Book tells of Hispanic population growth

Book tells stories of Hispanic population growth
Charles Oliver, Dalton Daily Citizen, July 19, 2009

In 1980, the Census Bureau reported there were just 526 Hispanic residents in Whitfield County, 237 of them in Dalton. By 1990, the census found there were 2,321 Hispanics in Whitfield County, with 1,422 in the city of Dalton. And by the 2000 census, the bureau reported 18,419 Hispanics in Whitfield County, with 11,219 in Dalton.

Those numbers, which many people believe underestimate the growth, gave Whitfield County, and Dalton in particular, one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the nation. And much of that growth has been fueled by immigration, particularly from Mexico.

The rapid changes that has produced has been the subject of numerous stories in newspapers across the country as well as various academic studies.

Now, many Dalton residents, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, are telling what they have experienced, thanks to a new book, “Voices from the Nueva Frontera: Latino Immigration in Dalton, Georgia.”

Donald Davis, a professor of sociology at Dalton State College and one of the editors and authors of the book, said the idea for the book began when three Hispanic students from DSC spoke at a meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association in Helen, Ga., in 2002. The ASA, headquartered at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., promotes dialogue and research into Appalachian life and culture.

“They just told their stories, how they came to Dalton. And the response was amazing,” Davis said. He said the scholars were impressed by the journeys those students and their families had made.

Davis and David Boyle, dean of DSC’s School of Social Work, began talking about creating an “oral history” book that would let the residents of Dalton tell their stories.

“We always felt those stories had something powerful to say,” he said.

They and co-editors Thomas Deaton, a professor of social sciences at DSC, and Jo-Anne Schick, former director of the Georgia Project, and others spent the next five years interviewing dozens of people in Whitfield County. The Georgia Project was founded in 1996 to help educate Latino students which then made up almost 40 percent of the Dalton Public Schools enrollment.

“We identified themes relating to the Latino community in Dalton, and they had to do with areas of community life or community development,” said Boyle. “We knew there had to be a chapter on public education. There has to be a chapter on business development. There has to be a chapter on social work. We tried to find someone who was knowledgeable about that area.”

The book is divided into nine chapters covering everything from “the economic impact” to “the public school response” to “the social problems.” The voices of Dalton residents are put into context with introductions and scholarly analyses by the authors.

One of the voices in the book belongs to America Gruner. A native of Mexico, Gruner moved to Dalton from Los Angeles in 2000 because she had heard there were opportunities here for bilingual people. Her first job in Dalton was as a translator for Dalton Public Schools.

“The schools didn’t have many teachers who were bilingual. The health department didn’t have enough bilingual people. But things are changing,” she said.

Deaton said there have been Hispanics in Dalton at least as far back as the 1950s but probably the first large-scale immigration to the area came in 1969 when Hispanic laborers came to help build Carters Dam. Most left the area for other construction jobs when the project was finished, but others remained behind to work in chicken processing and, later, the carpet industry.

Deaton said the Hispanic immigrants to Dalton followed many different paths, but he said that many were related as much to family as to jobs.

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