Growing Hispanic impact seen in Frederick County

Staff photo by Bill Green Roxana Lopez and her two-year-old daughter Fatema are assisted at the checkout counter by Delmy Montoya at the Hillcrest Latino Market Sunday afternoon. The market was busy with customers filling shopping carts with groceries and others stopping in for a snack.

As the county's fastest-growing demographic celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends today, some community leaders took stock of how it is shaping the area politically, culturally and economically.

Centro Hispano director Maria Shuck said the push for immigration reform has helped unite politically active Latinos with a larger contingent of like-minded people from different backgrounds.

"I see a renewed energy, I really do," she said.

Ray Garza, chairman of the Frederick Immigration Coalition, also said that he noticed increased political participation in the community.

Last week, the coalition led a group of about 40 people from Frederick to Washington to rally for immigration reform.

On the local political scene, the community won symbolic recognition when the Frederick mayor and aldermen presented their first Hispanic Heritage Month proclamation.

Some in the community have been galvanized by the sheriff office's partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which allows the county jail to hold people on the basis of immigration status.

The department detained more than 900 people between 2009 and Sept. 17, according to data.

Garza said that the policy isolated some members of the community, particularly those in the country illegally. Shuck said that even some Hispanics with proper immigration documents felt uncomfortable.

"There was a period of time when people were afraid to go about," she said, adding that the possibility of immigration reform has helped mitigate that fear.

The possibility of reform has encouraged some to learn English, Shuck said, and make sure their tax records are in order to prepare to meet the prerequisites for citizenship.

Support from the Frederick Police Department has also helped calm concerns, she said. Police have held several events with the Hispanic community to take questions, clarify that the department is not authorized to check immigration status and encourage Latinos to come to the police when they need help.

Politics aside, the county's Hispanics have had a growing economic impact in recent years.

The number of Latino-owned businesses grew at a much faster rate than firms as a whole between 2002 and 2007, the last year of the Census Bureau's survey of business owners.

There were 775 Hispanic-owned businesses in Frederick County in 2007 and 396 in 2002. That 96 percent increase far outpaced the 19 percent growth rate of businesses as a whole.

Some of those businesses, such as Latin restaurants and stores, can add to the cultural impact of Hispanics in the area.

Shuck said she has seen Latin markets spring up during the last few years, and it's not just Hispanics shopping for yucca or chorizo. People from all different backgrounds come to buy Latin products, she said.

She has also seen an increasing interest in learning Spanish at the Centro Hispano, a counterpoint to the Latinos learning English there.

That exchange of cultures is important to celebrate this month, Garza said.

"(Hispanics) are part of the tapestry that we have here in the county," he said, adding that immigrants of all backgrounds have something to offer their community.

Although he is chairman of the coalition, Garza does not come from a family of immigrants. He was born to a Latino family in southern Texas when it was still part of Mexico.

"We've always been here," he said.

He moved to Walkersville in 1973 when he started working for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He said there were hardly any Hispanics in the area then.

The Hispanic demographic nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, growing enough to make up more than 7 percent — about 17,000 — of the county's population, according to the census.

Follow Kelsi Loos on Twitter: @KelsiFNP.