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Hispanic influx continues to shape Clayton and Henry

By Justin Boron

From the stoop of his Forest Park home, Catalino Vega looks out onto a landscape of cultural diversity.

Signs reading lavanderia (laundry mat) and carnaceria (butcher) accent his Latino heritage and have transformed the city's main thoroughfares into corridors of Hispanic culture.

"When I came here, there were a couple of hundred Hispanics. Now it's in the thousands," Vega said.

The Hispanic presence in Clayton and Henry County has become pervasive in recent years, with Latinos setting up markets, restaurants, and churches to serve their burgeoning population.

Spanish discourse can be heard throughout the community, like at the Coin Laundry on Forest Parkway, where Mexican-immigrant Victor Reyes chats while he waits for his clothes to dry.

The Hispanic influx of the late 90s has made Clayton County very conducive to newcomers, like Reyes, who are looking to make comfortable transition into this country.

He said the hotel in Forest Park where he lives is "all Mexican."

Surrounded by people with whom he can identify, the hotel's shared culture makes it easier for him to survive, he said. It also helps him keep his culture.

Cultural retention is an important part of the Latino assimilation process, Vega said. But that process often causes frustration.

"When I first came to this country from Puerto Rico, I still didn't feel connected, I still felt rejected," he said.

The Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 is Hispanic Heritage month, which recognizes the United States' 39.9 million Hispanic inhabitants.

The month has become increasingly important to Georgia as its Hispanic population continues to expand. In 2000 Census, Georgia ranked 9th with 105,165.

Over 20,000 of those Hispanics live in Henry and Clayton counties.

Their assimilation has prompted the two county's government and social institutions to adapt to the linguistic and cultural needs of the immigrant population.

The Clayton County Police Department enlisted five bilingual officers for patrol and keep three bilingual secretaries on staff to take statements from Hispanics, said Capt. Jeff Turner, the public information officer for the department.

Officer Francisco Romero said his Spanish-speaking ability has given him access to the Hispanic population.

"When we're trying to get to the bottom of a story, some information can be missed if there is a communication barrier," he said. "Hispanics open up to a bilingual officer more than they would an English speaking officer."

Schools also have adjusted by providing more English-second-language classes, said Cindy Foster, the community relations director for Henry County schools.

In Henry County this year, Hispanic students make up 3.9 percent of the students. It has gradually increased by 1 percent over the past four years, according to the system's ethnicity report.

Hispanics in Clayton County, where the Latino presence is heavier, make up over 6 percent of the high school students and as much as 14 percent in elementary schools, the systems ethnicity report said.

Despite institutional adjustments, Hispanics have still demonstrated some resistance to assimilation.

An information gap in Hispanic neighborhoods has fomented trepidation in reporting crime, often times because many of them are undocumented, Romero said.

"We have to get out in the community and bridge that gap," he said. "For anybody that lives in this country, we've got to protect them regardless of their legal status in this country."

Acceptance of cultural values, such as reporting crime, is an area that Orlando Villanueva has worked to remedy with the Latin American Association.

Many of these immigrants come from countries with different cultural standards, he said.

"When someone comes to Atlanta from a Latin American country, they often come from rural areas. There it might be OK for them to leave their children at home alone. Here it's not. Neighbors will call the Department of Family and Children Services," Villanueva has said. "I want them to integrate into society. I want them to have a say."

A report released by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) found a similar pattern of reluctance in southern Hispanics.

The study claims that Hispanics are under-utilizing public health services due to barriers such as lack of information about available services, lack of insurance, and insufficient numbers of bilingual, bicultural personnel.

The report called "The Health of Latino Communities in the South: Challenges and Opportunities" compiled perspectives of health care professionals and members of the community, which indicate a large public health risk.

"The fact that many Hispanics are intimidated enough by the health system that they are not seeking care should trouble anyone who is concerned about public health," said Janet Murguia, the NCLR executive director.

The Southern Regional Medical Center in Clayton County has made attempts to remedy this problem, said Tracye Bryant, the hospital's spokesperson.

Southern Regional has hired 20 Spanish translators to serve its Hispanic patients, who compose almost 8 percent of the health center's clientele.

The Henry Medical Center has made similar attempts to reach out to the Hispanic population through translators and bilingual service, said Jennifer Dougherty, the hospital's director of public relations and marketing.

It handled 2,606 Hispanic patients last year.

While the face of Clayton and Henry County has transformed in the last five years, the wave of Hispanic growth may be cresting if recent U.S. Census estimates are an indicator of future growth.

The American Community Survey shows a decline in Clayton County's Hispanic population.

In the 2000 Census, there were 17,728 in Clayton County. But 2003 estimates put the population at around 16,496.

People like Reyes, who said he will return to Mexico, represent a transient part of the population that may account for the decrease.

But some Latinos, like Vega, say they are here to stay.

Vega's grandchildren are enrolled in school and are learning English at a rapid pace, he said.

"This a very well mixed, beautiful community," he said.