Help for Puerto Rico, here and there

OBSERVER Photo Max Martin of the Hispanic Community Council, left, and Jeanette Delgado round up collected supplies for Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

Max Martin looked at the collection of water and relief supplies bound for Puerto Rico from Dunkirk with pride. The president of the Hispanic Community Council of Chautauqua County understands the urgent need from the devastation and turmoil affecting the United States territory following Hurricane Maria last month.

Earlier this week, Martin was assisting with the efforts here in Dunkirk that have been headed up by Mayor Wilfred Rosas and other city officials to get supplies to Puerto Rico from the Lake Shore Drive and Washington Street location. As the island struggles to one day have normalcy again, Martin believes there are hundreds of thousands there who won’t wait out the uncomfortable conditions — and target the U.S. mainland as a new home.

It makes plenty of sense. Many in Puerto Rico have family ties across this country, in Florida as well as right here in Dunkirk and Chautauqua County.

U.S. Census figures have shown a decline in the county population over the last 10 years from 134,500 to 129,600. But the Hispanic population continues to grow. Dunkirk, which saw its Census number fall to just below 12,000 in the most recent figures, has 3,400 Hispanic members in this community. Jamestown, with a population of 28,500, has just under 3,000 Hispanics living there.

When you add schools to the equation, especially in Dunkirk, the numbers provide even greater evidence. Of the total 1,900 students enrolled in the city district, 1,022 — or 53 percent of the student body are Hispanic.

‘Like it’ here

Martin, a native of the Dominican Republic, understands the dynamics of the region. His wife is an administrator in the Jamestown City Schools and when not overseeing the council, he is a teacher at Jamestown Business College. It is his overall engagement and involvement — as well as his work with the Hispanics who are here — that gives a strong voice to his hopes for a more diverse and unified community.

“It is the fastest growing population in Western New York,” Martin said of the Latino population on Tuesday. “We have been in Chautauqua County for the past 60 years. When the economy in Puerto Rico goes bad, where do they go? They go to family. They come here and visit and they like it. We have great schools. A great hospital … and they take care of the kids and family.”

By all accounts, the economy since Hurricane Maria will not be revived any time soon. Families remain united in Puerto Rico to get through the aftermath, but much work remains. Without shelter and electricity, it can be a daily hardship.

Martin expects an influx of citizens from the island to come to this city. “I’ve been talking to a lot of families here,” he said. “At least for the next six months … they’re going to bring their family here. And if they have kids … they’re going to be in school.”

Fractures from past

Though we will not readily admit it, our region can be just as divisive as the current state of national politics. We concede to an imaginary dividing line between our two cities — the north county and south county. We also forget about our past culture clashes that occurred during the early 20th century. Wards in this city were built around a heritage, whether it be Polish, Italian, German or Hispanic.

That’s a comfort zone for many longtime residents.

But to those who arrive as newcomers to Dunkirk, it can be alienating. “The biggest piece is sometimes we don’t feel welcome because of the culture shock,” Martin said. “If you don’t understand the Hispanic culture you get shocked. We’re not loud. That’s just how we talk.

“We’re excited. We’re engaging. We’re happy.”

Of course, the most noticeable difference occurs when attempting to carry on a conversation. English is the language of choice in America. In the territory of Puerto Rico, it’s a very distant language — possibly not even second — to Spanish.

Some here believe it’s almost law that those who live here speak in English. But it’s not realistic, Martin said, noting that those who move from Puerto Rico to Dunkirk for services need to be provided with a translator because they are American citizens.

“The biggest thing we’re missing … in all the organizations that help Hispanics … is they need to be bilingual,” he said.

That has happened in the schools because of the enrollment numbers — and it has happened in City Hall due to the election of Rosas. It is still lacking, however, at a number of other major service providers in the area who are regularly called on to assist the Hispanic community.

“That’s a difficulty that’s not welcoming,” Martin said of the language barrier. “When you do that … you don’t build relationships. … If you create negativity, then it’s going to be difficult to engage because we are protective of our own community.”

Economic driver

This community needs to be one. We all need to embrace each other — especially those who are choosing to live here. It helps build morale, and just as important, helps our economy.

“The impact (of the Hispanic community) is huge,” Martin said. “We like to spend money, which is bad. We don’t save money in general. We, as a community, are really engaged in spending, which drives the economy.”

With Martin on Tuesday afternoon was Dunkirk resident Jeanette Delgado. As she was transitioning relief items from the garage to the 18-wheel Goya truck she mentioned her hope and goal of a homeless shelter locally as well as better transportation between Dunkirk and Fredonia to assist those working to get an education and escape poverty.

“I travel around the world,” Martin said. “Jamestown and Dunkirk has the largest support for family that is in any city. You go to New York City it takes weeks, months. … The problem here is the follow-up support, the bilingual support.”

Jamestown is starting to plan for street signs that are in both Spanish and English. Dunkirk High has a “Bienvenido” banner that welcomes Hispanic students to the school. Each action is a small step, but one of tremendous significance.

“We need to meet in the middle,” Martin said. “Selecting a Hispanic mayor of Dunkirk, already the bridge is there. … It’s a process. You can’t change it overnight.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.