The experiences of Birmingham’s Hispanic community are as many and varied as the people who make it up, or the places around the world that they left to come to the U.S. and ultimately to Alabama.
Continuing the conversation about race relations, this week, Weld takes a second look at the Latino perspective this time from some who are in the business world. Even there, the experiences have been diverse.
Ernesto Valladeres, a native of Acapulco, is a businessman whose career portfolio embraces both food and sports. “I’m involved in produce,” he said. “I service Mexican restaurants, I deliver produce. Also, I’m involved in a sports league — a soccer and basketball league for the Latino community.”
Specifically, Valladeres is the owner of the Latin American Soccer League and Latin American Basketball League, which are headquartered in his adopted hometown of Fultondale. Young men and women — and little kids — come from all over the community to play in his leagues, he said.
Fultondale, just north of Birmingham, “opened their hands for us,” he said. Much the same is true for the entire area, where he has lived for the past 17 years, since moving from Atlanta, after living in Chicago, after living in Houston. Valladeres has lived in the U.S. 26 years and he has raised his four boys here. They are now 22, 21, 16, and 11 — the last two boys born in Birmingham.
He moved to Birmingham, he said, “because this is a quiet city and I am the father of four boys. I’m thinking it’s the best place to raise kids.”
Since arriving, he has become convinced that is true. “The first time I came here, everybody opened hands for me and I had no bad experience,” he said, adding that he has “good friends” across racial lines. “I’ve had a good, good, good experience with the people here.”
Valladeres has seen the Latino community in the area grow as it attracted people from other countries. But he’s also seen how it was affected by HB56, then the nation’s harshest immigration law.
“A lot of people got scared and moved out. But after everything has come down, the law is broken, people [have] come back. More people come back than when they [left].” The law did not really affect him personally, he said. Although he is still not a full citizen of the U.S., he’s working on it.
“I’m in the process,” he said. “I have a permit to work here. So we can say, 60 percent legal.”
Although he has heard of bad experiences some Latinos have had at the hands of police officers, he has rarely had a problem. “I love this place and I think it’s a good place for Latinos to live,” Valladares said.
Freddy Rubio made history not long ago, when he became the attorney for the Birmingham City Council, a position that might have seemed unlikely to go to a Latino just a few years ago. He’ll tell you that the mere fact that the council chose him as their legal advisor says something about the community.
“The fact that … with such a white and black history in Birmingham, that I am the attorney for the city council, I think it speaks volumes,” Rubio said. “I think that the council had the confidence that they looked beyond race in selecting the attorney to represent them– it makes me feel good, and I don’t think that in an egotistic way. But it feels good that they considered me out of all the rest, qualified, white and black attorneys, to represent the city.”
He will quickly acknowledge that his experience is not the same as every Hispanic man in Birmingham, a place where the role and the size of the Latino community is only now becoming seen for what it is.
“I think that the Hispanic community, certainly in Alabama, has been an integral part for the last 30 years,” Rubio said. “When we think about the people that pick tomatoes in the Sand Mountain region, when we think about the hundreds of doctors that have come through UAB, even basketball players that have played in the UAB basketball team. We have a long history of being in Birmingham, in Alabama.
“I think we are getting noticed and we are being considered and I think race relations is fine. At the same time, there’s a lot of room for more improvement between white and Hispanic and between black and brown.”
Rubio noted that the first Hispanic to join the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee joined this year. And there are similar firsts. And there are some yet to happen.
“I think, while things are progressing and there’s not any specific particular animosity between white and Hispanic or black and brown, there’s room for improvement,” he said.
For instance, Rubio said he sees only a relative few Hispanics working with the city. “I see very, very few Hispanics getting minority contracts for the city,” he noted. “So, while we’re thinking about contracts for minorities, [that] usually refers, for the most part, refers to African American. Yes, there’s some Asian and Indian descent that get some of those contracts. But we [Latinos] form almost 2 percent of the population in Alabama… It seems that we should have more representation.”
Rubio said that while there is a need for more progress, in general, he’s happy with the community. “We are part of the community – we’re here – we live in Birmingham. We love Birmingham. Birmingham has always been very supportive of Hispanics and immigrants so I think the relationships are good.”
