Habla Espanol?

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Habla Espanol?

During the last decade, Charlottesville went through a much-publicized makeover, as wealthier residents filtered into town to buy tony residences and partake in the array of upscale establishments that cropped up to serve their refined tastes. As the area swelled with wealth, another group of people tagged along in even larger proportions.

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What one woman had to go through to get to the U.S

Many of them could not even speak English—only their native Spanish—but they could pick the grapes that eventually become Virginia wine or clean out the stables of the horses that prance around the pastures of Albemarle County. Their hands have likely plucked the vegetables that end up on the side of the beef tenderloin at one of the many pricey restaurants Downtown or slapped mortar in between the bricks of the buildings we work and live in.

Commonly referred to as “Mexicans,” they are refugees from the various countries south of the American border, having fled their birthplaces to escape rampant crime, for instance, or most likely extreme poverty. Like the more visible émigrés to our area, they have come to enjoy the life Charlottesville has to offer, even if it is quite a different one than that shared by the crowds that walk the Downtown Mall every Friday and Saturday night.


“Our number one goal is getting services to people who need them who happen to be Spanish speakers,” says Peter Loach, deputy director of Operations for the Piedmont Housing Alliance.

To further complicate the precarious position of being a new resident in a new country, at least a third of the Latinos that came here had no documents endorsing their presence. They are the so-called illegal immigrants that commentators and politicians—including Congressman Virgil Goode—have held out for their ire. 

As a result, most of our Latinos—whether they have documents or not—live an almost underground existence, maintaining an out-of-sight, out-of-mind presence. Unless you sneak a peek into the kitchen of your favorite restaurant, or take a drive through an area trailer park, you might not even know they are here.

An Abundance of help

About the only people to take notice of them is a group of Charlottesvillians who have taken it upon themselves to welcome their new neighbors and try to ease their transition into American life. “Our number one goal is getting services to people who need them who happen to be Spanish speakers,” says Peter Loach, deputy director of Operations for the Piedmont Housing Alliance and the chairman of a group called Creciendo Juntos (“Growing Together”). That group was formed about three years ago to bring together different area nonprofits and government agencies to chew over some of the challenges in dealing with our growing Hispanic population. “Our second objective is to help the agencies already providing services, make sure they’re doing as good a job as they can, and help them do a better job.”

While it started with only 10 or 15 participants, CJ now counts around 70 groups as active members. One of their newest is Sam Ley. “I majored in Spanish in college, and I studied in Spain for a semester,” she says. “I’m not as good as a native speaker, but I get the point across.” 

Ley was straight out of college in Connecticut a little more than a year ago when she signed up with AmeriCorps for a year’s service and got placed in Charlottesville with Abundant Life Ministries, a group formed in 1995 to serve the economically disadvantaged Fifeville and Prospect Avenue areas. The two neighborhoods are historically African American, but as Abundant Life discovered, they are also home to an increasing Latino population. To properly minister in places like Blue Ridge Commons, Spanish was becoming requisite.

“So that’s how I’m here,” says Ley. “I applied, and they’ve been wanting somebody for a while who speaks Spanish who can connect with the families they already work with.” As Abundant Life figured it, Ley could be of service with simple things like setting up English instruction for their Spanish-speaking adults. Instead, “it’s turned into something bigger,” she says. As Ley found out, we have a community of Latino residents who have immediate language needs and no idea where to turn.


Legal Aid’s Tim Freilich thinks he smells rats: “Across Virginia, we’ve seen candidates seize on the issue of immigration to further their career,” he says.

“It would be great if I could set up English tutors for them, but it’s not a top priority if they have to go to court but don’t understand [the legal documents],” she says. “I tried to translate for them, but I told them, ‘I’m sorry, but I barely understand this in English, and I speak English.’ It’s confusing.”

Other requests have been easier, like attacking the stack of documents on the coffee table or kitchen counter. “The kids will bring home piles of papers, and the parents may not necessarily be able to read any of it,” Ley says. “Speaking with these families, you get the idea that they want to be more involved in their children’s education, but they don’t know how. Being that bridge is a lot of what I do.”

One afternoon I followed her over from Abundant Life’s home behind the corner of 10th and Cherry to a nearby public housing site to visit Marlena, one such Spanish-speaking parent and one of Ley’s regular beneficiaries. In her mid-30s, Marlena has lived in America for 10 years, seven of them in her current apartment. Despite a decade spent here, the Salvadoran speaks little to no English, and so the most recent form her 9-year-old son brought home is confounding. It turns out that it’s only a consent form for a field trip to pick strawberries—nothing to worry about.

“The language is the hardest part of moving here,” says Ley, translating for Marlena, who has just let loose with a long explanation that she has boiled down to nine words of English. As she continues to explain through Ley, though, the language barrier was only one of the challenges of making her way to Charlottesville. [See sidebar.]

