June 21, 2012

The Changing Face of an Oklahoma Town

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HENNESSEY—A scattered collection of photographs covers the living room table in the home of Francisco and Connie Marquez. The images document the Mexican-American family’s journey from a humble wedding in 1983 to the birth of three children to high school and college graduations.

The photos illustrate the classic cycle of immigration in America. They also reflect the distinct history of the Kingfisher County community the Marquezes now call home, far from their birthplaces in Cuauhtemoc and Independencia in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Built atop the wagon ruts of the Chisholm Trail, Hennessey is like many communities across Oklahoma. The town grew from the sweat and blood of newcomers determined to create a better life for their families on a distant, foreign prairie.

Today, oilfield work, a hog ranch and traditional farm jobs are the bedrock of the local economy. Socially, it’s the love of God, country and football, maybe not exactly in that order.

Yet a profound change has occurred in Hennessey, a town steeped in the history of Anglo-Celtic and Czechoslovakian pioneers. Over the past few decades, increasing numbers of Mexican families like the Marquezes have quietly sunk roots in the community. According to the 2010 Census, Hennessey’s 599 Hispanic people now account for 28 percent of the town’s 2,131 residents.

That’s enough to rank Hennessey No. 9 on a list of Oklahoma cities and towns that have become hot spots of Hispanic population growth, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis. And it places Hennessey squarely in the middle of a national debate over the big influx of Hispanic immigrants in recent decades.

In May, new birth rate data released by the U.S. Census Bureau touched a raw political nerve: Now, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of the children born in the United States.

The numbers suggest a monumental demographic change in this country, where non-Hispanic whites could become the minority as early as 2040. It’s a future that opponents of illegal immigration have been fighting aggressively in states such as Oklahoma and Arizona.

President Obama fanned the political flames even more in June by announcing a policy he said would allow an estimated 800,000 young undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and obtain temporary work permits.

Hennessey residents say tensions over immigration exist in their community. But the anxiety seems less intense and the conflicts less contentious than in some cities and towns. In fact, Hennessey may be a model of successful assimilation, a place where immigrants have settled in, worked hard, raised families, contributed the economy and encouraged their kids to do well in school.

At 28 percent, Hennessey’s growing Hispanic population is well above the norm in a state where Hispanics account for only 9 percent of the total population. (The national count is 16 percent). And many people in Hennessey say they are convinced the official population estimate is conservative. Census officials say their headcount includes undocumented immigrants as well as legal residents and citizens, but experts contend some people are inevitably missed.

“I believe that number is closer to 50 percent,” said Nadia Monreal, who grew up in Hennessey and now works at its town hall. “I know a day doesn’t go by where my Spanish doesn’t come in handy with a customer who needs help.”

Hennessey Public School District data show where the numbers are headed. Hispanic students accounted for 34 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 this past school year. In pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, the figure was 42 percent.

Perhaps no one has noticed the change more than Bill and Barb Walter, publishers of Hennessey’s award-winning weekly newspaper, The Clipper. Bill Walter grew up in Hennessey, back when everyone in the countryside flocked to town on Saturdays to shop and socialize. He left town in 1953 and returned in 1978 to run The Clipper.

“When I was in grade school, it wasn’t uncommon to hear folks talking Czech down on Main Street,” Walter noted with a smile. “When I returned, I heard people talking Spanish.”

The First Arrivals

Change didn’t happen overnight, but rather like a trickle of water.Gloria and Julian Anaya, Sr. were among a handful of Mexican couples to first settle in Hennessey. They did so, illegally, in 1979, crossing the border with little more than a hope and a prayer.

“We drove across the border with three small children 5 and under in the backseat,” Gloria Anaya recalled. “I remember saying a prayer as we approached the border guard. When it was our turn, he really didn’t ask any questions. He just asked where we were going. We said, ‘Oklahoma City.’ He said, ‘Is the car running good?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Good luck’ and waved us through.

“It was a miracle.”

Eventually, they were drawn to Hennessey by the allure of work on local farms and oilfields, as well as the security and tranquility of small town life.

This is a family legacy shared by many folks living in Hennessey.

The last time Francisco Marquez crossed the border illegally he put his fate into the hands of a smuggler – or “coyote” – who secreted him into the United States in June, 1984, aboard a sealed railroad car with 20 other men. The eight-hour journey to Albuquerque mercifully ended when the smuggler opened the railroad car door as promised.

