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Published: Monday, 7/24/2006

Toledo's Latinos feeling at home with their place in American life

BY KARAMAGI RUJUMBA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Last of two parts.

From his pulpit at the church, which sits on an old cobbled street in the shadow of an I-75 overpass, the Rev. Richard Notter has had a front-row view of the constantly changing face of the region's Latino community and what it means to be Latino in Toledo.

Ss. Peter and Paul was founded in 1866 to cater to a mostly German immigrant community, but is now believed to be the largest predominantly Latino parish in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

"We have seen an incredible growth of Latinos in Toledo and in the parish in recent years, so that it almost feels like we have a Latino parish within the parish," Father Notter said. A pastor at the church for 12 years, he has been a pastor in Latino communities for more than 40 years.

The Rev. Richard Notter of Ss. Peter and Paul says there once was an inferiority complex in the Latino community. The Rev. Richard Notter of Ss. Peter and Paul says there once was an inferiority complex in the Latino community.
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Father Notter said he has seen through his congregation how a wave of Latinos that poured into Toledo in the last few decades crested into a vibrant community where it was once a small cluster of families.

Latinos make up 17,141 - or 5.5 percent - among Toledo's population of 313,619, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

"I see it here in the church every Sunday," he said.

As a result of their slow but steady population growth, Latinos say that life for them here is constantly evolving - often for the better.

Seated at the dining table of their four-bedroom home in suburban Rossford, Hector and Martha Aguirre, members of Ss. Peter and Paul, said they were part of the wave of Latinos who came to Toledo chasing the quintessential immigrant success story.

Martha Aguirre, her son Hector, Jr., 9, and husband Hector head home after a baseball game. Initially lonely after leaving a Chicago suburb, the Aguirres now say they feel at home here. Martha Aguirre, her son Hector, Jr., 9, and husband Hector head home after a baseball game. Initially lonely after leaving a Chicago suburb, the Aguirres now say they feel at home here.
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Born and raised in small villages on opposite sides of a hill in Durango, a state in northwest Mexico, the Aguirres now live in a comfortable house with a two-car driveway. Their path to a middle-class livelihood here started in Chicago in 1977 as undocumented laborers.

"I cried for days when we came to Toledo," Mrs. Aguirre recalled. "It took us a long time to feel like we belonged here. We didn't know anybody, and we felt very lonely when our daughters cried because they didn't have friends."

The Aguirres, who have raised two daughters and a son in the Toledo area, came here in 1988 because of Mr. Aguirre's job as a foreman at Glassline Corp. in Perrysburg Township. Initially, life as Latino immigrants here was nothing like the palpitating Latino neighborhood of their friends and family that they left behind in Franklin Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

For one thing, they were the first Latinos in their neighborhood here.

"We used to go back to Chicago every weekend mostly because we didn't feel like we fit in here, but also for simple things like grocery shopping," said Mrs. Aguirre, 39, a homemaker who now spends most of her summer evenings ferrying her 9-year-old son Hector, Jr., to soccer practices, baseball games, and to friends' homes.

In a political climate in which Americans debate for and against immigration restrictions, the Aguirres stand as the embodiment of proponents for legalization and creating a path to citizenship for "illegal" immigrants. They said that they found the nexus of Latino Toledo in the church.

"We found people like us at Ss. Peter and Paul. It became easier to make friends because there were a few other young Latino couples with children and that is when we started to feel like we were a part of the Latino community here," Mrs. Aguirre said.

"We feel much more comfortable living here now," Mr. Aguirre said, standing beside his above-ground pool in a well-trimmed backyard. "All our neighbors are our good friends and we feel like this is a home for us now."

After more than 20 years of living in America, the Aguirres said they have accomplished the dream of a life many never realize, but it has not been without its drawbacks.

"I got goose bumps the first time I saw the immigration rallies. I was very proud that Latinos were standing up to show their presence," Mrs. Aguirre said.

"But I have also seen how our children have been affected by our life story. We now have to explain ourselves to them when they ask us where they belong."

The transition not only into American livelihood, but also into the culture of Latino America, is often jarring for Latino immigrants. It is especially so in communities where the Latino population as a whole is still a significant minority, Father Notter said from behind a desk in an office at Ss. Peter and Paul.

"There was a time when small Latino settlements were not easy to live in," said Father Notter, who has served in Latino parishes for many years, including in Mexico.

"For a long time, there was a significant inferiority complex within the Latino community," he said.

