Tuesday, June 08, 2004 | Dying to Work | Dying to Work

Illegal migrants: Where they go

Manassas cultures separate, peaceful

Jerry Kammer
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 26, 2001

MANASSAS, Va. — This historic city, separated from Washington, D.C., by 20 miles of Interstate 66 and rings of booming suburbs, has sprawled far beyond the graceful brick buildings of its 19th-century center.

Illegal Mexican immigrants, such as Alejandro and Francisco, have been part of the expansion, helping to build commercial strips and minimansions sprouting from the hills. They are members of the fast-growing Mexican community in a city whose place in American history was fixed by a bloody battle at the beginning of the Civil War.

Now, the battle's name is enlisted for commercial purposes by businesses such as Bull Run Building Supply.

Alejandro, 20, arrived three years ago, at the end of a journey directed by his fourth-grade teacher. The former educator had forsaken the classroom to build a door-to-door smuggling business that takes customers from Mexico City to the border at Douglas, Ariz., and on to destinations across the United States.

Alejandro lays concrete for $12 an hour. By lunchtime Monday, he earns more than his father makes in a week of the same work in the state of Michoacan. The huge disparity speaks clearly to why so many Mexicans risk their lives to enter this country.

"I send as much money as I can to my parents," he said.

Francisco, 25, arrived in March, hiking across the desert near Douglas with more than 100 others. They were guided by smugglers who used cellphones to talk with scouts monitoring the U.S. Border Patrol.

A former clerk in a Mexico City T-shirt shop, Francisco works as a bricklayer's assistant. His current job site is a row of $500,000 townhouses in McLean, home to many of Washington's elite.

Building contractors, roofers and landscapers have hired Mexican and other Hispanic workers at a pace that has stunned Betty Dooley, a lifelong resident and former chairwoman of the historical society in Manassas. A generation ago, nearly everybody here was either Black or White.

"It's absolutely incredible," Dooley said of the growth of the Hispanic workforce, which is largely Mexican but includes immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia and Peru. Dooley is puzzled by the seeming disappearance of native Virginians from jobs in construction, landscaping and roofing.

"It makes you wonder where everybody went," she said with a laugh. Musing on the difficulty of communicating with workmen who come to her house, she added, "Sometimes I think we're all going to have to go back to school and learn Spanish around here."

Manassas has sprouted two shopping centers so thoroughly Latin in their merchandise, storefront advertising, clientele and general ambiente that they would fit right into Mexico City or Phoenix barrios. Even at the Burger King on Virginia 234, a window poster boasts that a Whopper is not just "fresh, hot, juicy," but also "fresco, caliente, jugoso."

There is little non-commercial contact between the immigrants and longtime residents. At the same time, there is little tension or social friction.

"Occasionally, you hear somebody complaining about how many of them live in one house, but that's about it," said Hal Parrish, former Manassas mayor and a member of the state Legislature.

City and county leaders, eager to tell newcomers about local laws and customs, are helping pay for Panorama Latino, a weekly Spanish-language community affairs program on cable TV.

The program's producer, Stephanie Williams, grew up in Tucson and graduated from the University of Arizona. Now she runs a translation service, works as a court interpreter and conducts cultural awareness programs for the Police Department and other agencies.

Williams said that when the Hispanic population began to boom in the late 1980s, she tried to learn why.

"I would ask, 'Why Manassas?' And they would say their cousin was here, or a friend from their village, and they told them there was work," she said.

Census figures show that the county's Hispanic population has grown 183 percent since 1990, to 27,338. That's 10 percent of the county's residents.

Jack Graham, principal at Osbourn High School, said 11 percent of his 1,800 students are Hispanic, mainly from Mexico. Those numbers are growing rapidly. Three years ago, the school had one teacher who taught English as a second language. Now there are three. One of the pioneering Mexican immigrants here is Felix Vargas, owner of Mexico Lindo, a restaurant-bar that has become an unofficial Mexican community center. The name, which means Pretty Mexico, comes from a popular song that celebrates the country's beauty and has become a lament for migrants who feel forced out by its poverty.

After working 15 years at a Washington state meat-processing plant, Vargas came here in 1987 because he heard some fellow Mexicans talk about the good life they had found here.

"Back then I knew everybody, all the Mexicans," said Vargas, 42, who entered the United States illegally more than 25 years ago and became a citizen after marrying an American. "Not now. Now, so many are coming that sometimes I think there won't be anybody left in Mexico."


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