Changing face of the Shore Latinos: Lured by abundant jobs and good wages, Hispanic immigrants have become a sizable community on the Delmarva Peninsula.


SALISBURY -- Open the door of a stained-glass chapel at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church and hear the sound of change on the Eastern Shore -- in Spanish.

The priest is Salvadoran. The parishioner strumming the guitar is from Mexico. And the singing worshipers' home countries make up a virtual map of Latin America: Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico and more.

In only a few years, Spanish-speaking immigrants have become a presence across the Delmarva Peninsula. They harvest crops in Westover, care for seedlings in Kennedyville, bottle pickles in Hurlock, work on assembly lines in Salisbury and process chickens by the millions at plants that would be hard-pressed to produce without them.

Raids this summer on two poultry plants and a nursery turned up nearly 200 illegal immigrants. But the Latinos on the Delmarva Peninsula are a diverse mix of legal and illegal residents, ranging from a few old-timers who have lived on the Shore more than two decades to those who slipped across the U.S. border this year.

They are people like Isaac Alberto Hernandez, who came from Cuba on a rickety boat 2 1/2 years ago; Belinda Quintanilla, the 14-year-old daughter of Mexican-American migrant workers; Jesus Morales, an illegal Guatemalan immigrant who works under a false identity in a Delaware chicken plant; and Miguel Gutierrez, an upwardly mobile former farm worker from Mexico.

"It's really grown quickly in the last five years," said the Rev. Steve Giuliano, a Spanish-speaking Catholic priest based in Delaware. "We first started Mass in Georgetown [Del.] with seven people. Now we get 250 to 300 a week, and we're seeing more families now."

Giuliano and two Central American priests celebrate Mass weekly in Salisbury -- where there are also Spanish-language Baptist and Pentecostal congregations -- and in the Delaware towns of Georgetown, Seaford and Selbyville.

No one has precise figures, but everyone agrees the number of Latinos on the Delmarva Peninsula has increased sharply in the 1990s. The Census Bureau, which acknowledges undercounting minorities, found about 7,000 Hispanics on Maryland's Eastern Shore and Delaware's Kent and Sussex counties in 1990. By 1994, the bureau estimates, that number had jumped to nearly 9,000.

Others say the real numbers are far greater. Giuliano estimates that there are 20,000 Hispanics in southern Delaware and 7,000 on the Maryland Shore. The mayor of Georgetown believes there may be 1,200 to 1,500 Latinos in his town of 4,400 alone.

Although many immigrants are men without families, English for Speakers of Other Languages programs have boomed. Delaware's Indian River school district started ESOL in 1991 with 25 children. This year the total is about 150. Many Maryland counties also report increases.

Two major streams of Latino immigrants account for most of the population increase: migrant farm workers who have "settled out," and Mexican and Guatemalan workers, some illegal, lured north by abundant $6- to $7-an-hour jobs in poultry plants.

More than 3,000 migrant workers come to the Maryland Shore every summer to harvest tomatoes, melons and other crops, state officials say. Last summer, more than 400 migrant children went to school on the Shore.

Migrant influx declines

The migrant stream, which used to be mostly Southern blacks and now is largely Latino, has gradually declined. Growers have gotten out of the business, turned to mechanized pickers, or grown alternative crops that demand less labor. Some migrants have found year-round jobs.

"We're starting to see each year more and more people who want to settle," said Darlene D. Wharton, a counselor at Telamon Corp., a nonprofit agency in Salisbury that helps migrant farm workers.

Isaac Hernandez, 31, the Cuban "rafter," and Mirian Guzman, 39, his Colombian-born partner, followed the tomato harvest, working in canneries.

Last summer, the couple rented a $400-a-month apartment in Salisbury with two other Latinos. Guzman has worked deboning chickens and packing vitamins. Hernandez is becoming a $6.25-an-hour apprentice welder.

"It's very peaceful here. It's not dangerous," Guzman said of Salisbury. "The only thing we don't like is that there's no public transportation. The only people you see walking are Hispanics."