As a professor of history and Latin American studies at Samford University, Carlos Aleman has the perspective both of a scholar and as an immigrant who has lived in other places in the U.S. Born in Nicaragua, he moved at age 3 to San Francisco, where he grew up. He went to graduate school in Michigan, then spent two years in Atlanta before moving two years ago to Birmingham.
The life of Hispanics in this area, is not the same as it is in other places, he said. “It’s really different, in the sense that in California, in San Francisco ….I grew up in a Latino neighborhood,” he said. “It was very heterogeneous — people from all over Latin America, but also I went to schools with really diverse student bodies, with Asians, whites, blacks, Latinos.”
Michigan, he said, was more like Birmingham, a town which, “still regards itself, despite the changing demographics, as a black and white city,” Aleman said. “In the discussions you hear in the media, and politics and in persons who have a stake in the city, oftentimes [they] discuss race relations in terms of black and white. So it’s a very traditional way. I think that’s partially the legacy of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Southern heritage.”
That said, he also noted that Hispanic people have made their home in the Birmingham area for decades, just in small numbers. “In the last 20 years you see an increase,” he said. “And even then we only make up about 4 percent – 5 percent of the population. So you have a small, but growing, significant population here.”
Today, Aleman said you can see the community transforming as Latinos move in greater numbers to the suburbs. You can also see more economic impact. “The rise of businesses like Mi Pueblo — and they’re about to open another one in Gadsden,” he noted. “And so I think that you have an infrastructure arising out of the growing Hispanic population that’s increasingly able to support businesses that cater primarily to them. Those are the first hints as to how Birmingham is changing – the businesses. You’re seeing a lot more restaurants, a lot more tax services, lawyers, service industry.”
Aleman, who serves on the boards of directors of HICA (the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama), and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center, and who volunteers with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ), as well as Fiesta and Greater Birmingham Ministries, also sees a rise in nonprofits focused on serving immigrants. Still, as the changes occur, non-Latinos are having to adjust their thinking, he said.
“People for the most part don’t know what to make of Hispanics in the sense of they don’t fall comfortably into traditional racial paradigms of what Birmingham has historically been,” he said. “They’re not black. They’re not white. They’re a racial and ethnic minority, and I think more ethnic in the sense that Hispanics can be of any race. They can be white, black, Asian, and every mixture that exists.
“But they go through a racialization process in the sense that they are ‘otherized’ and people don’t know exactly what to make of them. I think that makes it somewhat difficult to address important issues for this community in particular.”
That tendency to want to view Latinos as “other” in this area, came fully into view in the rollout of HB56, Aleman said. “On the state level, you still see a kind of rhetoric that seems to want to scapegoat immigrants, particularly those who are Hispanic, for the economic conditions the state is in,” he said. “You see that as a lead up and consequence of HB56.
“You have a state and you have an area in which Hispanics were seen as being kind of responsible for the economic downturn of the state. And then you see the fallout and consequences.”
The stereotyping of Hispanics as lazy or as only undocumented, or as only laborers, or only as newly arrived misses the breadth and depth of the Latino community, he said.
“We have people who are here, who are citizens, who are middle class, upper class — lawyers, doctors, and what not,” Aleman said. “But you also have this large working class population and part of that population is undocumented. But the law, something like HB56, seems to kind of lump everyone together and has varied consequences with how people are portrayed.”
Both that kind of misunderstanding, and the fact that the local Latino population is not as large as it is in some places, figures into the level of importance assigned to their needs, Aleman said.
“Locally, in Birmingham I don’t think that Hispanic issues are a priority yet,” he said. “I don’t see it. I don’t feel it in the discussion. You have candidates who may speak to Hispanic issues somewhat. But I think that for the most part in a state like Alabama they don’t necessarily see the necessity in the sense that you still don’t need the Hispanic vote in Alabama to win elections.”
He expects that will change within the next 20-30 years. “You have a population that is very young. The median age for Hispanics in this state is 25,” he noted. “You have a substantial amount of that population that is under voting age. And as that population comes of age and political power is able to be flexed, then you may see a greater necessity on the part of government leaders to address this population. I think that until they see a need to curry favor with Hispanic voters, they are reluctant to act on Hispanic issues.”
