El Centro: Hispanic community ‘invisible’ in downtown Athens

The chant echoed through North campus. “Undocumented, Unafraid!”

Dozens of undocumented students gathered at the Arch on a hot August day. They were there to protest the Georgia Board of Regents ban on undocumented students from some of Georgia’s flagship universities.

The rally was a downtown sighting some call an act of courage.

The Hispanic community is mostly invisible downtown, Center for Latino Achievement and Success Director Pedro Portes said, for two reasons. Hispanics, he said, use their time to work or they are afraid.

And this is why he said standing up in front of the UGA Arch and Broad Street was a brave move on the part of young Hispanics.

“It is not only an act of courage,” he said. “But it is also an act of intelligence to say to those who are less knowledgeable, ‘Here you are wasting human potential. I have been raised in this country.’”

Instead of shopping in the downtown boutiques or eating in the downtown restaurants, Humberto Mendoza, a Hispanic Athens resident since 1999, said Hispanics are “hidden.”

“Usually, people work,” he said in an interview in Spanish. “You go to a restaurant and see the white waiter and the white owners, but the dish washers are Latinos. Some of them perhaps immigrants.”

He said people worked in the back of hotels and restaurants, so they would not be seen.

Mendoza listed friends who worked those hidden jobs. He himself works as a mechanic.

It seems the focus on finding a job or keeping a job is what concerns the 10 percent of Athens Hispanic residents in downtown.

And if they are not working behind the scenes, they are three miles up the road at the Home Depot on Atlanta Highway waiting for one.

Portes said this was a gathering spot for those Hispanics looking for a job.

“Go there any morning, and you’ll find a bunch of them waiting for construction companies and others to hire them for day rates,” he said.

Still, another reason the community doesn’t gather in the downtown area is fear.

“The other thing is that I think there is fear [from] the most humble and less bilingual or Spanish speaking undocumented to show up downtown,” he said.

He said these undocumented immigrants in Athens are afraid given the situations in states like Arizona.

Arizona has what some call the strictest law on immigration, which requires immigrants to carry their documents on-hand. Not doing so would result in deportation.

In Georgia, Gwinnett country’s 287(g) program also deports immigrants after simple crimes like driving without a license.

Since 2008, a similar statewide law passed allowing for fingerprinting violators, fines of up to $1,000 and jail time for the first offense.

“I’ll tell you, ‘safe community’ programs like 287(g) increase racial profiling,” Mendoza said. “If you are short and a little bit brown, they are going to pull you over.”

And being pulled over means more to this community than it does to every day drivers.

“Driving without a license is a big crime,” Mendoza said. “The risk is bigger. It is not seeing your family again or even being jailed for years.”

Still, it’s not all work and fear for Hispanics.

Unlike most of the college-student community in Athens, Hispanics found their entertainment outside the downtown walls.

“People used to go to what is now the extinct ‘Suburban.’ It was a club on Danielsville Road,” he said. “People used to go there on the weekends. If you were there around midnight or 1 a.m. you would find a stand of tacos right outside.”

He listed several other places like the local clubs ‘El Carretonero’ right off GA Loop 10 and ‘El Paisano’ off North Avenue.

But being part of downtown may be the real sign that the Hispanic community is progressing.

Portes said once Hispanics begin attending the University of Georgia, they would be more visible in downtown.

Hispanics would begin having interests that are displayed downtown and they would begin shopping and eating there.

But in order to reach this goal Hispanic students must find their way into the University.

“Often times Latinos will go to community colleges and stop out or drop out,” he said. “The aspirations are usually blocked for economic reasons and also because the demands of succeeding in college and actually obtaining a degree require a lot of family support, not only in terms of parents being middle class but also supporting students with tutors and giving them environments where they feel safe and where they belong.”

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