Hopes of a better life take root in Delmarva

Immigrants: Drawn by low-paying but plentiful jobs in poultry plants, Hispanics, Haitians and Asians transform the cultural landscape on the Eastern Shore.

April 18, 1999|By Dan Fesperman and Chris Guy | Dan Fesperman and Chris Guy,Sun Staff

GEORGETOWN, Del. -- Having changed the face of Delmarva agriculture during the past 75 years, the poultry industry now is changing the face of its culture, adding new hues, accents and languages to an ethnic landscape once rendered mostly in black and white.

The impetus is the industry's growing appetite for Latin American workers, which has transformed the Eastern Shore's seasonal wave of migrant harvesters and crab pickers into a more rooted scattering of enclaves in rural towns, trailer parks, apartment houses and labor camps.

With the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service watching closely and sometimes uneasily, the past decade has ushered in Delmarva's biggest surge of foreign labor since the slave trade forcibly delivered tens of thousands of Africans.

By the conservative estimate of Ignacio Franco, who surveyed the Latino population in 1997 for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, the Maryland-Delaware part of the shore is now home to about 40,000 Hispanics among its approximately 500,000 residents.

Perhaps 9,000 are there illegally, based on state and federal estimates. Thousands more arrive every year, and the poultry industry -- no longer able to entice locals to take the grueling jobs in its dozen Delmarva plants -- is exploring ways to import more.

The result now is what Franco calls the shore's "invisible community."

But in school classrooms and retail stores, on main streets and playing fields, it grows more visible by the day -- hard-working newcomers with a dawning awareness that, while their new living standards far exceed what they left behind, they're starting out on America's bottom rung.

"It is part of the old American story of immigrants coming and trying to scramble their way up the social ladder to something better," says William H. Williams, a University of Delaware professor whose 1998 book chronicles the history of the Delmarva poultry industry.

"It won't happen with this generation, but maybe with the next."

Williams sees the scrambling firsthand. He lives in Georgetown, a small town of stately homes and quiet streets that had virtually no Hispanics a decade ago but now counts as many as 2,400 Guatemalans among its 6,000 residents.

One of them is Sergio Morales, 23, a tailor who came here illegally six years ago but later obtained the legal documents necessary to let him stay.

He lives with five others in a shabby three-bedroom apartment where the shared rent is $850 a month. "There is no other way," he says.

He has endured layoffs from two poultry plants. Both happened just before he was a due a wage increase -- not an uncommon experience among the Hispanic workers, they say.

A 1997 report on conditions in Delmarva poultry plants, by the nonprofit Public Justice Center, agrees, saying the industry often takes unfair advantage of its Latino workers.

"Latinos were routinely identified as the targets of disparate treatment," the report concludes based on interviews with 74 workers, who cited "verbal abuse and harassment, denial of scheduled bathroom breaks, being assigned the worst and dirtiest jobs, failing to receive promotions, and other forms of disparate treatment."

Morales hopes to soon find a job at another company's plant, at the same low wage of about $6.50 an hour. But for all his privations, he says, "It is better here. Because there is peace. There are jobs. I wouldn't want to go back."

Like Morales, most of Georgetown's Guatemalans came from the country's mountainous and impoverished San Marcos region in the southwest, which bore the brunt of a decades-long civil war. Descendants of the ancient culture of the Mayan Indians, many work and sleep in shifts, timing their schedules to the round-the-clock rhythms of the poultry plants.

The majority live in ramshackle houses on the north side of town. A woman who would give her name only as Edemina, because she is in the country illegally, pays $150 a month for a 7-by-18-foot space on a paneled-over front porch, where she lives with her 2-year-old son.

The thin walls aren't insulated, and on winter nights their only comforts are a glowing space heater and a 19-inch television.

Until a few weeks ago, top-dollar accommodations included a sagging two-story wooden house crammed with 10 residents, for $1,300 a month. On an afternoon in early January, it caught fire, killing Transito Verduo, a Guatemalan who was sleeping before his night shift.

Those who don't walk to jobs at the local Perdue Farms Inc. processing plant, where Hispanics make up 46 percent of the payroll, travel to nearby Delaware plants in Millsboro (Townsends Inc.), Harbeson (Allen Family Foods Inc.), Selbyville (Mountaire Farms Inc.) or to another Perdue plant in Milford.

Franco has counted some 15 other Hispanic enclaves on the shore, with Mexicans and Salvadorans usually in the greatest numbers along with Guatemalans.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.