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Guatemalans seek better life on Shore Immigrants: The detainment of 107 suspected illegal immigrants has shaken the tranquil lives of Latino residents at a Caroline Co. trailer park.


MARYDEL -- Eufemia Fuentes scooped up a handful of cornmeal mix, deftly rolled it into a ball, gently pressed it with three knuckles of her right hand, slipped it between wax paper in a steel press and flattened it. Another tortilla was ready for the griddle.

The Walker trailer park off Route 311, where Fuentes and scores of other Guatemalan immigrants live in this Caroline County town near the Delaware border, has acquired a distinctive flavor. Tejano music blares from car stereos, children peer from the windows of rundown trailers, and immigrants trudge home from jobs in poultry-processing plants.

Latinos occupy more than half of about 100 trailers at the park, and residents say the influx of immigrants has largely occurred over the past two years. This week the park was shaken by news that 107 suspected illegal immigrants were detained after Wednesday morning raids on two poultry-processing plants where many residents work. At least 10 of those detained live at the trailer park.

Fuentes, 50, a grandmother from Coatepeque in southwest Guatemala, had just gotten off the phone with her 23-year-old Mexican daughter-in-law, Carmela Lobaton Chavez. The young woman was being held at the Wicomico County Detention Center along with others caught in the raids.

At stake was the future of two of Fuentes' grandchildren, both U.S. citizens by virtue of having been born in Easton. Carlos Orlando Fuentes, 2 1/2 , and Marco Antonio Fuentes, 15 months, played contentedly on the trailer's carpet with cousin Amilcar Fuentes, 5. The family had decided that if the mother was deported to Mexico, as seemed almost certain, her American children would go with her.

"No tenga pena [Don't worry], the babies are all right," Fuentes told her daughter-in-law from a telephone in a neighbor's trailer. She agreed to pack suitcases, scrape up some cash and wait for word.

"We'll send the children with her if we can so that she won't be sad and the children won't be sad without their mother," Fuentes said.

It was an unusually anxious day in Marydel, where Guatemalan immigrants say life is generally peaceful. Fuentes has lived there for five years, cooks for 11 family members and likes it, despite the ramshackle condition of many trailers. Two sons, Amilcar and Orlando, Carmela's husband, earn enough in golf-course work to have accumulated three pickup trucks and two motorcycles between them. The brothers say they have U.S. work permits.

Many of the Guatemalans have temporary work permits as applicants for political asylum. Others are in the United States illegally and submit false documents to employers as proof they are eligible to work. Few are permanent U.S. residents with "green cards." But only twice in the last two years have federal authorities picked up illegal immigrants who were trailer park residents. Five years ago, said Fuentes, who has been a political asylum applicant, the park had only a handful of Latino residents. Almost all the rest were Americans, black and white.

James Walker, who owns the park and a nearby general store, said the Guatemalans make good tenants, by and large. His only disappointment is that he has such a hard time getting Latino foods from his distributor. He knows that they sell well at the store.

Walker scoffed at the immigration raids at the Allen Family Foods Inc. plants in Cordova, 25 miles southwest of here in Talbot County, and Hurlock in Dorchester County. Workers there earn $6 to $7 an hour.

"Somebody has to do the work. Let's face American reality, I don't care whether it's dressing chickens or picking crops out of the fields. How many people would be starving without Mexican labor?" he asked. "Lazy Americans won't do it. What do you do? Hire someone who will do the job."

Brenda Shahan, 38, who has lived in the trailer park for five years, said she likes her new Latino neighbors. "If you don't bother them, they don't bother you," she said. "A lot of people out here don't want to work. If these boys want to work, let them work."

But Vernell President, 38, said reckless Latino drivers, late-night drinking and loud music have changed the park. She moved to Marydel nine years ago from Allentown, Pa., seeking a placid rural environment in which to raise her two children.

"One day you went to sleep and when you woke up, they were all here," she said. "And they've been coming ever since."

She said many of the immigrants have out-of-state tags on their vehicles, and she fears that many don't have auto insurance. She said the trailers are crowded and there are too many cars in the park.

"They are working people, I'll give them that much. Companies know they can get them to work for little or nothing," she said.

The Guatemalan immigrants don't open up quickly to strangers. Their stories tend to be similar. Many are young men who left Guatemala in their teens to avoid forced recruitment by the army and to seek better wages than the $2 or $3 a day that farm workers there typically earn.

Roberto Hernandez, 21, said he left Guatemala four years ago, worked his way across Mexico, crossed the border illegally in Arizona, did farm work in Florida and headed for the Shore because friends who were already here told him it was "pretty."

Tomas Fuentes, 30, who has been in Marydel two months, said he left his home in Huehuetenango province nearly three years ago. He picked crops and worked as a laborer in Mexico until he saved bus fare to reach the U.S. border.

Tomas Fuentes, no relation to Eufemia Fuentes, said he slipped across the border at Tijuana, worked in Texas and eventually reached West Palm Beach, Fla. He said he harvested tomatoes and cucumbers for $6 an hour before heading north to Maryland to seek similar work.

"There's no crime here [in Marydel], and the American people are very friendly," said Fuentes, who admitted that his application for asylum had been denied and he was in the United States illegally. He said he sends $125 or $150 home when he can to support three children in Guatemala.

Residents of Marydel say that immigrants arrive in a trickle, not a flood. But in February, 39 Guatemalans and Mexicans, all illegal immigrants, were found crammed into the back of a 15-foot rental truck that crashed at the Bay Bridge toll plaza after a two-day trek from Arizona. The truck was headed to the Eastern Shore.

"There are no coyotes here," said Eufemia Fuentes, referring to those who smuggle immigrants across the border. "People come by themselves, looking for work. If something like that was going on, you would hear about it."

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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