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Published: Sunday, 10/15/2000

Latino population soars along with opportunities

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER
As a boy, Judge Joseph Flores worked on farms to add to the family income. As a boy, Judge Joseph Flores worked on farms to add to the family income.
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Part one in a three-part series.

While picking tomatoes and cabbage and cutting asparagus at family farms in what is now the Toledo suburb of Oregon, Joseph Flores had little thought of becoming a judge or making history.

The youngest of seven and a second-generation Latino in Toledo, his parents, Jose and Carmen, grew up in the tiny town of Penjamillo in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Jose found fertile farm land in California but was later lured by a more secure job laying railroad tracks.

Alongside other Hispanics, African-Americans, and other minorities, he laid down tracks from California to Ohio.

“Whenever I'm riding Amtrak, I feel I can almost see my father out there working,” said Judge Flores, peering through his glasses, his straight, jet-black hair showing through strands of gray. Today, he is one of two Lucas County Juvenile Court judges.

Because of his father's railroad job, Judge Flores did not have to work each summer in the fields like many of the young Hispanic migrants from Mexico and Texas, but he chose to because he wanted an education. His father felt the lesson of working hard for what you wanted was too valuable to shield from his children.

“It was a way to make money for the family,” Judge Flores said. “Education was No. 1 in my family. They knew if any of us wanted to go to college we had to work to supplement my father's income. I would have never been able to go college without working in those fields.”

The roots of Hispanic history in northwest Ohio grew from the earliest years of the last century and spread beyond the migrant stream into the slaughterhouses, foundries, plants, factories, and the railroads, from which Judge Flores's father found his way to Toledo. Their work ethic, large close-knit families, and festive celebrations are all indelible parts of the local Hispanic culture and heritage, brought from places such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, South America, and the Caribbean.

By embracing their culture and language, Hispanics have found generations of backlash, from racial discrimination similar to that faced by African-Americans, to the point where cities threatened to ban the use of Spanish.

With Latinos expected to pass African-Americans as the largest minority population in the United States within the next 10 years, the Hispanic way of life has never had a bigger influence on the nation and on this region.

Northwest Ohio still has its share of first-generation Latinos, who continue to come here through the migrant stream or to settle with relatives. But second and third-generation Latinos are making their mark in government and the corporate community.

  • Three years ago, Louis Escobar, the son of Texas migrant workers, became the first Hispanic elected to Toledo city council. As the executive director of Adelante, Inc., a drug and alcohol treatment facility that targets Hispanics, Mr. Escobar has become one of the most visible Latinos in the state. His life story was featured in a videotape program at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles this summer.

    “I think a lot of things have changed in the past year,” said Councilman Escobar at a recent program at the Sofia Quintero Cultural Center that drew an overflow crowd of people from all races and cultures. “It's an exciting time for the Latino community here. You can see things happening and the enthusiasm in the community.”

  • Baldemar Velasquez, who was a migrant laborer in the fields of Putnam County as a young man with his parents and other family members from Texas, witnessed the mistreatment of many of his people. He turned his anger into action 33 years ago by forming one of only two farm workers unions recognized by the AFL-CIO - the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

    “We have a lot of groups flourishing, presenting a good cross-section of the Latino community,'' said Mr. Velasquez, who chairs the city's Hispanic Advisory Commission. “But there have been times where we have been well organized on sensitive issues.''

    Mr. Velasquez is chairman of the Hispanic Advisory Commission, which has tackled issues other than those affecting migrant farm workers.

  • In Toledo city government, Arturo Quintero, Robert Torres, and Lourdes Santiago are the highest-ranking Hispanics in Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's administration. Mr. Quintero is the mayor's executive assistant.

    Mr. Torres heads the city's youth commission and recently was selected as the interim executive director of the Board of Community Relations. Ms. Santiago is the development and environmental legal counsel for the city.

  • David Jimenez is president of Mercy Health Partners, one of the largest health-care providers in the state.

  • Hernan Vasquez, a local businessman and mechanical engineer who was born in Chile and raised in Peru, was appointed last year by Governor Taft as the first Latino to sit on the University of Toledo board of trustees.

  • Raquel Bravo, as special career services director, is the highest-ranking Latino in Toledo Public Schools and was the first Hispanic to sit on city council when she was appointed to an at-large post in 1991.