And there is also the fact that the issues of Hispanics are not just “Hispanic issues,” he said.
“I think that immigration is just one aspect of what Latino voters, and Latino people want in this state. The primary concerns are concerns that affect any sector of the population: access to education, access to jobs, access to healthcare. And those issues often get put on the back burner when talking about the Latino population in this state,” Aleman said. “But most people just want to take care of their families and be able to take care of themselves.”
While immigration reforms could help people who don’t have citizenship in the U.S., he said, “There are plenty of people right now, who do have citizenship and don’t have the easiest time accessing healthcare, education, and jobs.”
One reason for that difficulty is hardly new to this area. “Sociologically speaking, people tend to hire people they feel comfortable with. I think that’s part of the issue,” Aleman said. “As the population grows you’ll see a change in that.”
Another issue: the language barrier. “Job-wise, language is still an issue here,” Aleman noted. So is the lack of bilingual education, he said. “I think that for our population, greater access to Spanish materials would be really helpful. You’ll see that change, too.
“I can feel like we can almost predict that in the next 20 years there will be an opening up of jobs across government and private life that will have people who will specialize in translating, interpreting and providing these kinds of materials to a growing Latino population.”
Mirroring other states where large Latino communities have developed, Aleman said that the population in Alabama is only going to grow, for several reasons. One is a higher birth rate among Hispanics than the population in general. Another is that the Birmingham area is an attractive place to raise a family.
“People come here because it’s relatively calm, peaceful, safe,” Aleman said “You want to get away from larger urban metropolitan areas. There are plenty of people who have come from California who just didn’t want to deal with that kind of city life. Birmingham is a city, but it offers a lot of the amenities that a smaller city offers.”
As the community further diversifies with more Latinos arriving, tensions will also continue, Aleman said, based on what has happened in other areas. “For whatever reason, Hispanics are still ascribed with a certain level of foreignness regardless of the fact that they’ve been in the United States for centuries,” he said. “It’s more due to unfamiliarity than anything else. And I think that because immigrants from Latin America continue to arrive, it kind of attaches that newness to them regardless of how many generations people have actually been here.”
Still, he expects the tensions to lessen as time goes on, and as Hispanics, particularly the young, integrate into and play their parts in wider society. It is inevitable, Aleman believes.
“The children of immigrants — second, third and fourth generation — are largely bicultural Americans,” he said. “As people become more comfortable with that fact, you’ll see some changes as well. We’ll start seeing commonalities with one another. Hopefully. I try to be hopeful about these kinds of situations.”
There are institutions trying to increase the connections between the Latino community and the rest of Birmingham, but in the meantime there is a whole side to the community that some are not seeing, he said.
“Birmingham’s Hispanic population is increasingly complex and diverse,” he said. “There are people at all levels.” He cited, specifically, Freddy Rubio, and that the new director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra is also Hispanic. “There’s an array of life here that people could gain access to if they look for it. It’s not that hard…. It’s almost like we’re walking in two different worlds.”
He thinks the transition to a more naturally connected community would be sped up by inviting Hispanics onto boards that don’t just serve Hispanics, for instance. “They have more to contribute to what the future of Birmingham is going to be than just helping people feel comfortable with different ethnicities and races.”
Time will also help, Aleman said. “I think that people for the most part should know that, Hispanics just want to be a part of the communities which they live in. Ultimately, the bottom line is they want to work, they want to contribute, they want their kids to go to school, they want to excel just like everyone else does, and have their piece of happiness. They want to have the opportunity and access to do so.
“And all too often, the media portrays this community as trying to get over, or beat the system, or do some kind of other manipulation. But this community is hardworking and just wants a chance to achieve what they see as their potential.”
Originally a native of Torreon, Mexico, Cristina Almanza moved to Alabama to go to Jacksonville State University. “I’m a proud Gamecock,” she said, just days after JSU nearly beat the much more storied Auburn Tigers at the state pastime – college football.
She moved to Alabama in 2001 as a documented student, right before September 11. She lived at first in the International House at JSU, filled with a diverse group of fellow students from all over the world. But together, they saw firsthand how things could change drastically in this country for those born elsewhere.
