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.