The Green light

As is easy to imagine, the events of 9/11 and the paranoia it inspired have made it much harder for a foreign-born aspirant to become an American citizen. It’s not something Marlena—even as a former undocumented who these days has a Social Security number and a work permit—even considers. Even so, Martha Trujillo managed the impossible, getting what she likens to one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets after nine years in Charlottesville and eight years on the waiting list. Earlier this year, the native of Mexico received her Green Card. Almost a decade ago, she and her husband came here on travel visas and then graduated to work permits that allowed Martha, a former bank employee, to work at places like TJMaxx. Better than nothing, but not exactly the American Dream, so the Trujillos took a gamble after years of waiting for their residency. They decided to let their work permits expire, saving the $1,100 renewal fee as they waited to have their permanent status approved. They endured a distressing legal limbo as they held their collective breath. 

“Times were terrible,” she says in near-perfect English. As more than a year passed, Trujillo was reconsidering her decision and about to fork over money for a work permit again when she got a letter in the mail that began, “Welcome to the United States.” She was finally an American citizen. “I was jumping and screaming and crying,” she says laughing. “It just took forever.”

Getting her permanent residency had immediate and profound benefits. Without it, Trujillo had refrained from traveling back home—you never know what might go wrong—and so had not seen any of her family in almost a decade.

“My father-in-law and other members of my family have died, and there’s nothing you can do,” says Trujillo. With her Green Card, she could go home again. “My mom just had surgery last Friday, and I went to see her. It was just amazing to see my family after nine years, and just hug my mom, a person that I’ve loved all my life, and see her again, and the rest of my family members, and they all wanted to spend more time with me. You have no idea how happy I am.”   

The miracle of citizenship has also allowed her to find a job as the Information and Referral Specialist for the local branch of the United Way. As a result, she performs tasks like the regular presentations she gives local police enforcement so that they know what to do when they pull over a Spanish-speaking driver. One option is that they can call her.

Another role she plays is similar to Ley’s, simply being a Latino contact for members of the community with no clue where else to go to for help. “When you have a crisis you sometimes don’t know what to do,” she says. “So I try to guide them to the correct way, and teach them too so they can survive and live better, that’s the purpose of what I do.” At the end of the day, Trujillo has become just another local American citizen trying to help Spanish-speaking residents navigate through foreign waters.

The Party line

So far, most of the scant attention paid to area immigrants has been from what you might call good-doers, who want to help them in their precarious situation. But another group of people, from the opposite side of the political spectrum, are giving greater notice. Among them: Christian Schoenewald, chair of the Albemarle County Republican Party. “I have no problem if a whole bunch of Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Panamanians—whatever—want to come here if they’re willing to do it legally,” Schoenewald says. “Hey, welcome to the country, more power to you. But if your first act in wanting to come to our country is to break a law to do it, you’re probably willing to break others.”

We are sitting in the office of the Albemarle GOP in a small building next to the Outback Steakhouse, and I have come here to talk to Schoenewald about a recent forum he held where the chair of Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors was invited to speak. “We were interested in hearing about what [they] had done to deal with the illegal alien presence there,” Schoenewald says.

What Prince William did and continues to do an hour-and-a-half north of here is to adopt and enforce some of the strictest anti-illegal immigrant policies in the state, maybe the country. Over the last year or so, their Board of Supervisors has passed repeated legislation requiring the police and other agencies to vigorously check the legal status of their Latino population. The result—unintended or not—has been an overall exodus of their Hispanic residents, documented or not, who resented and feared the targeting and profiling of their race. “No Republican that I know is anti-immigrant,” Schoenewald says. “Now just about every Republican that I know is opposed to illegal aliens being in the United States, and there’s a sharp difference between illegal aliens and immigrants.”


“I was jumping and screaming and crying,” Martha Trujillo says laughing, about becoming an American citizen. “It just took forever.”

His invective echoes that of an admitted role model, our Fifth District Congressman Virgil Goode. For more than a decade, the native of Rocky Mount has made the issue of illegal immigration one of the cornerstones of his time in office, lately going on a tear about “anchor babies.” He’s run the gamut, from supporting measures like the proposed fence along the Mexican-American border and more stringent enforcement of immigration laws to repeatedly introducing English as the official language legislation. This year, he is cosponsoring two such bills, including H. J. Res 19 that proposes an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

“In countries where there is a lack of common unifying language, there is more discord and often efforts to split up the country,” Goode writes on his website, in typically overstated fashion. “I am fearful that we will have efforts in the country in a few years to split up part of the United States. There are some from Mexico who are already saying that the Mexican War was wrong and that the United States should be split in the Southwest.”

“I pretty much agree with Virgil across the line,” Schoenewald says. In 2004, Goode endorsed him for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors in an unsuccessful bid. “Saying you agree with someone 100 percent of the time is probably humanly impossible, but I think I agree with him as much as anybody can agree with anybody.”

Some, like Legal Aid’s Tim Freilich, would call this politically expedient. “Across Virginia, we’ve seen candidates seize on the issue of immigration to further their career,” he says.

“We’ll go into the old cliché here, ‘Well, I have many friends that are black,’” the local GOP chair says, gently laughing. “I have many friends that are immigrants to the United States, some of them are still in the process of trying to get their citizenship here in Charlottesville.”