“I can vividly remember… we had get a patrol outside the International House at Jacksonville State University because we had people from the Middle East, we had people from Russia, we had people from Africa, we had people from Asia and I think there was concern that we as students could be under attack,” Almanza said. “Emotions were very raw at the time.”
It was there, that she adopted the practice of speaking only English when other English speakers are around, a practice she still follows, and advocates today. “A lot of times I noticed that if you started speaking Spanish, because the other person couldn’t understand, because the other person couldn’t speak it, they could have thought that you were speaking bad about them, when in reality, we could have been talking about ‘Hey, lunch was really bad.’”
After 8 years in the Anniston area, Almanza moved to Birmingham. She works in public relations at Samford University, as director of external relations at the Leslie S. Wright Fine Arts Center. Given her work, it might not be surprising that Almanza comes across as upbeat.
Even so, her experience as a Latina in Alabama has not always been positive.
Almanza also knew people who felt forced to leave the state for fear of sanctions under HB56. “What was saddest was the kids, the dreamers,” she said. “They really didn’t have a choice. They came here, and a lot of them, it was funny, you would hear them speak and they spoke perfect English and they had a Southern accent.” She remembered one little girl in particular and how she said the word “dollars” like the little Southern girls she was growing up with. “It was cute. And yet we had people that did not feel like those kids were part of the community.”
Almanza heard stories about Hispanic residents of northeast Alabama communities being shaken down by law enforcement officers for money. And in the midst of the rhetorical, anti-immigrant climate that gave birth to HB56, she had a curious experience that perhaps only could have happened to a person who has spoken English since she was five.
“A lot of the times it was awkward because people would talk about Mexicans to me in a hateful way,” she said. Apparently, the hate-filled comments came from people who thought that her speaking English would make her more like them, and less like the Mexicans they were disparaging, Almanza said.
Still, she said, she also has met some of the kindest people she has known in this state.
“It’s almost like a paradox,” she said, “because there are people that will go out of their way to help you. I’ve had strangers that really have no need to help me, had no need to talk to me that were interested, that were very caring.”
In a similar way, her experiences in the workforce have been of two sorts. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve always had good leadership that has supported me and that has been very open to diversity, that values my diversity,” she said. On the other hand, she has not found that all of her coworkers have been equally magnanimous.
Almanza works hard to make her English as perfect as she can, but she has seen both sides of being bilingual – an emotional topic for her.
”I always hear, ‘It’s such an advantage that you’re bilingual,’” she said, her voice breaking off. “And it hurts a little bit because sometimes I feel like it’s not an advantage to be bilingual.” Almanza said that there have been times where she felt that if not for her accent, she might have been able to move into a higher position. “There have been occasions where I have questioned why I should not speak Spanish.”
On the other hand there have also been times she felt she landed a job because of being fluent in both languages.
Considering her experiences, Almanza sees the connections between the ethnic groups in two different ways. “You’re coming into a different culture, and you’re coming into a different way that things are handled, that things are done. I grew up in Mexico and I was very acclimated and acculturated to the Mexican culture. And there were things I had to learn when I moved to the United States.
“There are still things that, when my parents come and visit me here, I’m like ‘You don’t do that. This is the way we do it here.’ So I think there’s also that acclimation of learning. You’re in a new place and I think out of respect you have to learn how things work, especially in the business world. The business world is very different from how it is in Mexico.”
As an example, she pointed out that English speakers can make agreements through means as remote as an email. In Latin America, it mostly takes personal contact or at least a phone call. “More than likely they’re going to ask about your family. They’re going to ask where you come from which usually in an American way of [business] you don’t ask those things. Those things are like out of [bounds], you know, you’re sitting down to talk business. You are not really sitting down to become friends and I think that’s a cultural difference that you will also see in a professional environment.”
She thinks Hispanics in Alabama are already connecting in more ways to the larger community- and vice versa. “I think it’s already happening and that makes me very hopeful,” she said.
“My hope is that … we all can really get to know each other because at the end of the day, we’re not different from each other. We really all have the same needs. Granted, again, there’s this cultural difference that is humongous between us and the language barrier. But I think, if we try to understand each other and we try to work with each other, I think that we would see that our needs are exactly the same and … this is not a competition.
“We’re all just trying to improve ourselves and we’re all looking for a better future, period, without trying to take anything from anyone.”
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