Immigration Transforms a Community
By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 1999; Page A1
Second of four articles
GEORGETOWN, Del. – His little piece of the American dream is an unremarkable white clapboard house in an unfashionable part of this 18th century town. The parcel on which the house sits is ample and shady, but the structure itself, much like the new Guatemalan community it represents, needs tending. The back porch lists, and the place has a slightly forsaken air. The living room is dark even on a sunny day.
Out back is a chicken coop, where the hens are in revolt, deciding this year not to lay nearly enough eggs for the extended family. There are theories, from the old country, as to why this has happened. But no one really knows the answer, least of all the very proud new owner of the old house, the stubborn hens and all this land, a gregarious achiever named Celbin DeLeon. His is a long history of struggle and survival and, only lately, success. He has a broad brown face, a big belly and the infectious optimism of a man who fought long and hard to finally get a solid stake in life.
DeLeon is a pioneer. He is among the first Guatemalans to buy a house in Georgetown, setting roots in a community that has not warmed to the arrival of Latinos drawn by the poultry industry's voracious need for workers. Until the wave of immigrants this decade, the quiet seat of Sussex County had not changed much in generations. A drive-through for Washingtonians heading to Rehoboth Beach, Georgetown was caught between charm and decay, no longer home to the hosiery mill or button plant, close to the ocean yet not an ocean town.
By 1995, a sudden and large influx of Guatemalans turned this into a modern-day company town. Today, more than a third of its population of 4,141 is foreign-born and dedicated to processing chicken for the booming poultry industry in Delmarva, which includes Delaware and the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia.
The presence of so many foreigners, arriving over such a short period of time, alarmed longtime residents, who are only now beginning to recover from the shock. The demand for workers, and in turn their demand for work, created a climate where laws are not always heeded, where housing abuses are common and where something as critical as a person's identity – who he or she really is – is often difficult to establish.
The migration created a chaotic, competitive and very profitable rental market. Town leaders are now armed with a new housing code, the aim of which is not only to improve conditions but also to disperse the newcomers throughout Sussex County.
The Georgetown of the future, at least as envisioned by the business leaders, had been of a charming retirement community that would draw East Coast residents who wanted to be close to the water and far from Florida.
But the future came in the last few years, and it was not what people expected. "I think you have to put yourself in that position, when overnight your town's demographics change, and you don't know how it happened," said Carlton Moore, the president of the Historic Georgetown Association, which owes its existence to frustration over the unchecked influx. "The town fathers were really put in a difficult situation. They just did not know how to deal with it."
Georgetown's profound transformation, far from complete, is both an old story and a new one, its precursor the company mining towns of Pennsylvania and Virginia and elsewhere, where foreign workers imported to toil for a single industry left an indelible stamp. It is also the complex story of a modern town in America, painfully aware of prejudice and its perils, wrestling with large-scale migration and its irreversible consequences.
Guatemalans arrive every day, drawn to a colony that has now expanded beyond Georgetown. It has its own support network, its own rules, its own stores, its own churches and, most significantly, the only baby boom around. In September, 50 of 185 kindergartners in one Georgetown elementary school were Latino, the vast majority Guatemalans. Overall, about 450 babies have been born since mid-1993, every one an American citizen.
One is DeLeon's son, Ronaldo, age 1½. "Here is the heir," his mother, Lucina, said by way of introduction. When DeLeon lets himself dream of the future for Ronaldo and his family – and he does this with some regularity – he conjures a life Guatemalan in feel and tradition, American in convenience and ambition.
He likes to show his dream to visitors. He walks past the successful auto-repair garage he has built and past the chicken coop, to where his property line ends and the dream begins. He looks at the adjacent field, which he is sure he will buy soon. He wants to build a park for fellow Guatemalans. It will be the equivalent of a town plaza, set on a broad field, in a place that, until 1990, he had never heard of.
Building a Community
Important businesses in Georgetown have always been a happy marriage of agriculture and technology. Some of the fortunes in town and in the county owe their deep pockets to the fruit preserving and packing companies opened in the 1870s. The Calhoun-Jones Co., a cannery founded in 1887, eventually became the J.G. Townsend Co. The chicken company with the same name today shares the same family roots.
It was into this long tradition that the Latinos arrived. Like generations of workers before them, they settled in what is known as Kimmeytown, on the east side. In 1987, Bettye Arnold and Al Chavez hired a Guatemalan field hand named Albertino Lopez Perez to work on their farm, on the outskirts of town. When Lopez could not find a place to live, Arnold and Chavez bought a house at 211 Kimmey St. and rented it to him. In no time, the place was filled with Perez's relations, who traveled from Guatemala to work at Perdue Farms Inc.'s Georgetown processing plant.
