By SISTER REGINA BAKER, CDP
As I begin my second year in the Clemson area, I have the opportunity to reflect on all that I have learned and experienced in the past year. I have had the privilege of meeting some 60 to 70 Hispanic families who live in Oconee, Pickens and Anderson counties. This includes the cities of Anderson, Central, Pendleton, Pickens, Seneca, Walhalla and Westminster. The families are young, the parents being between 25 and 35. The couples usually have one to three children, although a few families have four or five. There are a few grandparents in the area also, but very few adults over the age of 60.
Many of the families have lived here for more than five years. They are renting or in the process of buying their homes. Those who have lived here for less than five years usually rent trailers, houses or apartments. Those who have recently arrived look for trailers or apartments where the rent is cheap. Such housing is minimally furnished and usually needs much repair, is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Within a year, the newcomers will have saved enough money to move to a better environment.
Most of the children have been born in the United States. They attend the local elementary schools. Only a few families have teens old enough for high school or college. The children speak Spanish at home and learn to read and write English at school. They are absorbing the faith, the values, and the traditions of their parents in the home and the values and ways of the U.S. culture at school. Most of the children are too young yet to experience the struggle that will inevitably come as they mature and realize they do not wholly belong to either the Hispanic or the U.S. culture. As adolescents, they will call all they have absorbed into question as they seek to belong to peer groups. The second generation will be somewhat like and somewhat different from their parents.
When I first went to live in Mexico, I was greatly impacted by the depth of history, social and religious customs, emotional and psychological strengths, the values, insights and talents of the people. I depended on their guidance to learn a whole new reality and to make my way in Mexico. I learned first hand how much another culture has to share with us.
In my approach to Hispanic pastoral ministry, I did not go to the community in Walhalla with a preconceived job description. My service among the community is evolving as the people tell me about their lives, their hopes, needs and frustrations. What I share with you is what they have shared with me.
Hispanics want legal status most of all. Within each family there may be varying degrees of this status. Children born here are U.S. citizens. An adult who is here more than five years can apply for citizenship and many are U.S. citizens, especially now that Mexico allows dual citizenship. Those not yet here for five years may have tourist or student visas or Resident Alien cards, the “green card” that is not green. There are also those who are undocumented. The people apply for the level of status that is most achievable for them given their current circumstances. These petitions go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The waiting period for an interview regarding legal status is lengthy. During the wait, laws and requirements often change. This can affect the chances of updating the current status.
Hispanics need correct and current information regarding immigration issues from people who are trustworthy and honestly concerned about them. They need people who know how to fill out the forms and advise them on how to collect the documentation that is requested. They need places closer than Charleston or Atlanta where the fingerprinting for the Resident Alien card and for citizenship can be done. They need people to help them study the history and government of the United States in preparation for the citizenship test. They need advocates who will urge the INS to process their applications as quickly as possible.
Staying healthy is another primary concern for Hispanics. Only if they are healthy can they work and get an education, but communicating with doctors, dentists and hospital workers is difficult. They need bilingual people who can accompany them to doctor’s appointments to translate for them. These must be people who respect the confidential nature of this service.
There are times when Hispanic families, especially in their first two years here, need help with housing, food, medicine, clothing, legal advice or money for bills. They may need information about social service agencies that address these specific issues. I am trying to learn where we can turn for some of these resources. The United Way office in Seneca does have a directory in Spanish for most services provided for people in Oconee County.
Hispanics come to the United States most often because the economic situation where they lived was so poor as to be insupportable. They come to the United States to work, to earn enough to support a family and have a home. But most are unskilled workers and need jobs that provide training. Employers usually value their Hispanic workers because of their dedication to tough jobs that many other people do not want to do. There are no long lines of U.S. citizens waiting to replace these workers. Hispanics need and appreciate employers and other U.S. citizens who advocate for their dignity and rights as workers.
Hispanics want to learn English to make their way at work, in school, for health care needs, for citizenship and for services and recreational activities. English will never be the first language of the first generation who comes to the United States, but it will be the first language of their children and grandchildren. We offer English classes at St. Francis Church on Monday evenings for adults. We need volunteer tutors to help adults practice understanding, speaking and writing English.
As families move into homes or trailers, they need second-hand furniture that is still in good condition. Through your generosity, we have been able to help many families this year. We are always grateful for donations of good useable furniture — especially sofas, tables and chairs, electric washers and dryers, chests of drawers, beds, mattresses and box springs.
Every culture has its traditions. First generation immigrants hold on to their traditions passionately because that is the realm of their lives where they can be relaxed. At the end of the day spent struggling to understand another language, following unfamiliar rules and ways of doing things, what is traditional is like an oasis where everything is comfortable. Hispanics need respect for their traditions.
Hispanics value having American friends. They know these friends welcome and accept them. Hispanics know they can ask American friends to explain the customs and rules of our society. They know that their American friends have a genuine interest in learning more about the values and customs of their culture.
This has been an enriching year and I look forward to all the new experiences awaiting me in the coming year.
From a talk given at Clemson University by Sister Regina Baker, minister to Hispanics at St. Andrew Parish in Clemson.