Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series from Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit investigative news team. The first story can be read HERE
Acceptance still is a work in progress for Hispanics in Hennessey. Frankie Marquez remembers a time when he was routinely harassed by a local police officer. In time, the harassment ceased when non-Hispanic residents began vouching for his character.
Hispanic residents say they generally feel safe today in Hennessey. But they can’t make the same claim with regard to Enid, some 21 miles to the north in neighboring Garfield County. Hennessey Hispanics, especially those who are undocumented, speak with fear about Enid. Stories of police stops and deportation are common.
“The racism is still out there,” Eric Marquez said. “But we’ve come a long way. I think the difference between Hennessey and a bigger place like Oklahoma City is that people have a chance to know you as a person with a name, not just as some Mexican.”
The seeds of assimilation were planted more than 30 years ago.
Gloria Anaya fondly remembers the kindness of her non-Hispanic neighbors, Wesley and Mary Wilson. In those early years, when the Anayas didn’t know anyone in town, Mary Wilson often stopped to visit.
“I didn’t speak English then, but it didn’t matter,” said Anaya, who became a legal resident in President Reagan’s amnesty program. “She would come into my home, sit down and visit anyway. I didn’t know what she was saying, and I’m sure she didn’t understand me.
“Then, one day, I became very sick. Mary brought me a big pot of soup. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is real love.’”
The Anayas remained in Hennessey, and worked hard to put all three of their boys through college. The eldest, George, works at the University of Central Oklahoma. Twins Samuel and Julian Jr. are employed as an Oklahoma City school teacher and police officer, respectively.
Success stories are sprinkled among Hennessey’s Mexican-American community. A sampling of Hennessey’s 2012 roll call of graduates speaks volumes about what is taking place: Buckner. Cervantes. Buford. Garcia. Hardy. Gonzalez. Holder. Benitez ... Twenty-four Hispanic surnames account nearly for half of the total graduating class of 55.
Not long ago, many Mexican families could be found living in a cluttered collection of battered old trailer homes on the west side of town. Locals referred to the low-income neighborhood as “Little Mexico.”
“I lived there,” one resident proudly said. “We were here for the American Dream. We were willing to go through whatever we had to, to obtain that dream. We put our pride aside.”
Today, many of those same families have climbed the social ladder and become owners of their own homes and businesses. They are folks like Sergio Ortega, who employs a small workforce through his oilfield service company, R&S Well Service Inc.
They are second-generation Mexican-Americans like Abel Moreno, a 1987 Hennessey High School graduate who owns his own oilfield company, Quick Pump Service. Moreno, 43, made local history in 2004 when he was elected to the five-member town board.
A sign of progress: It wasn’t until after the election that Moreno reflected on the fact that he was Hennessey’s first elected Mexican-American official.
“In Hennessey, we’re not about the politics,” Moreno said. “We’re about lives.”
Hennessey also is about the football.
In 2010, Hennessey’s football team won its first 2A State Championship under Head Coach Shannon Watford. Afterward, at the annual sports banquet, Watford called all of his players together on stage and said their opponents had no idea “what a bunch of farm boys and their Hispanic brothers” could accomplish.
The same held true in 2011, when the Hennessey Eagles — once dubbed the “Hennessey Illegals” on Facebook — won their second straight 2A State Championship with a 21-7 victory over Jones.
Football, some are convinced, has been the great bridge to true assimilation.
“I think it has definitely changed the way some non-Hispanics look at us,” said one recent Hennessey valedictorian who wished to remain anonymous because of her illegal status. “Winning back-to-back state football championships has a way of bringing a community together.”
A new era, an old story
Arguably, librarian Mary Haney knows as much about Hennessey’s history as anyone living.
From the 1874 massacre of freighter Pat Hennessey to the land runs of 1889 and 1893 to the town’s all-female “petticoat” government in the mid-1920s, Haney knows her stuff.
And if there is something she doesn’t know, she’ll doggedly seek out those who do.
“Hennessey was founded on immigrants,” Haney declared. “In the beginning came the Czechs ...”
Haney’s narration leads to Richard Simunek, a fifth-generation Czech-American who grew up on a Hennessey farm. Simunek served as a liaison with the somewhat insular Czech community. He helped gather and preserve some of its earliest history in Hennessey, including the Czechs’ own struggle to assimilate.
“There were several reasons why they survived,” said Simunek, now 66 and living in Miami Beach, Fla. “For starters, they never sold their farms. The farms were always handed down to an eldest son or a Czech son-in-law. They also financed their own loans within the Czech community. They essentially had their own banking system. And if a farm ever came up for auction, you would never see a Czech family bid against another Czech family. That simply didn’t happen.
“They were very clannish in that way.”
Assimilation came slowly, mainly because the Czechs spoke a different language and kept to themselves.
For Simunek, the similarities between the Czechs and the Hispanics sound all too familiar.
“I laugh when I think about the Mexicans, and the things people say about them,” Simunek said. “They complain they dance too much, drink too much and so on. I laugh and I laugh. That’s what they used to say about the Czechs.
“History is simply repeating itself in Hennessey.”
Racial tensions still exist in some quarters, but those sentiments appear to be overpowered these days by the common ground of work, security, education and family.
“Obviously, the number of Hispanics in town has grown,” said Joe McCulley, Hennessey’s school superintendent. “I’ve seen a noticeable growth in my six years here, but no one talks about it. Now it’s just part of life ... Even just three years ago, it was a real fight to get the Hispanic kids and their parents involved. Now, they are involved in everything we do.
“In our school, we all bleed one color — Hennessey blue.”
A significant number of Hennessey’s Mexican-American families find strength in the Cristo Rey Spanish Baptist Church, where Rev. Ramon Aleman has proudly watched his flock flourish in recent years. Aleman, who fled Cuba two weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, preaches love, peace and education.
“Knowledge is the key to everything,” Aleman said. “That’s why I stress education, education, education.”
Love and peace appear to be two cornerstones of Hennessey’s growing Mexican population. Such is evident to Aleman, who calls his church members “a kind and loving people.”
“There is a lot of love in our community,” Gloria Anaya said. “If someone were to come here to Hennessey today and get to know us, they would find out we were all the same. We are just like them. That’s the truth.”
Haney, the librarian, has watched Hennessey’s assimilation with a touch of awe.
“Racism exists,” Haney said. “Let’s be honest. But I haven’t noticed racial tension as much as I have noticed that the Hispanic people tended to group together. They are inherently suspicious of authority — something, I believe, they bring from their native Mexico. So the first generation tends to remain reclusive. The second generation is generally much better about interacting, and by the third generation they are completely involved in all aspects of the community.
“Our annual festivals are a great example. The Czechs play their polka music and the Mexicans play their mariachi, and when they play together, it’s a funny thing: It doesn’t sound any different.”