Juan Carlos Hernandez teaches English to a Crawfordsville middle schooler at the Lilly Library.



Jose Robles and Luis Flores broadcast the College's (and Crawfordsville's) first Spanish-language radio program.


Summer/Fall 2001

Rompienda Barreras Juntos
Students, professors, and the Wabash family are reaching beyond geographical and cultural barriers for the sake of learning and the community.

by Steve Charles

“Crawfordsville and Wabash are small places, and we don’t have large programs here to put all this in place. But we have each other; we can learn from each other.”
Jesus Campo ’03

Political science professor Andrew Schlewitz was surprised at the number of Hispanic people he met as he walked around Crawfordsville after his interview at Wabash in the spring of 2000. Why, he wondered, would so many Hispanics be moving to what seemed to be a remote part of the American heartland?

To find out, he taught a course last fall entitled “Latin American Migration to Crawfordsville,” sending his students into the streets and factories to gather data and anecdotes from employers, recently arrived workers, and their families. Then professor and students took their study—through public presentations and two newspaper columns—to city leaders and the citizens of Crawfordsville.

“Clearly, Crawfordsville has crossed a demographic threshold,” Schlewitz wrote in the local paper. “The question now is whether Crawfordsville will deal with this change as a threat, an irritation, or a chance to demonstrate cherished values of freedom and equality for all, not to mention good old-fashioned Midwestern hospitality.”

With Indiana showing more than a 250% increase in Hispanic residents since the previous census and Montgomery County showing the second-fastest growing Hispanic population in the state, a less-than-hospitable welcome was likely. Though Schlewitz’s students found evidence suggesting that the newcomers were filling jobs native-born workers were not taking, local plants have actively recruited workers from Mexico, hiring them at lower wages with minimal benefits causing resentment and fear of unemployment among long-time employees.

Factor in newcomers who speak little English and hail from a culture that doesn’t easily mesh with the meat-and-potatoes ways of the heartland, and you could imagine the ugly confrontations that could embitter generations here.

Instead, we may be in the midst of a watershed moment of cooperation between the College and the community, as Wabash/Crawfordsville students, teachers, and families reach beyond the politics and economics of globalization and simply welcome the newcomers and their children. A fortunate convergence has joined an increased number of Hispanic students, Spanish-speaking and Hispanic professors along with powerful sense of civic responsibility just as the town is in great need of skilled and willing translators, tutors, and leaders for outreach to the growing Hispanic community.

How all this will play out in an unstable local economy is anyone’s guess, but there have been some promising beginnings that have benefited both the town and the College.

Unidos por Sangre, Unidos por servicio
They’re due on the air in three minutes, but the student broadcasters are only now arriving at the WNDY studio in the basement of the Sparks Center. Some things at Wabash never change.

But as Luis Flores ’03 fires up the equipment and Jose Robles ’03 positions the microphones for their guest, the topic is new and most timely. Lorraine Hitz-Bradley, attorney for the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, is in the studio. She’s explaining the equal housing act, defining discrimination in the workplace, and illuminating a host of rights most of us take for granted. For recently-arrived Latinos, her words are a revelation.

They’ll understand them because Flores’ and Robles’ one-hour time slot on Tuesdays and Thursdays is the first and only program from Crawfordsville broadcast in Spanish. A constantly growing number of listeners call in, sometimes with requests, suggestions, or questions.

“Sometimes they call just to say ‘thanks’ for having the show,” Flores says. “When you’re far away from the culture and language you left behind, it means a lot to have a Spanish language radio station.”

The program is sponsored by Unidos por Sangre (UpS), a campus group founded in 1996 that until recently was primarily a Hispanic identity organization. But with Robles at the helm, Unidos has become one of the most active service groups at the College. Its members, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, are translators for police and hospitals, tutors for local elementary school kids, liaisons between non-English speaking residents and service agencies, and teachers of English classes for recent arrivals.

Robles, the group’s Chicago-born president, explains the transformation:

“We had meetings, but we were poorly organized, and though the will to serve was there, we really weren’t doing anything. I wanted to get more involved with the community.”

So last year, after a College sponsored community meeting about Hispanic immigration to Crawfordsville, Robles approached county human rights chair Zoraida Munroy and told her about UpS.

“We were looking to help the community—we just didn’t know where the needs were,” Robles explains. Munroy connected UpS with those needs

But the Spanish radio program was a UpS original. Robles started it, and Flores soon joined him.

“I’d never done radio before, but the program was a great idea, so I asked if I could work with him,” Flores explains. “Then he asked me if I could do it on my own most of the time, and I said, ’Sure.’”