One of the founders of the Catholic Migrant Farmworker Network, Father Notter said, "American-born Latinos often distanced themselves from immigrant communities because they didn't want to be collectively identified with the mostly undocumented migrant laborers."

The steady growth of Latino population, however, has breached that divide, even in some communities where "illegal" laborers were not well-received at first, he said.

A stretch between downtown and the Toledo Zoo lined with modest houses and rugged older buildings along the Broadway corridor in the city's old south end is the area most commonly identified as the heart of Latino Toledo.

It was in these neighborhoods, which had a mix of working-class to middle-income blacks, whites, and Latinos, that Hector Garcia, his wife, Rachel, and two sons settled when they came to Toledo in 1985.

Hector Garcia gives his wife, Rachel, a hug in their restaurant, La Preciosa's. The Garcias moved to Toledo because of jobs and a lower cost of living. Mr. Garcia is also employed at Jeep. Hector Garcia gives his wife, Rachel, a hug in their restaurant, La Preciosa's. The Garcias moved to Toledo because of jobs and a lower cost of living. Mr. Garcia is also employed at Jeep.
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A son of migrant seasonal workers from Mexico, Mr. Garcia, 47, was born into the transitory poverty of farm labor in Hondo, Texas, and lived on the road for most of his life - shuttling between fields in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Texas, and Wyoming with his parents and 13 siblings.

After 21 years in Toledo, Mr. Garcia, now a father of three and a second-shift worker in the stock department at the Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant, said that he decided to stay here because of its industrial job base and relatively lower cost of living compared to Latino settlements in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

Two years ago, Mr. Garcia bought a large old building with three storefronts in the 1200 block of Broadway, where he recently opened a small family owned restaurant, La Preciosa's. His restaurant, located next door to Maria Rodriguez Winters' Allstate Insurance agency, a long-standing business in the neighborhood, is the latest Latino-owned business to open its doors along that block.

"I have always wanted to open a small Mexican restaurant where we could cook the food of our mothers and grandmothers," said Mr. Garcia, who spent two years remodeling the building.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Mr. Garcia's wife, Rachel, 44, scrubbed pots and pans in the kitchen as he watched his 21-year-old son, Rocky, wash the floors of the restaurant, tiled in the red, white, and green colors of the Mexican flag.

Mr. Garcia plans to move his family back from suburban Lake Township in Wood County to the Broadway neighborhood, where he plans to open another bakery and a grocery store.

"This is for my children," he said. "I want them to have a place in this neighborhood that they can call their home."

For Rocky Garcia, a freshman criminal justice major at the University of Toledo, the prospect of returning to what is now a predominantly Latino neighborhood excites him.

"We live in different times now. I don't have to go through the same struggles as my parents did," said Rocky, who graduated from Lake High School, where he was one of five Latinos in his class. "I want to live around more people who look like me and experience more of my culture."

In this part of South Toledo, the younger Garcia doesn't have to look very far for his people or his culture.

He can find both just about everywhere - people milling on stoops and on the streets of tightly knit neighborhoods, in the pews at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, at the small plaza next door that houses Taqueria Jalisco Authentic Mexican Food and La Paloma, a Mexican bakery and pastry shop. Just down the street is a small storefront church, La Iglesia De Dios De La Profecia. Translated, the latter means "The Church of the God of Prophecy."

Across the street from his family's restaurant is a small brick building that was once used as a theater, but now houses the Sofia Quintero Art & Cultural Center.

The center, which opened in 1996, is a gathering place for the Latino community, where Rocky will immerse himself in all aspects of his culture.

Dancers with Imagenes Mexicanas, a troupe that performs around the city, practice there. Birthday parties are held in the center's garden with huge piatas to whack. Teenage Latino girls about to become women prepare for their rite of passage, or quincinera.

Decorated with hand-woven Mexican rugs, paintings of Mayan, Inca, and Aztec settlements, artifacts from Central and South America, and other cultural artwork, the Sofia Quintero center prides itself as the social and cultural heartbeat of Toledo's Latino community.

Executive director Joe Balderas said it took a while for the center he oversees to become the neighborhood and community entity it now is, much like Toledo's Latino community.

"At first, we were not noticed because we were not ready to be noticed," he said. "But now, we are getting busy. We are not asking any more, we are demanding to be heard."

Contact Karamagi Rujumba at: krujumba@theblade.com or 419-724-6064.



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