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

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[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Teresa Diaz, 26, of Orizabita prays during a baptism at St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater. The church was a pioneer in recognizing the immigrant community, offering Mass in Spanish.

Growing up Hnahnu

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In May 2003, Times Latin American correspondent David Adams and Clearwater general assignment reporter Adrienne P. Samuels began researching the fast-growing community of Mexican immigrants in the Clearwater area.

They interviewed Mexican business owners, immigrants, pastors, city officials and two University of South Florida professors -- Maria Crummett of the Tampa campus and Ella Schmidt of the St. Petersburg campus -- who have studied the Hnahnu. Nearly everyone either knew of, or had heard tales of, the first Hidalgans to journey to Clearwater.

The reporters and Times photographer John Pendygraft spent a week in Hidalgo looking for the early pilgrims. They also reported on the Hnahnu people and that area’s connection to Clearwater. Back in Clearwater, the reporters spent several weeks interviewing dozens of immigrants.

David Adams can be reached at Adrienne Samuels can be reached at John Pendygraft can be reached at

Cornelio Isidro dreams of returning home. He followed his brother Francisco to Clearwater 11 years ago.

He has been back to Los Remedios twice. After his last visit in 2001, he returned to Clearwater unaware his wife was pregnant.

The baby was born that September. The couple named him Francisco, in memory of the uncle he never knew.

Cornelio has yet to hold the boy in his arms.

"That's the hardest thing I have to deal with," he said, holding back tears during an interview late one evening after work.

His wife left the baby behind and joined him in Clearwater in 2003 to help boost their savings. They share an apartment with several other Mexicans. On little Francisco's birthday, they strung up a glittery "Happy Birthday" banner. The couple is determined to go home for good later this year.

Hidalgo officials are concerned the mass migration is dividing Hnahnu families. In the post-Sept. 11 era, stepped up security at border crossings makes coming and going more difficult.

"I tell them the American dream is not there anymore," said Lolita de Parkinson, head of a state office serving Hidalgans living abroad. "The women are very angry and very upset. They feel their men went there to support the family. They lose their man, the children lose their father, and they lose the money.

"But they still go and they still make it," she added. "The attraction of the green money is very strong. And everyone has a cousin in Clearwater."

The children are most at risk.

In Mexico, they endure the pain of separation when a parent leaves. In Clearwater, the young Hnahnu are Americanized by an urban culture driven in part by network TV and ceaseless consumerism.

Hnahnu elders, both in Mexico and in Clearwater, worry the young will lose all memory of the treasured culture of a people who have lived in the Mezquital Valley since 250 B.C.

The Mexican Council of Tampa Bay, along with the YWCA and the city, started a cultural school to teach Hnahnu children what it means to be Mexican. In Hidalgo, some schools teach the Hnahnu language.

But, for some, that is not enough.

"They just teach the language, but they don't teach our roots and where we are from," said Pedro Secundino, 74, director of a Hnahnu dance troupe in Los Remedios.

Secundino has two grown sons in Clearwater, both U.S. citizens.

"I see my sons and grandchildren and they all speak English," he said. "I don't think they are ever going to want to speak Hnahnu."

The pilgrims today

Francisco Dothe's eyes tear up when he talks of the journey from Hidalgo to Clearwater and the guitar he played as a member of the Sea Breezes.

His two sons sit on one end of the table, half-listening. Up to now, they've only heard bits and pieces about how their dad came to run Rudy's Family Restaurant in New Port Richey - and how they came to be.

The other pioneers - the first Hidalgans to come to Clearwater - have gone separate ways and rarely talk, Dothe said.

Donato Tlanepantla has a home in Fort Myers and once a year returns to Mexico.

Leon Pedraza works in a Tarpon Springs pizzeria.

"I think about everybody and everything around this time every year," Dothe said last September, the 20th anniversary of the four pilgrims' journey to Clearwater.

He seldom talks of the trip with his wife, Cathy, or with his children, who he wishes could speak Hnahnu and Spanish.

"I was working three jobs when they were babies," said Dothe, now 40. "I wasn't at home to teach them. But they will learn."

The boys - 14-year-old Nico and 13-year-old Miguel - know little about Mexico or its history and culture. They are more interested in Game Boys and funky blond hair streaks.

The boys are barely familiar with the term Hnahnu.

"What's that? A Nah-nuu?" said Nico, a slightly lighter-skinned version of his father, except for the blond streak and the earring in his left ear.

"You know, that language I speak when I talk to your uncle," Dothe said.

Nico looked back down at his comic book and said, "Dad, I don't know what you're talking about."

- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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