    Many areas remain, though, where Latinos have not broken through. There are no Hispanic principals in Toledo Public Schools and no administrators or principals in Washington Local Schools. The two school systems are where the bulk of Latino students are educated in the area.

    And before Lisa Canales-Flores's election to the Washington Local School board in November, no Hispanics served on the boards of the city's two public school systems.

    “Nationwide, the Hispanic community is still in its youth,'' said Dr. Manuel Vadillo, assistant director of multicultural and academic initiatives at Bowling Green State University. “The Hispanic community is still in the process of coming together, so we can take advantage of these opportunities and become a major player. But it will take time.''

    Lucy Weaver, a retired school teacher, said Latinos must invest heavily in the future of their children to make sure upcoming opportunities don't go unfilled.

    “Education is our very key to our future,'' said Mrs. Weaver, one of the first Hispanic college graduates in Toledo. “We need to get young people thinking about the future other than just their everyday life. Ready or not, we're coming, but we need a lot more education, unity, and respect for one another to be successful.''

    The education of Latinos will be important as their numbers continue to climb. Hispanics have said the dropout rate for Latinos in Toledo Public Schools is 70 per cent, a figure the district disputes, but has not produced one of its own.

    “To this day, nothing has really happened [to address the Hispanic dropout rate],'' Ramon Perez, community organizer with the Lagrange Development Corporation, said.

    “We can talk about the [increasing population] numbers all we want to, but bodies alone won't make power,'' said Concepcion Eason, former president of the Lucas County Latina Democratic Caucus who has helped in political campaigns in the mid-1980s. “We have great potential, but we have to get involved. It's not the numbers, but what we do with the numbers.''

    Hispanic population numbers are booming in parts of the country, but although the rise has been less dramatic in the Midwest, it still is noteworthy.

    Latinos number 18,972 in Lucas County, 4.3 per cent of the population between 1990 and 1998, but that's an increase of 21.1 per cent over the last eight years, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

    That increase easily outdistances the 7.9 per cent growth over the same period of the African-American population in the county, which now stands at 74,527, or 16.1 per cent of the county's population.

    The white population in Lucas County over that time decreased 6.3 per cent. Whites still make up the majority of the county's residents, 349,230, or 77.9 per cent.

    In other areas around Ohio and Michigan, the numbers are even more dramatic. More Hispanics are now living in Monroe County than African-Americans as the Latino population increased 35 per cent from 1990 to 1998. The Hispanic population has increased 34.2 per cent in Lenawee County.

    In Ohio, the Latino population jumped 34.9 per cent in Wood County, 37.9 per cent in Fulton County, 25.7 per cent in Ottawa County, and 25.6 per cent in Sandusky County.

    Dr. James Johnson, a University of North Carolina business professor who formerly directed the UCLA's Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, said the Hispanic population in America is in a state of “redistribution.''

    He said for a long time the Hispanic population grew in what was called “port of entry,'' or border states, such as California, Texas, and New York.

    Now that the Hispanic community has established roots over several generations, their growth is from nonborder states such as Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Georgia, and North Carolina.

    According to census estimates, Arkansas's Hispanic population jumped from 20,000 to 50,000 between 1990 and 1998. The Latino population doubled over the same period of time in Georgia, Nevada, and North Carolina.

    Dr. Johnson said as the door of opportunity slowly opens around the country more Hispanics are being drawn to the metropolitan centers instead of to the farm fields of migrant work.

    One issue that hits home for Latinos is the acceptance of each other. Diversity is great in the Latino community here and around the country.

    The U.S. Census used the term Hispanic for the first time in its 1980 census with subcategories for white and black Hispanics. The 1990 census tabulated information from Hispanics with origins from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and 30 other countries.

    Those differences have caused divisions among Latinos themselves. Blond-haired, blue-eyed Hispanics often did not face the same discrimination as darker-skinned, black-haired Hispanics. The experience of Cuban-Americans living in the United States is not the same as many Mexican-Americans living here.

    Mrs. Eason said she noticed even in her own family growing up in Brownsville, Tex., how lighter-skinned Mexicans such as herself were viewed more favorably than darker-skinned Mexicans.

    “It's part of the racism that is global,'' Mrs. Eason said. “I know African-Americans have experienced the same thing. Being in Brownsville, where we had Mexicans of all colors, there seemed to be a preference. That's something all cultures had to struggle against.''

