Diversity is the name of the game, and South Lee County has it in spades. With the Lee County Hispanic population reaching 63,000 and still growing, more and more emphasis is being put on the integration and success of the Hispanic culture in the community.
Leonardo Garcia, executive director of the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is confident that progress is being made toward Lee County being a much more pleasant, equitable and prosperous place for Hispanics to call home.
“Eight years ago, Lee County had a reputation as one of the most segregated areas in the country,” Garcia remembered. “Now there are still some pockets of resistance,” he added, “but overall I think we are getting better. We are getting there.”
A wide mix of cultures are included in the umbrella term “Hispanic,” including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Central Americans, South Americans and Dominicans. And that mix, according to United States Census figures, helps to make Florida the third-largest Hispanic market in the U.S. Brazilians and the Portuguese, though a part of the South Lee community, are not considered a part of the Hispanic community.
There is conflicting estimates regarding how much of the Hispanic population in South Lee County are legal immigrants and how many are in the United States Illegally.
“Most of them (immigrants) are legal,” said Garcia, “but there is a portion that are not legal, at least not yet. Many of them are in the process of getting their papers, but you have to wait so many years for your status to change.”
Looking at the matter from a more intimate viewpoint, Jorge Perez, a San Carlos Park Hispanic resident who immigrated to the United States when he was 7, estimates that the number of illegal immigrants is much higher in South Lee County than officials are aware of.
“It is a struggle to become legal,” said Perez, “so many just come here and try to get by without it.”
According to Garcia, legal or illegal, Hispanics face two major hurdles in settling into the community of South Lee County: language and culture. Not only must Hispanics learn a new language, they must acclimatize themselves to a new and vastly different culture.
Perez sees a strong connection between those two difficulties. It’s hard to learn the language when you come from a culture where you didn’t even have electricity or education, he explained. Added to that is the time requirement of simply surviving, of making enough money to support yourself and your family, and going to school becomes a luxury that constantly gets put off “till tomorrow, always tomorrow,” said Perez.
Carmen Cruz, another San Carlos Park Hispanic citizen, believes many immigrants fight so hard to get here, and are such productive workers, that expectations could be altered to take that into consideration. “
“They go through hell to get here,” she said. “They are raped, their companions murdered, they have their money stolen and are often left to die in the desert. Then they come here and work 40 hours a week, often much more than that, and to expect them to go to school on top of that is a burden.”
Despite that, both Cruz and Perez say the great majority of Hispanics want to learn English, and try to gain the education necessary. But as Perez points out, many of these immigrants are coming from places with no electricity and no education system, and they are already 40 years old.
“Sometimes they just can’t learn,” said Perez. “It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s that they can’t.”
Cruz, who works along with a high number of other Hispanics at the new Target Superstore in San Carlos Park, said it has to go both ways, that the compromises and effort has to happen on both sides before the cultures will be able to co-exist in this, or any other, community.
Garcia agrees that there is acceptance and understanding among the Hispanic community that, in order to be successful, you have to speak the language. All business at the Hispanic Chamber is conducted in English, he said, to help the clients become used to the language.
“To be successful, at least outside the Hispanic community,” he said, “there is no question, you have to learn the language.”
But he also admits that after 10 hours working on a roof in the hot sun or dealing with the public in a retail store day after day, it is not an easy thing to commit to.
“They have the willingness,” he explained, “but it takes time, and time is a precious commodity.”
Garcia and the Hispanic Chamber are advocating for a community effort to help overcome this hurdle. They support the Literacy Council of Bonita Springs, and encourage people to give time — to volunteer to teach the language so the Hispanic culture can exist side by side as a cohesive community with the non-Hispanics.
As Perez puts it, “We need to come together, work together, and have patience with each other in order to make a better society.”
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(Contact Staff Writer Jessica Waters at 213-6048 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)