Belinda Quintanilla, 14, has migrated all her life. Her Mexican-born parents do seasonal work in Queen Anne's County before heading to Texas for the winter.

Hers is a through-the-looking-glass existence. In Texas, she goes to school with almost all Mexican-American children of farm workers. There is one Anglo student. In Maryland, she knows of one other Hispanic at her school. When she read her English class an essay she wrote on working in the fields, she said the students were shocked.

Belinda's father follows the Mexican custom of totally sheltering girls until they are 15. Sitting outside her family's trailer by a Sudlersville soybean field, Belinda lamented not being allowed to go to a homecoming dance.

"I'm glad my dad is strict," she said. "One day I'll thank him, but not this weekend."

She gets A's and B's and hopes to be the first in her family to go to college. She plans a career in computers or mechanical engineering.

"My parents don't want me to work in the fields, and neither do I," Belinda said.

Poultry processing is replacing farm work as Latinos' chief occupation on the Delmarva Peninsula. Nearly 3,200 immigrants -- overwhelmingly Latinos -- work for six poultry processors, according to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. Perdue alone says it employs 1,138 Hispanics, nearly one-fifth of its work force.

"They're essential to this industry's sustained growth. They're excellent workers at the processing plants," said Bill Satterfield, DPI's executive director. The influx of workers has transformed Georgetown, Del., a town on the road to Rehoboth Beach. Its supply of older, low-cost housing has made it a bedroom community for chicken workers. Georgetown now has a Guatemalan barrio, where immigrants can buy tortillas, rent a Mexican video, take English classes and play in the area's 16-team soccer league.

"It seems like it happened overnight," Mayor Steve Pepper said. "Local people did not want to work in the [poultry] plant. These [Guatemalan] people will work 80 hours a week if the plant will let them. They have a work ethic that is just unbeatable. $300,000 a month is sent through the local post office back to Guatemala."

Carleton Moore, a real estate agent, said some consider the immigrants' arrival an "invasion."

"In the course of three years, we've had almost unprecedented growth and not the kind of growth any town would be looking for."

Longtime residents' main complaints: too many immigrants packed into older houses and too many highway accidents involving newcomers, including an accident in which a local teen-ager was killed by a drunken driver.

Georgetown recently hired its first housing code enforcement officer. The town now has a Spanish-speaking police officer, and a Hispanic state trooper patrols area highways. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service operates out of a police substation.

"We have turned the corner, but it will take several more years before everybody has a good, safe place to live and before we have the town back," Moore said.

'Working not stealing'

Luis Mario Rodriguez, who runs a food store in the barrio, said: "To some people it seems like we're aliens from outer space or something. What I see about these [Guatemalan] people is they are working. They're not stealing."

Much of the cultural clash "is not Guatemalan-U.S.; it's 'u rural-urban," said Sister Margaret Giblin, who runs La Casita, a drop-in center for Latinos. "Most [Guatemalans] have probably never lived in a town this big."

Georgetown Police Chief Harvey Gregg said several Guatemalan workers, who tend not to use banks, have been robbed of cash by Americans. And Jane Hovington, a Town Council member, said Georgetown's absentee landlords have profited handsomely from housing immigrants in "deplorable conditions."

There are signs that Georgetown is adapting to the Latino presence. A cultural center, which hopes to bring Americans and Guatemalans together, is opening in the barrio. Last month a Hispanic Festival was held at the Catholic church.

Many Guatemalans are entitled to work permits as applicants for U.S. political asylum under the 1990 settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. They renew their work authorizations year after year. Other Guatemalans work illegally, buying false documents or renting real ones to present to employers.

Latino chicken workers in Maryland and Delaware say poverty pushes them out of Guatemala and Mexico -- and steady work that few Americans want to do draws them here.

Jesus Morales, 28, was upset by the recent immigration raids because he, too, works illegally. Morales said he paid $300 to "rent" the legal work permit of a fellow Guatemalan who resembles him. He said he works in a chicken plant under the other man's name.

"The Americans need us, even though they say they don't," Morales said. "And we need to come here. The Latinos do most jobs. I guess they don't want the United States to fill up with Hispanics. Maybe it's because of our color. They don't want to mix with us."