Though they hardly set out to do it, the husband and wife team provided the first critical nest for the Guatemalan community. The couple recognized a good business opportunity and in short order bought three adjacent houses and then three more. They ended up owning as many as 17, all rented to the new settlers. Arnold and Chavez became consultants for others who wanted to get into the rental business, and the roster of landlords now includes lawyers, Realtors, a surveyor and two state police officers.
Arnold and Chavez get good marks from the building inspectors. But among rentals, overall abuses were many and dangerous crowding was the norm. It still is. "We know of situations where they are renting houses, barely habitable, for $1,200 to $1,500 a month," Arnold said. Other landlords would charge a per-head fee, tallying the rent after conducting surprise inspections.
Some Guatemalan entrepreneurs began renting out rooms in houses they themselves rented. Aiming to live rent-free, a few were so successful that they quit poultry. The practice continues.
Robert Ricker, then the fire chief and now the mayor, grew alarmed at the crowding one day in 1987 or 1988, when propane gas leaked inside a house on Pine Street. "Holy cow!" Ricker recalled. "We're talking about a three-story house, and at the time we were estimating that there were 30 people living in the house."
Through the early 1990s, the Guatemalan community was still mostly men. Short, brown-skinned, dark-haired and invariably on foot or bicycle, the newcomers were impossible to miss. Olegario Capriel, who arrived around that time, remembers people would slow their cars and gawk. When the men shopped in the Food City, children would trail them.
By the early 1990s, several poultry plants were offering incentives to workers to recruit the able-bodied. The bounty was $100 if the recruit lasted a month. Juan Villagomez, a Mexican who arrived in 1990, remembers groups of Guatemalans who would leave work Friday night for the long drive to Florida, where they would raid migrant camps for recruits.
Used vans were suddenly in high demand, and used-car dealers still speak in awe of the boom. Villagomez remembers these vans returning on Sundays with as many as 15 workers. By Monday new arrivals were wearing aprons, hair nets and rubber boots, the poultry plant worker's uniform.
By late 1993, the excursions to Florida had converted Kimmeytown into a Guatemalan enclave. Helping to shape the community was a chemical engineer who had been casting for investment opportunities. Driving through Georgetown a year earlier, Bamdad Bahar saw men living in cars because the housing shortage was so acute. He bought the 35-unit Crestwood Garden Apartments on North Race Street, aiming to build "a micro-community" for the immigrants and a good business for himself.
Bahar offered a Mexican from Pennsylvania, a veteran of the mushroom farming migrant circuit, free rent for three months to open a small Latino grocery store, now Joe's Market. This summer, a Latino travel agency opened next to the market. Across the street, Bahar is about to open a laundry.
His efforts at social engineering have always been at odds with the vision town leaders have of their community. "I was the first one to rent to Hispanics in this area, and it was hell. I was chastised by everyone. I still get hell," Bahar said. "I always told people, I'm not the one bringing Hispanics to this area. It's the chicken industry. If you have a problem, talk to them," he said. "I'm the convenient pariah from the outside."
Where Bahar built a business network, two Spanish nuns created a critical social agency. Sister Ascencion Banegas and Sister Rosa Alvarez drove east in 1994 – Banegas from the South Bronx, Alvarez from Washington. "People with a vision said the future of the Hispanic community was in Georgetown," Banegas said. "We came to see what we could do."
The sisters set up operation in the house they rented. Banegas set to work filing the asylum claims that turned Guatemalans from illegal immigrants into viable workers. With the help of Gonzalo Martinez, a well-known community leader in Delaware, and with funding from a Latino group in Wilmington, the sisters opened their first clinic, La Casita, or the little house. When they moved to bigger quarters a year and a half later, they baptized the clinic La Esperanza, or hope.
Within several months of their arrival – and arguably as a result of it – more Guatemalan men began sending for their wives. This would be the second, critical migration wave. "The effusiveness of the matrimonial encounter was so great," Banegas said with a twinkle, "that nine months later we had a baby boom."
The sisters are a repository for the only reliable statistics around, and their files document the Guatemalan growth. In 1992, six children were born. By 1998, it was 72. And this year, 69 had been born by August. Alvarez has been the mother to all the mothers, taking them for prenatal visits and holding their hands in the delivery rooms. "I love it when they call me grandmother," Alvarez said one Sunday, when a thankful community threw the sisters a party at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.
