04/05/06 — For many, it's their home too

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For many, it's their home too

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 5, 2006 1:56 PM

Felicia Mendoza thought first as a mother when she heard the story of the two Greenwood Middle School students who were hit by a Hispanic driver last November.

Her concerns involved the two 13-year-old boys and their families.

But that doesn't mean that even though she is a legal resident of Wayne County herself -- and holds a job and provides for her family -- that she didn't wonder about the consequences of public response to the incident for herself and other Spanish-speaking residents.

Ms. Mendoza is one of many Hispanics living legally in Wayne and Duplin counties. She said she knows the hardships that go along with speaking Spanish, shopping at Mexican grocery stores and driving a pick-up truck. Every day, she said, the eyes of some non-Hispanics follow her -- on the road, at the park and in front of her son's school.

But it doesn't phase her -- she is still a proud American citizen. And she shared her story, one that began when her parents illegally crossed the border years ago.

"My parents came to this country illegally to provide a better life for their family," Ms. Mendoza said. "I am one of six children, all born in Texas. We are very proud to live here in the United States."

Ms. Mendoza has never abandoned her heritage. In fact, when she's not at work, she speaks fluent Spanish. She said she knows the hardships that come along with it.

After the Greenwood wreck, she said she became worried, for the first time, that the actions of one man might add to the prejudice she sometimes faces as a Spanish-speaking American.

"We (Hispanic-Americans) have been treated like immigrants all our lives," Ms. Mendoza said.

She added she was afraid that because Mejia Alvarado was not a legal resident -- and is Hispanic -- his case might cause people to draw wider -- and unfair -- conclusions about her ethnic group.

"When I read about the wreck, my heart got sad," she said. "Many here feel that when something like this happens, we (Hispanic Americans) should all feel the burden. Many people label Hispanics already, and now they have more reason to discriminate against us."

Ms. Mendoza said she feels the accident outside Greenwood projected negative repercussions throughout the Hispanic community. Many legal citizens, including herself, face subtle consequences from the actions of a relative few -- illegal residents who dress and speak the same as her, but lack driver's licenses and proof of residence.

But Ms. Mendoza said she has little in common with Mejia Alvarado. After all, she knows, in the end, that she is an American.

"I will still go to work tomorrow knowing that I am a proud citizen of America," she said. "The man accused of these crimes against children is like me only by the language he speaks."

Ms. Mendoza added many Hispanics, like her, were born in this country and feel they are being unfairly grouped with illegal immigrants when incidents like the one outside Greenwood occur.

She and others, she added, have learned English, raised families and voted in elections.

"I am an American," she said. "But many times, things like this happen and all Hispanics are grouped together. We are all judged the same as the criminals."

Other Hispanics living in Wayne County have a different perspective, but similar feelings about their adopted homeland.

But they don't share Ms. Mendoza's citizenship.

A young male traveled to Wayne County from Torreon, Mexico, three years ago -- a few dollars in his pocket, three shirts and one jacket in a small bag strapped across his chest.

Now, he is part of the illegal immigrant population in Wayne and Duplin counties.

He said he had no idea what his home would look like or how he would earn money. All he knew was that his brother had lived in Dudley for close to eight years and sent for him shortly after his 18th birthday.

The young man shared his story but not his name. His citizenship status brings with it a set of problems and concerns, but does not change his goal -- to become a productive citizen of the country and to support his family back home. His English is limited, so his responses are in Spanish.

"I knew life would be hard here for a long time," he said. "But this is my dream -- The United States."

Crossing the long border separating Mexico and Texas has been a right of passage for the males in his immediate and extended family, he said. After finding employment in the United States, the journey toward manhood begins when the first parcel of money is sent to the family home in Mexico.

"I smiled when I sent Mama $100," he said. "When my brother left Mexico and sent money, my family celebrated him. It was like a soldier going to fight. Now they celebrate me, too."

The man knows he is breaking the law, living illegally in a country with increasing contempt for foreigners without documentation.

"I do not have a green card, but I found work and support my family," he said.

He added that Americans hired him, so he finds it difficult to feel bad about living illegally in the United States.

"I wish I was American," he said. "But I live in America and work for America. So I do not feel sad for living in the United States."

Even so, he said, living as an outcast is hard. Knowing that many feel illegal residents should be deported sometimes makes him yearn for life back in Mexico. However, he stays the course, to be a provider for a family living on his father's meager income back in Torreon.

"Violating the law is not good," he said. "But I cannot go back home. I must stay here for my family."

Those who knowingly break the law are the subject of heated debate currently taking place on Capitol Hill. Some, including Gaspar Gonzalez, chairman of the Wayne County Democratic Party and diversity coordinator for Eastpointe Connections, say a clear barrier exists between Hispanic and white cultures.

So, he is trying to break it, he said.

Gonzalez was born in the United States to Cuban and Spanish parents.

He is both a Hispanic male and natural born citizen, and knows the concerns both groups have faced in the aftermath of the Greenwood accident that left two boys hospitalized.

"It has changed the attitudes of the people," Gonzalez said. "There has been some insensitivity from non-Hispanics, and the Hispanics feel bad about it and wish they could do something for the children, but they're afraid to cross that barrier."

While some Hispanics, including Ms. Mendoza, feel they will be judged more harshly by the community and will become the target of racism as a result of the Greenwood incident, Gonzalez said he has seen real racism, but not in Wayne County.

Gonzalez remembers sitting in an Alabama jail cell more than 50 years ago -- arrested for speaking Spanish.

"I haven't found that here in Wayne County," he said. "People in North Carolina have open hearts."

Gonzalez added sometimes Americans can be prejudiced, but often their actions and attitudes stem from behavior they have seen from a few "bad apples."

"We have to watch our image," he said of Hispanics. "If you act with common sense, decency and education, people will treat you well."

Gonzalez said it is important to remember that immigration is an important part of American history, and people should not repress a generation for the mistakes of their ancestors.

"We shouldn't condemn a generation that could be useful in this country because of their parents being illegal," he said. "History has shown that eventually, illegal immigrants (assimilate) and become important citizens."

Gonzalez said he feels one day, Hispanics will realize when they come into this country, they become part of the American culture.

"When you come here, you have to adapt to our customs here in America," he said. "And if you want to stay here, let's go by the law."