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At the Table: The Bridge Builder

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Guillermina Gonzalez says the biggest difference between immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century and the current immigration of Latin Americans is one word: quantity.
Photograph by Thom Thompson www.thomthompson.com

Guillermina Gonzalez came to the United States from Mexico in 2001 while working an expatriate assignment for Exxon-Mobil. The program grooms executives by exposing them to the U.S. market. Gonzalez was to return to Mexico City after three years, but she met and married a DuPonter working in West Virginia.

Her husband was transferred to the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington a year later. Gonzalez thus became a Delawarean. She started a marketing agency that, in part, conducted focus groups for those interested in tapping into the Hispanic community. She also completed her master’s degree in business administration and began work on a second master’s in liberal studies.

Gonzalez went on to co-host the “Latin Beat,” a Sunday radio show on WDEL, and she has written for local publications geared toward Delaware’s Hispanic population. Earlier this year, Gonzalez became the executive director of Voices Without Borders, Inc., a faith-based, grass roots, non-profit founded in 2000 and based in Wilmington.

“I began realizing it was a tremendous opportunity to give back to the community that I come from, not only Delaware at-large, but the Hispanic community,” says Gonzalez, who joined Delaware Today in mid-July for lunch at Harry’s Seafood Grill in Wilmington.

DT: Tell us a little about your organization.

GG: Voices Without Borders seeks to improve the status of Hispanics statewide, meaning we become the voice of those who do not have a voice within the Hispanic community. In order to do that, we try to seek an institution out and call for a social or institutional change on behalf of Hispanics. We also aspire to be that point of contact for those interested in tapping into the Hispanic community.

We’ve been part of the comprehensive immigration reform. But those in the organization understand that things that are affecting Hispanics are not always the immigration debate. There are many other things that are affecting Hispanics statewide. There are education disparities. Economic development is another issue. You see Hispanic businesses flourishing all over the place, and not being assisted the way they should.

We are very much into creating alliances and coalitions with many different organizations. Just to mention some: ACORN, AARP and the Latin American Community Center. We are probably the only organization that really advocates for Hispanics. We have the capacity to call things the way they are just because of the formation of the organization. The Catholic church provides much of the funding that keeps us alive. That allows us to tell things the way they are. That’s an advantage for those who don’t have a voice.

I’m sure you are aware that the Hispanics are the group that has the highest dropout rate at high school levels. I’m talking about 14 percent coming from the Hispanic region. We need to change those kinds of things. We need to push Hispanics to the social-economic forefront of the state. That takes time, and that takes relationships, and that takes being able to build cases and present those cases to the pertinent institutions.

We’re looking for what social and institutional change to bring on behalf of Hispanics, but by the same token helping to bring about change for the community at-large. Because Hispanics are part of that community, it’s to the benefit of the entire state.

DT: How many undocumented Hispanics live in Delaware?

GG: We suspect that there are between 15,000 to 25,000 undocumented individuals living in the state, of Hispanic origin. That’s almost twice the size of the official count of Hispanics living in the state. It’s putting a lot of pressure statewide on organizations and institutions and the government. You can easily find in Delaware individuals coming from all over Latin America. The numbers come from the 2000 census and do not reflect the reality of the Hispanic community for the time being because it’s been seven years. Things have changed dramatically.

DT: Your organization serves all Hispanics, whether they are documented or not?

GG: We don’t ask. If somebody needs us, we are here for them. We do not encourage people to break the law in the country. We are very respectful about this country’s laws. We encourage people to speak English. We encourage people to be part of the community. But if they need our help, we don’t ask. We’re a faith-based organization. We do respect every single individual because they are individuals. Period.

DT: Why are so many Hispanics coming to little Delaware?

GG: The immigration debate goes back always to an economic debate. The reason that those individuals come to a country like this one are economic reasons. They’re seeking to improve their status. They don’t have the means. They need to move and provide for their loved ones. Which, by the way, is not much different from Italian immigration, for example. It’s the same thing. But unfortunately, the memory of some of these individuals who are living in this country is kind of short. They tend to forget that they did the same thing.

They come to Delaware, in particular, because of the mushroom industry, which is pretty much in the Kennett Square area. And in Sussex County, the chicken plants. In Georgetown, more than 60 percent of residents come from Hispanic heritage. Those are the numbers that I have. Nevertheless, the critical mass of Hispanics are living in New Castle County—around 70 percent of the entire Hispanic population in the state. Hispanics figure very much into the retail sector, restaurants, hotels and the landscaping business.

DT: What do you say to those who say Hispanics take jobs away from others?

GG: Have you looked at the job rates in this country? It hasn’t changed in years. I just encourage people to be informed. That is not the case. It remains at 4 percent and it’s been there for years. The immigration debate is not related to job opportunities. I’m talking about microeconomic levels. The numbers do not lie.

Part of the reason we have decent prices all over the country is because in some industries, cheap labor is the one providing that capacity. If you want to have cheap products, then you need to have cheap labor. Are you willing to pay more for products? Then stop immigration. Not illegal, but legal immigration. We don’t like to call them illegal because no human being is illegal. They’re undocumented. And for some Hispanics, they didn’t cross the border. The border crossed them. They were living in this country. We have to remember that that part of the country belonged to Mexico. Some of the people of Hispanic heritage were living in this part of the country before the first American settler set foot here. They were living here. That’s history. That happened actually.

DT: So folks come here for a better life, the American dream. What is the difference between the Irish immigrants coming to America 100 years ago, for instance, and the current influx of Latin Americans?

GG: Samuel Huntington, who wrote “The Clash of Civilizations” and other books, said that the difference between those immigrations coming to the U.S. and the immigration coming from Latin America is one word: quantity.

The numbers and the proximity they have. In this case, they are not assimilated the same way they were in the past. It’s too soon to say. At the end of the day, when you look at a third generation of Hispanic Americans, they blend perfectly well into the American dream and they become U.S. citizens. Some of them don’t even speak Spanish.

It’s a political debate. It’s a very nice political issue to talk to. Some individuals have their political platform only on that debate. It happens to be a big, convenient political issue to talk to.

D

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