When the workload became too great, Sister Maria Mairlot was recruited. The three sisters are now the confessors to the community and very often its saviors.
Their religious training is often tested by what they see. Some of their charges come from very large families – 10 siblings is not unusual. Seeing the financial strain that many children would create here, Alvarez finds herself in the delicate position of counseling them on family planning.
Women work at the chicken plants, for the first time earning as much as their mates. The plus side is that these women left what Banegas calls the life of "semi-slavery" endured by their mothers. The down side are the 15 cases of domestic abuse now tracked by the nuns and a clinic social worker. One of their proudest achievements is convincing many that domestic violence should not be tolerated, a lesson driven home by the arrest of several abusive husbands.
Mairlot helps the pioneers buy homes, navigating the lending process and overcoming institutional reticence. Five houses are owned by Guatemalans, DeLeon's among them, and more purchases are in the works.
A Life in the Works
For the Guatemalans, life in America is defined almost entirely by work. "I work one or two years," Capriel said, describing the common litany, "and then I will leave. Why create problems? Just work and sleep."
Men dream of going back, but few do. "People who leave and say they don't want to come back, I'll see them a month later," said Raymond Tames, who arrived in 1992 and has worked at several chicken plants. Tames, a tenant in Bahar's building, has two roommates, splitting the $585-a-month rent. What little furniture there is – a wobbly kitchen table, chairs that lost their backs – was scavenged on the street or left by earlier tenants. The bedrooms are bare, save for the mattresses. The only ornament, pictures of semi-nude Asian women torn from a magazine.
An unknown number of Guatemalans work double shifts, ending work in one plant, then reporting to another. Diversion is generally found outside of town, in a dance hall in Lincoln on Saturday, in the Chinese restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet on Sunday. The young and single, the drinkers, go to La Frontera, or the Border, a bar in Seaford that used to be all black and is now all Latino.
And then there is church. There are five Pentecostal congregations where none existed a few years ago, and on Sundays, traveling Latino preachers set up camp.
Anastasio Matamoros, a Nicaraguan, is pastor of the Church of God and Prophecy. His sanctuary is in an uninspired office complex, with a low ceiling, fluorescent lights, thin walls and metal chairs, had for $1,500-a-month rent. Several times a week, and all day Sunday, a small band and the passionate congregation produce more song than the modest place can hold.
The church draws more than 150 people and is looking to expand. It is prepared to spend $300,000 for a sanctuary in town, most of it raised by this religious outpost, which sponsors car washes and sells Guatemalan food.
Like Celbin DeLeon seeing his future from his back yard, Matamoros, the pastor, surveys his congregation. Adults are working, earning dollars. Children are fluent in English. "In 10 or 12 years, Hispanics will be in a position of influence," he said optimistically. "They are preparing themselves."
Grappling With Change
As the Guatemalans gained confidence, some locals lost theirs. Elderly residents who had lived their lives in a place defined by constancy saw the familiar become foreign almost overnight.
In small groups, among the elite, at the Sussex Pines Country Club, old-line Georgetowners were alarmed but paralyzed. "There were growing pains," said Ricker, the mayor, noting that residents were very concerned about being perceived as biased. "It was somewhat of a civil rights issue."
For many Georgetowners, Guatemalans seemed to be everywhere. Ricker tells the story of a woman who returned home to find three Guatemalans swimming in her pool. Her first thought, she confessed to him, was: "Did they wash this week?" The men, perhaps assuming the pool was public because no one could own one outright, panicked when the woman yelled, ran to their clothing and offered her cash. Another day, Ricker's neighbor drove up to his manicured front lawn and froze: Guatemalans, likely confusing the place with a public park, were taking pictures of each other with his home as backdrop.
Landlords discovered that the Guatemalans had arrived with their country's customs intact. Assimilation, at its most basic, was failing because no one was instructing them. When cooking tortillas set off smoke alarms, tenants removed batteries. Boiling food in large pots proved deadly for electric ranges. Inexplicably, shower curtains were removed as soon as tenants arrived, rotting bathroom floors.
The boom in rental housing brought other problems as well. The town suddenly had a slum lord, a lawyer named Robert C. Wolhar Jr. who at the time lived in Lewes, Del. His properties, now shuttered, were in such disrepair that the town in 1993 issued more than 100 housing code violations. Wolhar, who declined to be interviewed, was suspended from the practice of law by the Delaware Supreme Court in 1997. The state Board on Professional Responsibility cited eight disciplinary charges against him, including the Georgetown housing code violations.