    Margarita DeLeon, a brown-complexioned Puerto Rican-American who is the regional marketing and communications manager for Mercy Health Partners, said Hispanics, with their varied hues and cultures, should have an acute awareness of diversity. Her father traveled from Puerto Rico to Lorain, O., to work in the steel mills.

    “If any one group should understand diversity, it should be Latinos,” Ms. DeLeon said. “We come from 22 countries, and we're white skin and blond hair to black. We can carry the diversity mantle if we're willing to accept the responsibility.”

    Ms. DeLeon, who is married to Sylvester Duran, a Mexican-American, said she is aware that not all Hispanics have accepted her because of her Puerto Rican heritage, but said she works for the entire Latino community regardless if the group is Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, or of another country.

    According to statistics from the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, 83 per cent of Hispanics in Lucas County are Mexican-Americans, 3 per cent are from Puerto Rico, 1 per cent from Cuba, and 13 per cent were termed “other'' - meaning Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

    Even though Hispanics are involved in many facets of the local economy, many of them still work as seasonal migrant farm workers or are just one or two generations removed from migrant farm work.

    Ricardo Cervantes's family was one of the first to arrive in Toledo, settling in East Toledo. He said many of the backbreaking jobs Latinos were hired for, such as those in the former Cesso Mills feed company where his father worked, were located on the east side of the Maumee River.

    “A lot of people look at South Toledo and identify it as the Hispanic neighborhood,” Mr. Cervantes said. “The east side was the original neighborhood for Latinos. There seemed to be fewer racial barriers for Latinos on the east side, and it wasn't as expensive.”

    Factories such as Willys-Overland, now the Jeep plant on Jeep Parkway, became one of the major employers of Hispanics, said Dr. June Macklin, retired chairman of anthropology at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., who has studied northwest Ohio's Mexican-American community in the 1960s.

    She said the Great Depression, though, stirred anti-Mexican sentiment among whites who charged Mexicans were taking jobs from them and led to an expatriation of “tens of thousands'' of Mexicans from the area.

    But the need for workers created by World War II resulted in a new wave of Tejano families - Mexican families living in Texas - coming into the area. Judge Flores said there was sometimes tension between the Hispanic families moving in, whose men could not serve in the military because of their education or inability to speak the language, and the settled families whose sons and fathers went off to fight in war.

    “We would have Mexican dances and at every dance there would be at least one fight,” Judge Flores said. “It caused a lot of friction at the time. There were guys coming back into town on furlough and found their girls being wooed by some new guy who wasn't allowed to fight in the war.”

    The lessons learned picking vegetables in the fields of his youth followed Judge Flores to the University of Notre Dame, where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science, to the U.S. Navy, and to law school at Ohio Northern University.

    Those lessons can be seen in Judge Flores's courtroom, where he has taped a sheet of paper to a wall. On it is written: “People may doubt what you say, but they will always believe what you do.”

    He has many of his young defendants read it out loud in court when they give him a long litany of promises on their behavior. When some confess that they can't read, he reads it for them.

    “I tell them that I hear their words, but I want to see their actions,” Judge Flores said. “My father showed me the value of hard work, and I try to live by that philosophy. I may not do it all the time, but if I had to choose between action and not talking, and no action and talking, obviously, I would choose action.”

    In 1981, Judge Flores shocked the political establishment when he defeated a sitting judge, Robert Christiansen, to win a seat on the Toledo Municipal Court. Many believe he was the first Hispanic to become a judge in Ohio and is still one of a handful of Latino judges statewide.

    Judge Flores said his parents were ahead of their time in knowing what would be important for their children.

    Jose Flores had about five years of school and Carmen Flores never attended a day of formal education, but both demanded that their children attend school and learn as much as they could. The Spanish language was part of the Flores family's heritage, and Jose learned to speak English at work, but Judge Flores said his mother was a homemaker and never learned the language.

    “The culture was very important, and Spanish was part of the culture,” he said. “We had no choice but to speak to our mother in Spanish. But I would ask my father a question in English, and he would ignore me. He would continue to do it until I asked him in Spanish.

    “I asked him why did he do that, and he said he never wanted us to forget where we came from.”

    Tomorrow: Latinos and African-Americans have faced similar struggles. They haven't always worked together, but succeeded when they did.



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