Melting pot heats up Del. town hit by culture shock

Workers: An influx of Hispanic immigrants reshapes a Delaware town's `Mayberry' image.

March 11, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

GEORGETOWN, Del. -- A few blocks from the red brick and white columns of the government buildings that line its historic town circle, a wave of immigration is transforming this 210-year-old county seat. And the strain on two cultures is beginning to show.

Mayor Bob Ricker touched a nerve recently. Mincing few words in an interview with a local paper, he complained that Latin-American immigrants, who have come by the thousands during the past 10 years for abundant jobs in the poultry industry, are dragging down the quality of life in southern Delaware.

Community activists and advocates for the nearly 3,000 Hispanics who make up half of Georgetown's population say Ricker's attitude borders on racism. Perhaps more disturbing for critics is the fear that his comments reflect the sentiment of many longtime residents.

"He's left every single stereotype there is out there blowing in the wind," says the Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest who helped organize La Esperanza, a nonprofit agency that serves Georgetown's Hispanic community. "Maybe all he's done is articulate the underbelly of opinion in town. Maybe it's just frustration."

But Ricker insists that the newcomers -- most of them Guatemalans with little or no education -- are overwhelming the town's ability to provide police, fire and other services.

"This is a nice, clean, Mayberry kind of place," says Ricker, a two-term mayor who grew up here. "I believe the United States is the melting pot; I'm secure in myself that I am not a racist. These are brave, strong people who weren't afraid to try to make a better life. But a lot of them just don't understand things like basic fire safety or how a hot-water heater works."

In Georgetown, officials tick off a list of problems Ricker believes are pushing the town to "the breaking point."

Most of the town's Hispanic residents live in tattered frame houses -- often haphazardly divided into apartments and single rooms -- in the north end of town, within walking distance of the Perdue Farms plant where most of them work. Building inspectors frequently report finding eight, 10 or more people living in one house, with inoperative smoke alarms, electric space heaters wired with extension cords and padlocked bedroom doors that would make fighting fires difficult.

One inspector complained that the Guatemalans' penchant for fried food often prompts them to cover kitchen smoke detectors with foil. Town officials reported finding families keeping chickens indoors.

At the nondescript two-story building that houses La Esperanza and down the street at the office of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 27, which has unionized poultry plants throughout the peninsula, Ricker's comments remain a hot topic.

"I've sat around the table with the mayor many times, and it's hard to understand how he can then go and talk like that," says Maria Picazo, the nonprofit agency's executive director. "In many ways, I admire the way this town has dealt with all these changes, but I feel embarrassed for him."

Few members of Georgetown's Guatemalan community can read English. Most are descended from the Mayans and lived in the poor, mountainous region of San Marcos before coming to the United States in search of work. They speak a variety of Indian dialects and for them Spanish is a second language. Yet many have heard what's being said about them.

Juan Perez, an artist and musician who works as an outreach worker for La Esperanza, says his fellow Guatemalans, many of whom endured civil war and government persecution in Central America, aren't particularly shocked.

`Not accepted anywhere'

"For us, indigenous people, they don't want us anywhere," Perez said in Spanish. "It happened in our own country: Our government ordered our people to be killed. It is not a surprise that we are not accepted anywhere."

Perez, who encounters the problems of Guatemalans daily, agrees with town officials who say the lack of housing is Georgetown's biggest problem. But he says many of the safety problems cited by building inspectors are the fault of landlords who won't make repairs.

Town officials have been roundly criticized by leaders at La Esperanza and other Hispanic agencies for turning down several recent opportunities to increase the stock of affordable housing. Last fall, more than 100 people signed a petition against a 360-unit apartment complex proposed by an Easton company, and the project was rejected by the town planning commission.

Despite a tight housing market, about 15 Hispanic families have bought houses in town in the past few years, and Hispanic-owned businesses have opened all over town.

Overcrowding is a matter of economic necessity for Guatemalans as rents are repeatedly raised, says Perez, who grew up in the mountain town of Tacana before fleeing to the United States six years ago. With rents ranging from $500 for one room to more than $1,000 a month for run-down houses, tenants have little choice but to take in more renters to help spread the cost.

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