For other owners, the twin challenge is maintaining their properties and fending off criticism that their rentals contribute to the town's decline. "I didn't create this situation," said Ed Lester, a real estate agent who owns rental properties and manages them for others. "I can't fathom why they think it's Ed Lester doing this to them. I would say to them, 'I'm entitled to do business.' "
With no one paying attention to the community, Guatemalans were making their own laws and ignoring ones on the books. Many drove without licenses, registration or insurance. When an uninsured Guatemalan driver who had been drinking plowed into another car in 1993, killing a cheerleader, the anger and resentment that had been held privately broke into the open.
Business seemed to be a casualty. About three years ago, one company looking at Georgetown decided to go elsewhere. Moore, the Georgetown association president, said the influx of Latinos was the reason. "We saw their reports," Moore said of the company, which he declined to name. "They got a report on demographics, did their own study, and then walked away."
The anxiety produced by all these developments, in a small town over a short period, drove longtime residents to form the Historic Georgetown Association. Born out of a meeting in a church in late 1993, it now has about 790 members. There are judges, farmers, lawyers, Realtors and ministers. The nonprofit receives some money from the poultry industry, but most of its funding comes from membership fees, $20 for individuals, $100 for businesses. "Our purpose was to find answers, not just wring hands," Moore said.
The association promoted an ordinance, now in place, that imposed a stringent housing code. The group took the town's housing concerns to state legislators, the lieutenant governor and even the governor. The only concrete proposal to emerge was building low-income housing for the immigrants. Town leaders drew the line and continue to resist similar efforts. "The history of public housing in Georgetown is not good," Moore said.
The association sought help from the poultry industry as well, Moore said, but industry representatives were "very reluctant" to get involved in town affairs, "afraid that fingers would be pointed at them" for luring the immigrants. There also was concern that anything companies did for the Guatemalans would create difficulties with the rest of the work force, which historically has drawn many local black employees. "We were very upset," is all Moore would say of the failed talks, held in 1995 and 1996.
"I don't look at Perdue and say, 'You're the problem,' " said Ricker, the mayor. "I do look at them and say, 'You're the reason why they are here.' " Ricker describes Perdue as "a good neighbor," willing to finance projects when the town requests help.
Perdue supports the town's Hispanic festival and, along with other poultry companies, funds a day-care center that would have closed without the intervention of the industry. The company also provides access to bilingual medical care through a wellness center at the Georgetown plant.
Perdue, although rejecting the notion that it actively drew immigrants to town, understands "it's not unusual for a community to be a little resistant to change, not just in Georgetown, but in other parts of the country as well," said Tita Cherrier, spokesman for Perdue. "I know there are people who say that the Hispanics are here and that it's because of Perdue, that we're bringing them here.
"Until they knock on our door, we don't know of a potential associate's existence. We don't recruit in Texas. We don't go to Mexico. We hire from the community."
Cherrier said the company has been asked to provide housing for the Guatemalans. "The answer is no. We don't really segregate one group for [special] treatment."
Town leaders believe the Guatemalans will tire of living in dilapidated houses and move to trailer parks and modest subdivisions throughout the county. Housing enforcement, they agree, may hasten that. Suggestions this view is based on anything other than a wish to preserve their town pain them, and they go to great lengths to speak highly of their Guatemalan neighbors.
"They are good, cash-paying customers," Moore said. "They did not feel the world owed them a living. They were always scrubbed clean, even if they lived in a chicken house."
Moving Beyond Fear
It is undeniable that Guatemalans have brought dollars into town and, at least for now, ask little in return. And if changing demographics once sent businesses fleeing, the same phenomenon is now attracting a major player. Wal-Mart plans to break ground in Georgetown in March. A hotel and other businesses also are scheduled to open. The reason is simple. "These people are spending money," Moore said.
There is still resentment. The town is resisting a proposal to build a soccer field. Guatemalans who wanted to paint a giant mural in town were denied. Mayor Ricker still thinks there are too many Guatemalans in too small a town.
At the same time, his views have moderated. And this, he says, is a step forward. In a way, that is also the short journey the town has taken, from fear to something else, something not so easily defined.
"Many people were scared of them, very scared of them, and I will include myself," the mayor said bluntly. "They don't look like me. They don't talk like me. That scared me, until I had an opportunity to talk to them. They are not these three-eyed monsters. Yes, they brought problems to town. Yes, they brought problems to the county.
"I personally look at the Guatemalan people as a tremendous asset. Even to the town of Georgetown," the mayor continued. "Let's face it, the poultry industry would be in dire straits without this work force."
Staff writer Lena H. Sun and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
Tuesday: Name games and worker identity fraud
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