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US Latinos are 'finding a voice'

The United States' 43 million Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the country. For Emilio San Pedro, travelling from coast to coast talking to fellow Latinos has also allowed him to reflect on his own identity.

Amilcar Arroyo
Latino Amilcar Arroyo is concerned about harassment

Right from the start it felt like a perfect fit for me, an assignment that would take me across America, reporting on the lives of Latinos from all walks of life. People from all over Latin America who have settled, legally or otherwise, in the United States.

I met Flor Crisostomo, an illegal immigrant with no official documents, who faces deportation from the US.

This woman in her late 20s has spent the last three months hiding from the immigration authorities in a small church in the heart of one of Chicago's main Latino neighbourhoods.

Flor's personal situation has turned her into an immigration rights activist of the highest order.

She has become the public face of the estimated 12 million undocumented or illegal immigrants living and working in the United States.

She tells me that if they want to take her, the authorities will have to drag her - a defenceless mother-of-three - out of the church.

Immigrant pride

The next day at my hotel in downtown Chicago, a Mexican waiter smiles when I mention to him that I met her.

They yell epithets at you as you're walking down the street - things like 'take your boat and go back to your banana country!'
Amilcar Arroyo, US Latino

He tells me how proud she makes him feel to be Mexican, to be a Latino, and how unfairly immigrants like him are being treated by the US authorities.

After all, he says, repeating the phrase that has become the mantra of the pro-immigrant lobby, the immigrants like him are doing the jobs that American citizens simply do not want to do.

True or not, the fact is that it is nearly impossible to dine in a restaurant in Chicago - including the Thai restaurant near our hotel - and find a server, cashier or possibly even a chef, who is not Latino.

Map of Hazelton in Pennsylvania

But there are many Americans, like those I met in the small mountain town of Hazleton in Pennsylvania - including some second and third-generation Latinos - who reject the idea that the illegal immigrants are doing the jobs no-one else wants.

Instead, they say that employers are behaving like bandits, taking advantage of the undocumented workers and paying them a pittance, demeaning the immigrants and regular Americans alike, who are, they say, willing to do the jobs, but not for rock-bottom wages.

Rising harassment

We travelled to the sleepy former mining town of Hazleton because it too has been thrust into the heart of the immigration debate.

Flor Crisostomo
Flor Crisostomo is an illegal immigrant and faces deportation

In 2006, tired of what he saw as the lack of action on the part of the federal authorities in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration, the town's mayor, Lou Barletta, decided to take matters into his own, and the town's, hands.

He proposed - and the town council approved - a bye-law giving the local authorities extraordinary powers to crack down on illegal immigrants and those offering them employment and housing.

It was later suspended by a federal court, which deemed the measure unconstitutional.

However, a Latino of Peruvian descent, Amilcar Arroyo, whom I met during my brief visit to the town, is concerned.

He has lived in Hazleton for over two decades and is today an American citizen and the publisher of a small Spanish-language newspaper which serves the thousands of Hispanics who live in the area.

He tells me that despite having been overturned by a federal court, the former law has left an indelible stain and made life worse for the town's Latinos - even for the legal residents and citizens like himself - who are the subject of harassment and taunting by some locals.

"They yell epithets at you as you're walking down the street - things like 'Take your boat and go back to your banana country!'"

He says many Latinos fear that things could get even worse.

Hope for the future

I discuss that concern at the end of my trip in Washington with Janet Murguia, President of the most powerful Latino pressure and advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza.

The once disjointed and far from united Latino community is finding its voice and defining its identity as a cohesive group

It is this anxiety over immigration - and what she says is the vilifying of Latinos in some quarters - that has been galvanising Hispanics in the US to vote in bigger numbers than ever, and to register to vote, in some cases for the very first time.

She points out that Latinos have been voting in huge numbers in the Democratic primaries and may play an even greater role, perhaps, in the upcoming presidential election.

The fact that the once-disjointed and far from united Latino community is finding its voice and defining its identity as a cohesive group, and has come such a long way over a relatively small period of time, fills me with hope for the future, despite the row over immigration and the feeling among many that they are still not accepted or that they do not fit in.

What sort of future could this be? Not perhaps one in which the US is overrun by Latinos, or in which Spanish becomes the main language, as some anti-immigrant activists have been predicting in their Doomsday scenario.

I can see a future in which the Flors, Amilcars, and yes, even the Emilios, can help define and enrich the American mosaic of tomorrow.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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