St. Petersburg Times: Following Francisco (Siguiendo los pasos de Francisco)

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Living under the radar

The Hnahnu (nyah-nyoo) have lived in Mexico's Mezquital Valley since 250 B.C. A mural on the pavilion in Los Remedios tells their story:
• A woman stands in a green place with rolling hills.
• Her people flee to the mountains when Aztecs arrive, settling in a dusty valley.
• Spanish conquistadors bring Catholicism. The Hnahnu mix it with their own religion. Their lands turn green.
• The story ends in current time, with Hnahnu families celebrating life.

Many of the immigrants carried fake documents, but they faced few questions about eligibility. Employers in Clearwater's competitive tourist industry gladly hired Mexicans willing to take low-paying jobs. Some worked two shifts a day. Back on the ranches in Texas, they were lucky to find one.

Work was their mission, as much of it as they could get. Longer hours meant more money to send home. They saved every penny they could, spending cash only on essentials.

"We hardly saw each other because we were all working," said Moises Secundino, a former teacher from Los Remedios, now pastor of a Christian church he started in Clearwater. "We couldn't afford cars so we all rode around on bikes."

Secundino called his La Vieja, the old lady. He rode it around for three years while saving to buy his first car, a 1977 Dodge Aspen, for $700.

They pooled their money to rent apartments. One of Francisco's cousins, Rodolfo Isidro, recalls sharing a two-bedroom unit near Sunset Point Road and Highland Avenue with, at one point, 36 other men.

Sixteen bikes were parked outside.

The landlord asked how many lived there.

"We'd say "four,' " said Rodolfo. They were working multiple jobs, coming and going at all hours. "He never saw us all," he added.

Many immigrants couldn't open bank accounts because they didn't have valid IDs. They sometimes slept with rolls of money hidden beneath mattresses and were known as "walking ATMs" to thieves who knew they would not complain to the police.

They lived near downtown, where the housing stock is older, the rents cheaper.

Back home in Los Remedios and nearby villages, the Hnahnu women became anxious about their husbands and sons as stories of drinking and infidelity filtered back. Some men stopped sending money.

So the women started leaving too, some to be with their husbands, others to work.

Rosa Maria Pedraza was 18 when she left home and a failing family store. Her father had no money for college.

In Clearwater, her cousin Jose drove a truck, lived in an apartment.

"Jose told me that I could make money, have a job," said Rosa Maria, now 32.

Like the men before her, she crossed the Rio Grande and walked in the desert until meeting up with her uncle, Leon Pedraza, who brought her to Clearwater. After a few weeks of free English classes at a community center, she found a job at a restaurant, making salads.

A community takes root

One of the first to take measure of Clearwater's burgeoning new community was Father Peter Schweitzer.

Newly ordained in 1993 and working at St. Cecelia Catholic Church south of downtown, Schweitzer was looking for help after a fender bender when he poked his head into a nearby Mexican business. Introductions there led him to a broader understanding: "St. Cecelia's is sitting in the middle of Little Mexico," he now recalls.

Schweitzer persuaded his superiors to start a weekly, Spanish-language Mass. He practiced his homily to try to get the pronunciation right.

"I read it all in Spanish. It was terrible. I missed all the accents," he said.

The Masses angered some parishioners, said Schweitzer, who years later left the priesthood to get married. A few thought the Mexicans would "dirty the church," he said.

He found written threats on his car.

But the Masses continued, and St. Cecelia's became an important place for Hidalgans.

Meanwhile, some worked their way out of construction and dishwashing jobs and started small businesses. El Chicanito restaurant opened in July 1997, selling authentic Mexican cuisine. Hidalgo Auto repair opened on busy Court Street. The money-wiring agency Envios Hidalgo soon followed.

Several other businesses sprang up, giving portions of Clearwater a distinctly Mexican feel.

Most targeted the Hnahnu, offering goods from back home and a welcomed, Spanish-speaking environment. A few attracted non-Hispanics as well, offering low prices and an unassuming atmosphere.

The new business owners formed the Mexican Council of Tampa Bay, patterning it after a similar board of elders in Hidalgo. It became an important go-to organization, a sort of help desk for immigrants trying to navigate the American system.

Its original purpose, though, was far more basic: to help when an immigrant died.

"We had to create an organization to take the bodies back home," said Margarito Perez, 41, now the council's president.

At City Hall an important ally also emerged.

Robin Gomez, now the city auditor, had recently been hired. The son of Mexican professionals, coincidentally from Hidalgo, Gomez had no idea of the exodus from his home state.

One day in 1996, Gomez's soon-to-be wife, Julie, overheard people speaking Spanish in a City Hall corridor. She investigated and found a Hidalgan politician and two local Mexican business owners finishing a meeting with the mayor.

She told them her boyfriend was from Hidalgo, and Gomez rushed over to meet the group.

Hours later, he and Julie found themselves at a Mexican Independence Day celebration. "That night, we met so many people," Gomez said. "They were explaining there are a couple thousand people here from Ixmiquilpan," the city near Los Remedios.

Gomez saw what was ahead: If a few thousand Hidalgans had made it to Clearwater, many more were sure to follow.

Discrimination, deportation, fear

The growing immigrant community became a hot zone for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the mid 1990s.

Business raids intensified as agents rounded up suspected illegal workers and deported them to Mexico. Clearwater police provided backup. Agents also patrolled streets and parks, stopping dark-haired and brown-skinned people and asking to see ID.

Schweitzer, the priest, urged authorities to be humane. In 1995, the INS detained a dozen women and put them on a plane bound for the U.S.-Mexico border. Several women were forced to leave small children behind.

Schweitzer was outraged.

Agents raided a Clearwater laundry twice in two months in 1996, removing dozens of undocumented workers. Clearwater Beach hoteliers, concerned their work forces would disappear, joined other local businesses complaining about INS tactics.

Police began having second thoughts.

"Suffice it to say we didn't see eye to eye with some of the methods INS used," said Deputy Police Chief Dewey Williams.

In 1998, the INS backed off a bit. Rather than arresting and deporting workers, it demanded employers fire them en masse. Beach hotels sacked 50 and 60 workers at a time, only to see them find jobs down the street.

Because of their illegal status, some workers had little choice but to endure workplace discrimination and intolerance.

The city, however, started reaching out. It decided Spanish-speakers deserved access to services, whether in the country legally or not. A Hispanic Task Force was created in 1999. Gomez, the city auditor, became a prime consultant for outreach programs. The city ordered Spanish-language everything, from library books to brochures detailing city services.

Still, beat cops continued to run into language barriers.

Officers told Williams: " "We've got a new game in town, Chief. And we don't have any rules in place.' "

So in August 2000, Williams visited Hidalgo and had an epiphany.

Shocking poverty and "hillsides packed with humanity" convinced him radical changes were needed in the way police handled Mexican immigrants.

"These aren't just foreigners who showed up in Florida," Williams said. "There's a reason they are here. Understanding the economics behind that and how these families are trying to support families thousands of miles away is a whole humanitarian piece of this puzzle."

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