Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexicans over the French Army in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
A worker at Mi Pueblito Mexican Grocery in Grovetown stocks produce at the store. From 1990 to 2000, Georgia experienced an increase of nearly 200 percent in its Hispanic population.
Photo by Donnie Fetter
In Columbia County during the past decade, Cinco de Mayo could also celebrate a victory for Mexicans and Hispanics of a different sort - the battle for acceptance.
From 1990 to 2000, Georgia experienced an increase of nearly 200 percent in its Hispanic population, making it the fourth-fastest growing Hispanic population in the country, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The state's growth reflects a nationwide increase. Hispanics are now the country's largest minority population with a total of 38.8 million, the Census Bureau reported last year. Blacks are the second-largest minority in the U.S. with 38.3 million reflected in the census.
Data from 2000 puts Columbia County's Hispanic population at 2,313, up from 962 in 1990.
But some officials say there is no way to properly determine the true number of Hispanics living in the area.
"The last census is only counting legal immigrants," a Spanish teacher and vice-president of the local Hispanic-American Cultural Association, or ACHA, Charles Edwards said. "The largest portion is not legal. I'd estimate that whatever the census said it's at least triple that figure."
Edwards and his group are working to bridge the gap between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking cultures.
ACHA opened its doors to people of all cultures, not just Hispanic, a year-and-a-half ago and saw its membership swell from 38 to about 200, Edwards said.
He and his wife, Maria, also teach Spanish and English as non-curriculum courses at Augusta State University. In the past year, they have four Spanish classes to English-speaking people and two English classes to Spanish-speaking people. Each class averaged about 20 students, he said.
"I think a lot of business people - doctors, nurses, business owners, landscapers - are taking this class, because they're more aware of the untapped potential that exists to cater to Hispanics locally," Edwards said.
One Mexican-American jumped at the chance to cater to the county's Hispanic population when he opened Mi Pueblito Mexican Grocery in Grovetown.
"I saw that Grovetown had a growing Hispanic population, and I saw a need that needed to be filled," Mi Pueblito owner Pedro Brito said. "I own Mexican grocery stores in Grovetown and North Augusta, and both are doing well."
Brito came to the U.S. 26 years ago. In 1985, after working odd jobs in grocery stores, he attained legal status and set out achieving the American dream.
"I grew up around Mexico City, where we were constantly moving to wherever my father found work," he said. "I knew that wasn't the life I wanted. I knew coming to the United States would be difficult but worth it."
In recent year, Edwards said he has noticed that county government agencies and businesses are making the transition less difficult for Hispanic immigrants.
"I think the county is trying," he said. "It's extremely difficult though, because there are a huge number of people coming here, and they really are disoriented. They don't speak the language. They have no idea where to get information."
Strides are being made though, he said. Edwards points to the formation of Il Augustino - a Spanish-language newspaper distributed in Columbia and Richmond counties, health clinics being offered to Hispanics without health care and the addition of a Spanish-speaking operator in the Columbia County Sheriff's Office 911 center as examples of how the community is addressing its growing Hispanic population.
The sheriff's office also employs Spanish-speaking investigators and jailers to bridge the language barrier.
Of the 195 inmates in the Columbia County Detention Center, only one or two cannot speak English, said sheriff's office Detention and Court Services Capt. Brett Carani.
"Still, one's a lot when they have special needs and can't speak English," he said. "We now have Spanish-speaking (jailers) on all the shifts. We do try to accommodate them, even if that means bringing a Spanish-speaking person to them."
Edwards said it is important for the county government and residents to embrace the fact that Hispanics are here and to accept them as potentially productive members of society.
"I think it is as important for us to reach out as it is for them to reach out" he added. "We're trying to work both sides, so that everyone is reaching out to each other. This is a new world. The demographics are different."
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