This fall, Flores hopes to increase the show’s on-air time to two hours per day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, when Wabash airwaves will again carry the most welcoming sound many of the town’s Hispanic residents have heard since their arrival.

More Than Words
Kappa Sig and UpS member Melecio Gonzalez ’03 recalls the day police called him down to the station. His name was on the list of translators UpS had assembled for law enforcement, hospitals, and other local agencies. It was his turn to help.

“They had picked up this Hispanic guy for trespassing; he’d been walking from house to house, looking through windows, and someone had finally called the police,” Gonzalez recalls. “When I met him, he was real upset—he couldn’t understand why he was being held, and the police couldn’t understand a word he was saying.”

In a few sentences, the puzzle was solved. The man was new to town and was looking for his relatives, who had failed to give him an exact address.
“In a few seconds, everything was alright, and we were able to help him find his family,” Gonzalez explains. Such misunderstandings are not rare these days in Crawfordsville. Often all that’s needed is someone to translate, and UpS members and numerous Wabash professors have stepped in to serve.

Translating also alerted the group to other needs and concerns newcomers to the town carry.

“When I ask these people why they come here instead of, say, a large city like Chicago, they give me two reasons: higher wages and a safer place to live,” says Robles, who volunteers at St. Clare Hospital, works as a translator for Manpower, and teaches English and Spanish classes at the town’s Ivy Tech community college extension. “The women I’ve talked to say it’s safer to raise children here than in cities where there are gangs and violence. It’s more peaceful here; classes are smaller at the high school. They really feel closer to this community, and they feel more comfortable with its smaller size.”

“They also realize that, unlike Hispanics in Chicago, they’ll need to learn English to feel like they really belong here.”

Robles became even better acquainted with the newcomers’ concerns during a cooperative project between UpS and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Tagged “Un Hora de Conversacion,” church members and their Hispanic neighbors met on Wednesday evenings for 10 weeks.

“Other places were teaching English and Spanish, but this wasn’t just about language, but sharing cultures,” Robles explains. “We played music, asked questions, took risks. The Spanish speakers tried to speak English, the English speakers Spanish, and the UpS guys would translate when they got stuck. I’m sure they all learned things about each other they wouldn’t have learned anyplace else. We began as strangers, and finished as friends.”

A yearning for more intimate community has led others to Crawfordsville, but Latino children moving may face the greatest challenge fitting into the established culture. Their parents believe the town will be better for their children, but they realize know adapting to their new school will be difficult. Luis Flores and fellow UpS members Eric Felix ’03, Jesus Campo 03’, and Juan Carlo Hernandez ’04 know how tough that can be.

To Make a Friend
The empathy many in UpS feel for the kids of newly arrived Latinos drives their tutoring and teaching outreach.

“I don’t want these kids to go through what I went through,” says Flores, who last year taught students in the Crawfordsville school’s ESL program. “I was born in Brownsville, Texas, but we moved to Mexico and I went to school in Matamoros until high school. When I moved back to Brownsville, I had to learn English there, and that first year I had no friends.

“I know what it’s like to have others make fun of you for the way you talk,” Flores says. “If I work with these kids, maybe I can keep them from knowing that feeling of shame.”

One ten-year-old girl named Vanity knew that feeling so well that, halfway through the semester, she refused to go to school. With the help of ESL Director Amy Carrington, her parents contacted UpS and Wabash sophomore Juan Carlo Hernandez.

“She felt ashamed that she didn’t know anything, and she wanted to study and learn English before she would go back,” Hernandez says.

“I had to learn English when I was 14, so I’m teaching her the way I was taught,” says the son of a former PRI governor in Mexico. “We’ve been working every Tuesday and Thursday this semester, but I explained to her that the only way she’ll be able to practice is by going to school. I talked with her teacher, and she’s invited Vanity just to come to class to listen, with no pressure at first. And Vanity promised me that she’ll go back to school full-time in the fall.”

For Campo, Felix, and Tommy Robol ’03, tutoring Hispanic students at Tuttle Middle School is about more than learning a language.

“It’s about making a friend,” Campo explains. “I came to the U.S. as a kid and had the disheartening experience of seeing my own Hispanic people looking down on me because I couldn’t speak English. I thank God that I’m here now, and I want these children to feel at home here, like they belong here, so they can be part of the culture, so they can play with the other kids.

“That’s what we’re trying to do. I hope we can make a better community. Crawfordsville and Wabash are small places, and we don’t have large, formal government programs here to put all this in place. But we have each other; we can learn from each other.”

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