA classes, help too. They’ve made participants feel more comfortable here, a part of the community. ”I’m so impressed with how integrated into community they want to be,“ said Pam Hluchota, relationship director at the YWCA here.
The classes help the women generate a more positive self-image, said Perez, and that can extend to equipping her to better raise her children. "I think these classes are a trampoline, giving us the strength to say we’re worth it, we’re equal,“ she said.