Pascagoula reaches out to growing Hispanic community

By Sylvia Hall - bio | email

PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) - It's a busy Saturday at Harmodio Santamaria's Pascagoula Restaurant. The business sells soda with Spanish labels and plenty of home cooked food.

Sitting around the tables are Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico, Panama, Mexico and many other Spanish-speaking places.

Their backgrounds may be different, but in Pascagoula, they are one community. And they're bigger than ever before.

"I've seen here in Pascagoula, the Hispanic community grow more and more every day," said Santamaria.

Research from the Pew Hispanic Institute shows the Hispanic population in Jackson County nearly doubled between 2000 to 2007, and people in Pascagoula say it's still growing.

Detective David Sepulveta has Puerto Rican roots and grew up speaking Spanish and English.  He said although most first-generation Hispanics speak at least a little basic English, the transition isn't easy.

"When it comes to asking questions about 'Where do I pay my bills' or 'How do I do this' or just basic rules and regulations in English, they don't know the formal English words. It's hard for them," Sepulveta said. "Nobody wants to look dumb. And when you don't know who to go to and when you get there, even when you get to the right place and can't communicate with the person behind the desk, you kind of give up after a while."

Sepulveta said the language barrier is sometimes more than a nuisance.

"When you have the more serious crimes that occur and you don't feel comfortable calling the police because you don't think they'll understand you," he said. "Sometimes you eat crimes that no one should have to deal with. A robbery or something like that. They don't say anything. They deal with it. That's not good."

Anna Riaola of the Pascagoula Police Department first noticed the difficulty during the holidays, when she was passing out safety brochures.

"I had several Hispanic people come up and ask me, just several different questions about living in Pascagoula," Riaola said.

Riaola's experience inspired the City of Pascagoula to help this growing population get acclimated. City departments are hosting an open house for them Tuesday.

"We want to just reach out," Riaola said. "You know, have something available to where they can come on Tuesday night. It's just an opportunity for them to ask questions."

Sepulveta hopes the forum will be the first of many steps toward forging a bridge over the English/Spanish language barrier.

"When [Spanish speakers] have a problem, [they] don't know who to go to, so they've stayed away to some degree. And we're trying to break down those lines. We have some good folks. We have some educated folks that are living here, and we want them to be part of the community."

Santamaria is happy the city is extending a hand to help a community he believes is so vital to the city.

"The Spanish people here help Pascagoula go up," Santamaria explained. "More people come to Pascagoula, more business. [It] helps the city, helps the school."

The forum will be held Tuesday, January 12, at the Pascagoula Library from 5:30pm until 7:00pm.

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