Rising number of Latinos spurs English language debate in Carroll County

Hispanic population, though still relatively small, has more than tripled since 2000

  • Adrian Barrera leads a crew of migrant farm workers from Mexico who pick apples at Baugher Farms. The migrants work on the farm for 8 months out of the year, then move on to work somewhere else or return to their native country until the next growing season.
Adrian Barrera leads a crew of migrant farm workers from Mexico… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
October 06, 2012|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Amid the quaint brick storefronts of Westminster's Main Street, Lily's Mexican Market sells Virgin of Guadalupe statues, sacks of dried beans and paddle-shaped cactus leaves. A mile away, the aisles of Las Palmeras grocery store are stocked with Salvadoran cheeses and pastries. A nearby Catholic church draws more than 200 people to a Spanish Mass each Sunday.

Mexican and Central American immigrants have flocked to Carroll County over the past decade, drawn by pastures and orchards that remind them of the rural villages in which they were raised. Some followed family members here; others sought to live among those who share their traditional values. Many say they felt welcome here, at least until a commissioner began a push to make English the county's official language.

"We support the economy here. We respect the laws. We pay rent. We pay taxes," said Gregoria Hernandez, who opened Lily's with her husband last year. "We're a fountain of business. Why would they not want us here?"

But the changing face — and lexicon — of Carroll County has some local leaders concerned. County Commissioner Haven Shoemaker proposed the official-language measure, an effort, he says, to be proactive.

"Wave after wave of immigrants have come to this country over the past few hundred years and they have assimilated under one language," said Shoemaker, who represents the county's eastern portion. "The latest wave has not been as willing to assimilate under the English language, and that's a problem."

While the measure would be largely symbolic — federal and state laws require government agencies to offer assistance to non-English speakers — some Latino immigrants and their allies say the proposal is a sign that the county does not welcome their presence.

Standing in front of a row of cowboy hats, a Spanish issue of Reader's Digest open before her, Hernandez explained in Spanish that she and her husband were drawn to Carroll County because they had family here and thought it would be a safe and wholesome area to raise their two children.

The Hernandez family is among the thousands of Latino immigrants who have chosen to make their homes in Carroll. Census figures show the Hispanic population, though still relatively small, has grown by more than 300 percent since 2000. The county's overall population has grown by about 10 percent during that period.

Advocates say the most recent figure — which shows about 4,600 Latino residents — represents just a fraction of the actual Hispanic population because those here illegally do not want to tip off immigration officials.

A decade ago, advocates say, young men harvesting crops, primarily migrant workers from Mexico, made up the majority of the county's Latino residents. Many decided to settle in Carroll County and returned with their wives and started families here. Soon they were persuading their siblings and cousins to come. Some came legally, but many did not, advocates say.

At the same time, immigrants from Central America, particularly El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, were arriving in Carroll County. Many left more established immigrant communities in Montgomery County, the District of Columbia and Baltimore, seeking the peace and stability of a rural area. This group, too, included documented and undocumented immigrants.

In between ringing up bunches of tiny bananas and phone cards at Las Palmeras, cashier Victoria Reyes said she spent three years working at a similar store in Towson before coming to Westminster. She and her husband, Salvadoran natives, wanted to raise their children in a quieter place, she said.

"It's more tranquil here," Reyes said. "Towson was very busy. Here it is very safe."

Elena Hartley says the number of young Latino families has grown significantly over the eight years she has run United Hands, a nonprofit devoted to helping immigrants.

"When I first arrived, I mostly saw men, working men. Then they started bringing their wives and children," she said. Now, during the Spanish Mass at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, "you see 60 little kids come up when the priest calls up children for the blessing. And now you see a lot of older people — they're bringing their mothers and fathers."

Some immigrants were drawn to Carroll by plentiful jobs at farms and wineries or in landscaping and construction, Hartley said. Others came because the cost of living is lower than in other counties. Many settled here because towns such as Taneytown, Manchester and Westminster felt comfortable and familiar, she said.

"Because these people are from small towns in their countries, here feels more like home," said Hartley. "They'll work in Baltimore, far away, but live here."

Lina Ocasio, who serves as a liaison to the Hispanic community at St. John's, said many parishioners were drawn to the area's traditional values.

"We are very family-oriented" Ocasio said. "Here it's safe for children and for themselves, too."

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