More than a community – a family
|Story and Photos by Idaliz Marie Ortiz Morales|
For many, the city of Manassas is not just a municipality on the map of the Prince William County in Northern Virginia. The citizens of “Old Town,” as it is described, have grown as a community after years of tension surrounding immigration issues in the area.
The city’s Latino residents, in particular, have influenced the community in many ways.
“They’ve been greatly accepted. People come just for their produce,” Farmer’s Market Master Ron Taylor says about the high demand for Latin American products brought by the Hispanics.
Taylor says longtime residents of Manassas have been more welcoming of Hispanic community in recent years. According to Taylor, it was a struggle, but now the city celebrates its diversity and has become more inclusive.
Dozens of Latino-oriented commercial businesses can be found in Manassas, the most famous being the Global Food Supermarket where customers can easily find their favorite Hispanic produce at a bargain price.
Hispanics now form more than 30 percent of the Manassas population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and these numbers are expected to continue to grow.
Manassas’s Hispanic population has grown exponentially in the last decade. The Hispanic population now ranges from 20,000 to 30,000 people.
As they tried to gain acceptance in their new community, Hispanics struggled with racial and ethnic tension. Many citizens disregarded Hispanics needs and looked at them as a burden which led to a rise in crime and vandalism by anti-immigrant groups in the years 2008-09.
According to Osvaldo Mercado, owner and CEO of Union Hispana Multiservices, LLC, as the issue of illegal immigration became more pronounced in Manassas, anti-immigrant organizations began to push for local laws and embrace rhetoric that pro-immigrant groups and Hispanics felt were negative and dangerous. That relationship has improved starting a couple of years ago.
“In the year 2008 and 2009, there was a recession in the city and in the United States, and there was a persecution towards the Hispanic community,” Mercado recalls. “What happened in that time was an ordinance where police could stop you and check your immigration status.”
In 2007, the county board adopted a resolution to curb immigrants’ access to public services and to increase immigration enforcement by local police. According to local Latinos and immigrant-rights advocates, the new law sent an unspoken message that it was acceptable to target the immigrant population, question their presence, and generally make them feel unwelcome.
The implementation of the county resolution was eventually reduced. This is not to say that complete peace has been reached in the city, some residents say, but more positive communication, changes and interactions among the citizens have been achieved.
For some long-time Hispanic residents like Jessica Argueta who was born and raised in Manassas by her Hispanic parents, life took a turn for the worse when those conflicts arose over immigration.
“Tensions are always going to exist, but I think they have lowered,” says Argueta. “Two years ago I would have gotten dirty looks or my friends would tell me how they got insulted by someone. Nowadays, people have come to accept us.”
Alexandra Libe and co-worker Lisa Johnson form a part of Immigrants First. Immigrants First, PLLC specializes in immigration and naturalization law. Ribe is an immigrant herself and cares deeply about the issues regarding Hispanics and Latinos in the Manassas area. Working in the area has helped her understand the struggles Hispanics face when migrating to small conservative towns.
As an immigration lawyer, she has noticed a positive change in the community and the growing Hispanic population has brought a new sense of discovery and culture to Manassas.
“Being here I have learned how much people are willing to risk to come to the United States,” says Ribe.
Manassas has become a centered community, embracing both the old and the new cultures and ideals that have developed in the past years. Manassas, like many towns in Virginia, has taken a positive turn as a community to become something greater: a family.