Morales used to work for $2 or $3 a day on Mexican coffee plantations before returning to Guatemala to help his father grow a subsistence crop of corn and beans. In 1995 he followed a friend to Georgetown. He risked $650 in borrowed money to pay a "coyote" to bring him across the border at Nogales, Ariz., and to pay a smuggler to drive him and others in a van to Delaware.

He shares a $500-a-month house with five others. "We buy food together," Morales said. "I didn't know how to cook, but I watched how my mother cooked. I also bought a cookbook. I only went to third grade in school, but I understand everything."

Hopes to go home, buy land

Morales said he has sent $3,000 to his parents to save for him. He hopes to avoid federal immigration agents for another year and then go home to buy land.

Jose Antonio Felix, 30, a Mexican-born poultry worker, came to the U.S. illegally as a teen-age farm worker. But, like 1.5 million others, he took advantage of a 1986 immigration reform law that offered amnesty to certain illegal immigrants. He plans to stay in Maryland, where he lives in Easton with his wife and two children.

He said Americans sometimes act as if he were illegal. He once was asked to prove his legal status while sending a $1,600 money order to Mexico. While renewing his driver's license, he said, he was accused of fraud and fingerprinted.

Felix has become an $8.20-an-hour assistant supervisor at a Hurlock chicken plant, one of the few Hispanics to do so. He said his position is the source of occasional tension with black workers, who compose the majority at the plant.

"Sometimes they say, 'Go back to your country.' I say, 'Why? I'm legally in the U.S.' For me, black, white, Korean, it's all the same. It's envy. That someone from elsewhere should have this job."

The Rev. James Lewis, an Episcopal priest in Delaware who works with Latinos, said the poultry plants turned to immigrants after they had "pretty much exhausted" the black work force.

He said the immigrants are regarded as docile employees. But he said more than 100 Latinos walked out of a Selbyville plant in April after the company fired an undocumented worker who had lost a finger on the job.

Delmarva poultry plants had occupational illness and injury rates two to three times higher than makers of other nondurable goods in 1994, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"These workers were not going to be intimidated by the fact that many were undocumented," Lewis said. "They just got angry and walked out. It sent shock waves across the other plants. These folks are quiet and hard-working and living in a lot of fear, but eventually they will stand up.

"Religious people say more grace over chicken than any other substance," Lewis said. "We need to know who's giving it to us and what the real price of it is. Folks here who are prejudiced think undocumented workers are not paying taxes and Social Security, but the truth is they are, and they're providing the chicken we eat."

Many Latino immigrants have neither the education nor the English fluency to escape the fields and poultry plants. But some, like Miguel Gutierrez, 37, are climbing the economic ladder.

Field work financed school

Gutierrez financed his engineering education in Mexico by working illegally in the States picking grapes, olives and tomatoes -- work he never did in Mexico. Now a legal resident through the amnesty, he has been a laborer, carpenter, poultry worker and shoe-repair shop owner.

Four months ago, Gutierrez got a quality-control position with Machining Technologies Inc. in Hebron, near Salisbury. He speaks excellent English and hopes to see Latinos integrate with the English-speaking community. But he has not forgotten his years as an undocumented worker and was angered by the summer immigration raids.

Gutierrez's new boss is Rafael Correa, 48, the Chilean-American owner of Machining Technologies, a fast-growing company with 110 employees. Correa, who came to America at age 12, relocated to the Salisbury area because it was near the ocean and major markets, and had a good work force.

"I've never had a problem on the Eastern Shore. Quite the contrary: A lot of doors were opened for me," Correa said.

Julia Foxwell, a native of Panama and former member of the Wicomico County Council, came to Salisbury nearly 28 years ago after marrying an American.

She suddenly finds herself at the center of a burgeoning Latino community. Foxwell now worships in Spanish at a Baptist church. She is revered for helping immigrants trying to adjust to American life.

"They don't come here because they want a handout. Many of them have never seen a food stamp. I don't know how they survive. They're very resilient."

Pub Date: 10/13/96

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