“Thank God,” recalled Marquez, known to friends and family as Frankie. “A lot of times those cars are disconnected from the rest of the train and abandoned, and nobody knows there are people inside. We were fortunate.”

Marquez’s incentive was clear. He returned to his wife, Connie, and their firstborn son, Randy. The young couple had married the previous year in Hennessey’s first Mexican wedding on Feb. 27, 1983. The ceremony is now a fond memory, as well as a symbol of the family’s struggle to persevere.

“We didn’t have any money back then,” Marquez recalled. “I had to borrow a suit for the wedding.”

Today, Marquez is a foreman for Oklahoma City-based San Jacinto Gathering Corp. and oversees 40 well sites – a testament to former President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration reform act, which provided amnesty to some 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Frankie and Connie became legal residents in 1987, and in 1998, they became U.S. citizens.

The Marquezes now own their own home in Hennessey, a two-story, white frame house where they raised three children – Randy, 28; Eric, 25; and Elizabeth, 21, who goes by Betsy.

Randy attended college at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva but returned to Hennessey to work in the oilfields. Eric, who earned valedictorian status at Hennessey High School in 2005, graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in biomedical sciences and works as a service technician at Chemical Technologies Inc. Betsy presently attends the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond and is interested in a career in community health.

“As a family, we were all so proud of Eric,” Betsy Marquez said. “During his commencement speech, he paused to tell everyone in the crowd he wanted to say a few words for his family in Spanish. He was the first valedictorian to deliver part of his speech in Spanish, and that was a very special moment for all of us.”

Growing Pains

Acceptance is still a work in progress in Hennessey.

Frankie Marquez remembers a time when he was routinely harassed by a local police officer. In time, the harassment ceased when non-Hispanic residents began vouching for his character.

Hispanic residents say they generally feel safe today in Hennessey. But they can’t make the same claim with regard to Enid, some 21 miles to the north in neighboring Garfield County. Hennessey Hispanics, especially those who are undocumented, speak with fear about Enid. Stories of police stops and deportation are common.

“The racism is still out there,” Eric Marquez said. “But we’ve come a long way. I think the difference between Hennessey and a bigger place like Oklahoma City is that people have a chance to know you as a person with a name, not just as some Mexican.”

The seeds of assimilation were planted more than 30 years ago.

Gloria Anaya fondly remembers the kindness of her non-Hispanic neighbors, Wesley and Mary Wilson. In those early years, when the Anayas didn’t know anyone in town, Mary Wilson often stopped to visit.

“I didn’t speak English then, but it didn’t matter,” said Anaya, who became a legal resident in Reagan’s amnesty program. “She would come into my home, sit down and visit anyway. I didn’t know what she was saying, and I’m sure she didn’t understand me. Then one day I became very sick. Mary brought me a big pot of soup.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is real love.’ ”

The Anayas remained in Hennessey, and worked hard to put all three of their boys through college. The eldest, George, works at the University of Central Oklahoma. Twins Samuel and Julian Jr. are employed as an Oklahoma City school teacher and police officer, respectively.

Success stories are sprinkled among Hennessey’s Mexican-American community. A sampling of Hennessey’s 2012 roll call of graduates speaks volumes about what is taking place: Buckner. Cervantes. Buford. Garcia. Hardy. Gonzalez. Holder. Benitez … Twenty-four Hispanic surnames account nearly for half of the total graduating class of 55.

Not long ago, many Mexican families could be found living in a cluttered collection of battered old trailer homes on the west side of town. Locals referred to the low-income neighborhood as “Little Mexico.”

“I lived there,” Monreal said proudly. “We were here for the American Dream. We were willing to go through whatever we had to, to obtain that dream. We put our pride aside.”

Today, many of those same families have climbed the social ladder and become owners of their own homes and businesses. They are folks like Sergio Ortega, who employs a small workforce through his oilfield service company, R&S Well Service Inc.

They are second-generation Mexican-Americans like Abel Moreno, a 1987 Hennessey High School graduate who owns his own oilfield company, Quick Pump Service. Moreno, 43, made local history in 2004 when he was elected to the five-member town board.

