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Phillip Tutor: Living alongside our Hispanic neighbors

Calhoun County Hispanic group holds multicultural picnic; 23 different countries represented at association's annual event

A young child waves a flag at one of the Calhoun County Hispanic American Association's annual multicultural picnic in Jacksonville. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

If you want a fair-minded view of the fastest-growing population in Alabama, don’t look to Russellville or Albertville or Fort Payne.

Look at Oxford.

Between 2000 and 2010, Alabama’s Hispanic population grew by 145 percent. Today, nearly 200,000 Hispanics live in our state, with much of that growth centered around agricultural industries and poultry-processing plants in central Alabama. Hispanics count for 40.8 percent of Russellville’s population. Albertville and Fort Payne’s numbers aren’t that grand, but all three are extreme examples for a Deep South state far from America’s southwestern border. 

Oxford isn’t extreme.

Instead, Calhoun County’s southernmost city modestly illustrates the growth of Alabama’s Hispanic community. It’s seen in the city’s Census data, the student population of its schools as measured by the state Department of Education, a few of its neighborhoods and the businesses either operated by Hispanics or catering to Hispanic customers.

But, the nuance. Left out of those statistics is that the growth of Alabama’s — and Oxford’s — Hispanic community is happening less than a decade after the passage of HB56, the Alabama Legislature’s xenophobic anti-immigration bill systematically skewered in the courts, and the Trump administration’s current crusade to radically limit most Hispanic immigration, legal or not.

That nuance stings, still.

“Of course, we feel the implications of that” in Alabama, says Carlos Aleman, deputy director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama in Birmingham. “There seems to be an active and direct misinformation campaign about what immigrants bring to Alabama counties.”

In Oxford, the percentage of the Hispanic population (8.8) in 2018 was more than twice as high as the state’s (4.4) and the county’s (3.9) and far more than Anniston’s (2.0) and Jacksonville’s (1.5). 

Oxford City Schools offer more detail. In the 1995-96 academic year, only 0.4 percent of the system’s student population was Hispanic, mirroring the statewide trend. That figure didn’t reach 1.0 percent until 1998-99. Last year it reached 13.63 percent, far ahead of all Alabama schools (8.4) and Anniston City Schools (4.58). 

Oxford High last year was the only school in the city’s system with a Hispanic student population below double digits. Three of its elementaries — Oxford Elementary (17.75), Coldwater (17.25) and C.E. Hanna (16.22) — had the system’s highest percentage of Hispanic students. 

Schools aren’t the only examples. First Baptist Church of Oxford hosted a Spanish-language service for more than seven years, Pastor Stan Albright says. Ballooning attendance at the Rev. Juan Villanueva’s services forced his church, Iglesia Biblica Berea, to leave First Baptist and move into its own building in Munford. 

In Anniston, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) employs an associate minister of Hispanic Ministries, Maria Zamarripa, and incorporates Spanish into its services, and Spanish-language Mass services are heavily attended at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church not far from Oxford’s city limit. Those two are hardly the only Anniston churches that welcome the burgeoning Hispanic community in Calhoun County’s southern half.

Sacred Heart’s Father John McDonald, the former vicar of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, leads his church’s Spanish-language services. No translator is needed. “I’ve spoken Spanish my whole life,” he says. A majority of his congregation’s Hispanic members hail from Mexico, with others from Guatemala, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, and live mostly in Oxford or Anniston. 

And that nuance about Washington’s divisive immigration policies? It’s real, even here in Calhoun County.

“My job as a priest is to provide every level of spiritual solace to my whole congregation,” McDonald says. “I can’t deny that the circumstances of the daily life in our country come to bear with what people bring to my church. Whatever affects the society in general affects the lives of my congregation.”

Aleman, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama’s deputy director, is blunter. “There is a direct correlation to the policies established here in Alabama and now seen in the federal policies in Washington. In our eyes, what you are seeing on a national stage is an ‘Alabamification’ of the national immigration policy.”

That’s the big-tent view, an excoriation of the Trumpian attitude steeped in nativism’s slippery slope. But under the small tent of Calhoun County, and especially Oxford, the growing numbers of our Hispanic neighbors is an example of this truth: Alabama politics may never change, but our demographics do. And in this case, for the better.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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