In some way, Schoenewald feels he is representing the immigrant who has decided to play by all the rules, even if that means waiting a decade for a little piece of paper that says you’re an American citizen.

“If you really want to be here why won’t you do it legally?” he says, presumably rhetorically. “Why do you have to do it in such a way that you basically spit on our country the moment you step into it?”

To his thinking, Schoenewald is also protecting a way of life, the American way. “I actually think that they do a disservice to the economy,” he says, quick to clarify that he is talking about undocumented workers. “The fiction out there that illegals do work that Americans don’t want to do is crap. There are plenty of Americans that will do those jobs.”

I don’t know about that. Last year, I briefly worked in the back of a local restaurant for another story. As I discovered that night, all the kitchen help were from below the American border, mostly from Central America, and all were undocumented. Even the head chef had fake papers, I later learned.

“We find that those who are newly in this country from south of our border are not only eager for the jobs, but they work hard, are dependable, and are not insulted by the type of work it is,” says Rachel Willis, a former chef at L’Avventura and Continental Divide, among others. “And for the most part they are really fabulous employees.” According to Willis, “less and less young people want to work that hard,” and especially for the wages—$10-12 an hour—and the type of work, long hours for a grueling job. “We were finding it harder and harder to fill those positions.” It was either raise the prices or turn to the pool of Latino workers.


Longtime immigration antagonist, Congressman Virgil Goode lately has taken to decrying what he calls the "anchor baby" situation. He claims, perhaps misleadingly, that undocumented workers scheme to give birth to their children in the United States, so as to secure their own status.

“I think it’s clear in this area that the immigrant workforce, whether documented or undocumented, plays a major role in allowing us to enjoy the incredibly high quality of life we have in this area,” Freilich notes.

Restaurants are just one type of low-wage labor filled by Latinos. “As we travel around Virginia we see entire industries dependant on immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented,” the attorney adds. Around here, 70 percent of the agricultural workers are Hispanic, and so are many of the people who clean hotels. The area construction industry has also becoming increasingly reliant on Latinos.

Whether they are all legal is another matter. “We know that more than 50 percent of agricultural workers in Virginia are undocumented,” Freilich says. That figure is lower, around 30 percent, for most other business sectors that employ a Latino workforce in this area—a fact at least some of the employers are aware of. “There are plenty of people who work off the books and plenty of people who are legal,” says Willis. “Then there’s that gray area where people have false papers. It’s like don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act—which Freilich spends his workweek enforcing—applies to all workers, documented and undocumented. “We’ve won more than $2 million in settlements against hundreds, literally hundreds, of Virginia employers who have hired and cheated their workers out of pay,” he says. Locally, Freilich says a common type of case might involve a national home builder who hires a subcontractor who then hires another subcontractor who employs a group of Latinos and then doesn’t pay them. The layers of responsibility indemnify the larger company and make it difficult to hold anyone accountable. “Businesses certainly enjoy having a large easily exploitable workforce of immigrant workers that has allowed the current situation to exist.”

Both sides of the immigration debate, even Goode and his current challenger, Democrat Tom Perriello, seem to agree that the employer is the villain, or at least one of them. “I think what may be the best solution is to make it unattractive to hire illegal aliens,” says Schoenewald. “You’ve got two culpable parties in the whole process right now. You’ve got the person who has come here illegally and you have the company that’s hired someone illegally. So you’ve got two groups to blame in this case.”

“Deporting 10 or 15 million people is an impossible task,” he says, referring to the estimated number of illegal aliens in the nation. “You can’t practically do that. What you can do is go after these employers who are hiring illegal people and you can make it very difficult for them if they continue that hiring practice. That means that the jobs that the illegals are taking will dry up and a lot of those people will end up self-deporting. They’ll take themselves back home and out of the system. If there are no jobs for them here to take they have no reason to come here, maybe they’ll go south.”

The other side of this debate, the block of individuals and groups working to stem the tide of someone like Schoenewald, are horrified by his words. People like Freilich and Loach (not to mention countless others like Linda Hemby of Albemarle Social Services or Eddie Summers of the Charlottesville Immigration Law Center*) have spent the past few years, some even decades, trying to make Charlottesville hospitable for those from south of our border who have come here to share some of our wealth.

“I think that the immigrants who have chosen this state as a place to live and work have come seeking the same high quality of life and opportunity that has drawn people from other lands to this state for the last 400 years,” Freilich says.


Christian Schoenewald, chair of the Albemarle County Republican Party, says that undocumented workers are doing “a disservice to the economy.”

“We’re not at crisis mode here yet, but I think it’s something that’s still on the horizon for Albemarle-Charlottesville,” says his foe Schoenewald, before uttering the few words they both can agree on. “That makes it the perfect time to start talking about the issue, because if we can get in front of it and start to do something proactive rather than becoming reactive, we can stop it from becoming a serious issue and make it not become a problem.”



*CORRECTION (October 21, 2008): Due to a reporting error, he original story stated that Eddie Summers was affiliated with the Immigration Law Clinic. He is an immigration attorney in private practice with Charlottesville Immigration Law Center.

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