Sights, sounds of a growing Latino presence

Mexican balladeers at a health fair are a sign of change in Carroll County

Maryland Journal

June 12, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

With a teal electric bass, a keyboard that mostly emitted sounds of an accordion, and a drum set, a homegrown grupera-style band - Herencia de Mexico - lured mainly Hispanic residents to Westminster City Park.

Suavely dressed in salmon and black shirts, black cowboy hats and jeans, offset by cream ostrich-leather belts and boots from their native Toluca, the state capital just west of Mexico City, band members headlined at a minority health fair on a recent Saturday, crooning Spanish ballads heavy on romance.

"In Mexico, that's the music they listen to since birth," said Ben Aceves, 22, an agent for the band, who moved to Westminster with his extended family two years ago. "A lot of young people like that kind of music. It reminds them of life back home."

The band is another sign - along with Spanish-language Masses at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster and scattered Mexican food stores in the area - pointing to a growing Latino presence in Carroll County. The growth rate of the Hispanic community now exceeds that of African-Americans in the predominantly white county.

For the men of Herencia de Mexico (Heritage of Mexico), their performances offer a refuge from day jobs in manufacturing, construction and landscaping in the county.

They came to work in the United States, many leaving wives and children back home. But their dreams are to return to Mexico in a few years, maybe to start their own businesses.

"It's really sad, sometimes lonely," said Jose Linares, 35, the band's lead singer, who has three young children in the town of Almoloya de Juarez, just outside Toluca.

Back in Mexico, Linares worked for five years with another grupera band, playing with Herencia's back-up singer, Juan Gomora, 45.

It was Gomora, his old friend from Almoloya de Juarez, who persuaded Linares to come to Westminster a year ago. About the same time, Gomora decided to launch the new band.

Now the local band has a growing fan base in the region, where members enjoy a type of rock star status among portions of the Hispanic community.

The band recently performed at a nightclub in East Baltimore and has scored another gig in Finksburg on Saturday, where it will play at a budding dance club housed in the basement of a pizza restaurant.

Because none of the band members speaks much English, Aceves and his two half-brothers, Eder Mendoza, 21, and Anthony Mendoza, 22, who were all raised in a Texas border town, negotiate contracts for them.

"They came to me kind of desperate," Aceves said. "They said, `We're getting contracts in English. We just don't know anything.'"

For the audience at the fair - about half Hispanic - it was a chance to practice their cumbia steps, a folk dance popular throughout Mexico, and Central and South America. The most adept dancers won copies of the band's new CD, Tu Libertad (Your Freedom).

The music blaring from the speakers cut back and forth between the band and rap tracks played by a disc jockey from Baltimore. They were stationed side by side under blue canopies.

Latinos, blacks and a handful of whites gathered on the grass, swaying to the "Cha-Cha Slide" - an American version of a Latin dance.

On the park's basketball court, Jennifer DeJesus, 15, and her friend Breanna Hammond, also 15, watched the moves of a local step dance team. But they wouldn't join the dancing in front of the band.

"I don't like to dance in front of people," said Jennifer. Besides, she said, she prefers reggaeton, a hybrid of Jamaican, Latin and hip-hop styles.

Jennifer's family, originally from Puerto Rico, moved to Westminster two years ago from Alexandria, Va., drawn to the county schools and lower-priced homes.

It hasn't exactly been a smooth transition for them, said her mother.

"When I moved here, I thought, `Did I make a mistake?'" said Rosemarie DeJesus, 36, who couldn't stay away from the dance floor.

"But it's a good place to raise the kids," DeJesus said. "As an adult, I can live with this, not having diversity. Still, for the kids, it's harder."

Her son, Tomas DeJesus, 13, said he's more at ease now than when they first moved to the rural county.

"Trying to make friends here was hard at first, because I was Hispanic and everyone else was white," he said.

Aceves said that nearly 20 of his family members - originally from the Mexican states of Chiapas and Hidalgo - now live in Carroll County. An uncle settled in Westminster first. Then Aceves and his family followed from Northumberland, Pa., where they were living at the time.

"Now everybody is moving here," said Aceves, who is studying business at night at Carroll Community College.

During the day, he and his two brothers work full-time constructing wooden pallets - used to lift objects with forklifts - at a local plant. Their mother, Consuelo Campos, 48, works as a housekeeper there.

Aceves and his brothers met Linares and two other band members on the job.

The brothers haven't decided whether to settle in Carroll County after they finish college.

Eder Mendoza, who studies nursing, isn't sure where he will go.

"I want to stay here. It's quiet," he said. "But then I want to go back to where I'm from," referring to Texas.

The band members already know where they will go. They want to return home.

"Most guys just come here to work and save money, and then want to go home to start their own business back in Mexico," Eder Mendoza said.

When that happens, Linares said, he might open a store at home to sell American and foreign goods, or drive a taxi.

"I want to live in Mexico," he said. "That's where my family is."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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