A sign of progress: It wasn’t until after the election that Moreno reflected on the fact that he was Hennessey’s first elected Mexican-American official.

“In Hennessey, we’re not about the politics,” Moreno said. “We’re about lives.”

Hennessey is also about the football.

In 2010, Hennessey’s football team won its first 2A State Championship under Head Coach Shannon Watford. Afterward, at the annual sports banquet, Watford called all of his players together on stage and said their opponents had no idea “what a bunch of farm boys and their Hispanic brothers” could accomplish.

The same held true in 2011 when the Hennessey Eagles – once dubbed the “Hennessey Illegals” on Facebook – won their second straight 2A State Championship with a 21-7 victory over Jones.

Football, some are convinced, has been the great bridge to true assimilation.

“I think it has definitely changed the way some non-Hispanics look at us,” said one recent Hennessey valedictorian who wished to remain anonymous because of her illegal status. “Winning back-to-back state football championships has a way of bringing a community together.”

A New Era, An Old Story

Arguably, librarian Mary Haney knows as much about Hennessey’s history as anyone living.

From the 1874 massacre of freighter Pat Hennessey to the land runs of 1889 and 1893 to the town’s all-female “petticoat” government in the mid-1920s, Haney knows her stuff. And if there is something she doesn’t know, she’ll doggedly seek out those who do.

“Hennessey was founded on immigrants,” Haney declared. “In the beginning came the Czechs …”

Haney’s narration leads to Richard Simunek, a fifth-generation Czech-American who grew up on a Hennessey farm. Simunek served as a liaison with the somewhat insular Czech community. He helped gather and preserve some of its earliest history in Hennessey, including the Czechs’ own struggle to assimilate.

“There were several reasons why they survived,” said Simunek, now 66 and living in Miami Beach, Florida. “For starters, they never sold their farms. The farms were always handed down to an eldest son or a Czech son-in-law. They also financed their own loans within the Czech community. They essentially had their own banking system. And if a farm ever came up for auction, you would never see a Czech family bid against another Czech family. That simply didn’t happen.

“They were very clannish in that way.”

Assimilation came slowly, mainly because the Czechs spoke a different language and kept to themselves.

For Simunek, the similarities between the Czechs and the Hispanics sound all too familiar.

“I laugh when I think about the Mexicans, and the things people say about them,” Simunek said. “They complain they dance too much, drink too much and so on. I laugh and I laugh. That’s what they used to say about the Czechs.

“History is simply repeating itself in Hennessey.”

Racial tensions still exist in some quarters, but those sentiments appear to be overpowered these days by the common ground of work, security, education and family.

“Obviously, the number of Hispanics in town has grown,” said Joe McCulley, Hennessey’s school superintendent. “I’ve seen a noticeable growth in my six years here, but no one talks about it. Now it’s just part of life … Even just three years ago it was a real fight to get the Hispanic kids and their parents involved. Now they are involved in everything we do.

“In our school, we all bleed one color – Hennessey blue.”

A significant number of Hennessey’s Mexican-American families find strength in the Cristo Rey Spanish Baptist Church, where Rev. Ramon Aleman has proudly watched his flock flourish in recent years. Aleman, who fled Cuba two weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, preaches love, peace and education.

“Knowledge is the key to everything,” Aleman said. “That’s why I stress education, education, education.”

Love and peace appear to be two cornerstones of Hennessey’s growing Mexican population. Such is evident to Aleman, who calls his church members “a kind and loving people.”

“There is a lot of love in our community,” Gloria Anaya said. “If someone were to come here to Hennessey today and get to know us, they would find out we were all the same. We are just like them. That’s the truth.”

Haney, the librarian, has watched Hennessey’s assimilation with a touch of awe.

“Racism exists,” Haney said. “Let’s be honest. But I haven’t noticed racial tension as much as I have noticed that the Hispanic people tended to group together. They are inherently suspicious of authority – something, I believe, they bring from their native Mexico. So the first generation tends to remain reclusive. The second generation is generally much better about interacting, and by the third generation they are completely involved in all aspects of the community.

“Our annual festivals are a great example. The Czechs play their polka music and the Mexicans play their mariachi, and when they play together, it’s a funny thing; it doesn’t sound any different.”

See how Oklahoma communities have transformed over a decade based on the 2000 and 2010 censuses.