The worry has been there for a long time, if not for themselves, for relatives, friends or others in the Latino community.
But for at least some local Hispanics, something has changed, certainly within the last two years, perhaps even within the past few weeks. The taunts seem bolder now, directed at citizens and legal immigrants as well as the undocumented. And the shootings in El Paso, Texas, just one more senseless tragedy to many Americans, carry a deeper, darker significance.
Some say they've always heard the insults, the taunts. For them, “Go back to your country” is nothing new.
But if you listen to the voices of these members of our community, you get a sense that things are getting worse.
“I am so proud of this city,” said Fernando Zapari, the editor of El Mexicano, a Spanish-language newspaper. When he came here from Mexico in 1978, there wasn't much to do, and it was hard adjusting to the cold weather. Now, he says, “there are so many things to do in Fort Wayne.” He mentions Promenade Park and the new burst of residential development downtown. “It has a beautiful stadium – and it only costs $6 to get in.”
'My family is here,” he said. He and his wife, who have four children, live in a pleasant, diverse neighborhood, with African American and Caucasian and Burmese neighbors.
But something unexpected and unsettling happened to Zapari a few days after the 2016 election. Another tenant rebuked him for putting unsold papers in the recycling bin at the building where his offices had been located for 20 years.
''Go back across the fence!'' she yelled.
At a breakfast recently, Zapari had a disappointing exchange with a minister, who Zapari said disparaged the undocumented. “That was shocking to me,” he said. “I asked him, 'Do you know who processed, who packaged and who cooked your food?' I offered to take them back to the kitchen to see who was cooking.
“The thing I don't understand,” Zapari said, “is how people who call themselves people of faith can support these kinds of things.”
When Zapari was interviewed, he was preparing for Saturday's Fiesta Fort Wayne, an annual event he said is aimed at overcoming misunderstandings. “People can come and see who we are and learn what we are about,” he said. “It's like they say, 'The show must go on.' We cannot live with fear. Love defeats hate all the time.”
“I hear stories; I can see the tension,” said Javier Mondragon, co-pastor of Many Nations Church of the Nazarene, a bilingual inner-city church.
Salvadoran refugees, he noted, will lose their Temporary Protected Status next month; those who aren't citizens could face action from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. “If the parents don't have legal status, it's always in the back of their minds,” he said. “They have kids that are born in this country, growing up here. Can you imagine? You live here; you've grown up in this country, This is their culture. This is all they've known.
“The political climate is just more divided,” he said. “The climate is just dividing us more and more.”
A big cause of the resentment is ignorance, Mondragon said. People don't understand the immigration system, and they don't consider that many Hispanics have been here all their lives. “My wife is a citizen,” he said. “Her parents are from Mexico, but she was born here.” Yet she gets questions, he said, “just because of the color of her skin.”
Mondragon's multi-ethnic church tries to be part of the solution. The key, he said, is “getting to know others ... really listening ... Listen with the intent of learning.”
Twenty-one-year-old Juan Alberto Gonzalez Rangel has heard it all. “ 'You're taking our scholarship' ... 'Why can't you find a job someplace else?' ... 'Go back to your country.' 'Go back home.' ”
There has always been some of that, said Rangel, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States as a child. But now, he said, “people are more confident about 'sharing their feelings.' ” Divisive comments from political leaders “just kind of plant the seed in somebody's head,” he said.
“I've got to smile and say 'sorry you feel that way.' I have to listen to them and walk away from them. That will eat you up if you pay attention to it.”
Rangel was a Dreamer – the term for those young immigrants shielded from deportation by DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. But that policy has been in limbo for the past two years. “You just don't feel secure. You do feel you're against the wall.”
Rangel, who is a nursing student at the University of Saint Francis, says he was recently granted “green-card” permanent-residency status. He wants to stay and work here, where scholarships from Questa, Fort Wayne Community Schools and the Hispanic Leadership Council of Northeast Indiana have allowed him to seek an education. “I want to give back,” Rangel said.
Yeshua Villalobos, 24, was brought to the United States when she was 5 years old. A recent graduate of Ivy Tech who is in the process of becoming a registered nurse, she was also a DACA student. Though she has not been the target of racist comments herself, she has a friend who was told to “go back to your f-ing country,” Villalobos said. “If our president can say these things,” she said, racists may think, “that gives us the green light.”
The El Paso shootings unsettled Villalobos, who is married and expecting a child. “I just don't know if when I go to the grocery now, I'll feel safe. I feel targeted because of the color of my skin.”
“I have to say that the fear is there,” said Ana Guisti, senior Latina coordinator at the Center for Nonviolence, who has worked with survivors of domestic abuse and other violence since 1999. “At this point, I see people are already grieving, because they don't know what is going to happen to them, and to their children.”
It was already a struggle to get the people she counsels to report crimes, Guisti said. “We tell them, 'Please, if there's something wrong, report. That's why the police are here, to help you out.' ” But, she said, “with this shooting, everything went downhill.”
Verbal abuse of Latinos is commonplace, said Guisti, who is vice president of the Hispanic Leadership Council. People – citizens or not – have even been called “wetback,” an old term for immigrants who waded across the Rio Grande, she said.
“It has multiplied by a lot, because now they feel they are authorized to do it,” said Max Montesino, a professor at Purdue Fort Wayne and former president of the council, who joined Guisti and the council's current president, Paula Avila, for an interview last week.
“It's always been here,” Guisti said, but “now I am not scared to say to you, 'Go back. I don't care. You're not an American citizen – you don't look like me.' ”
“The demographics are changing – that instills fear” in the majority, said Avila, who works at Manchester University's Fort Wayne campus. Some who may still be struggling economically are “looking for that scapegoat,” she said.
“I work with international students that are here legally, and they also fear what's happening,” Avila said.
Guisti knows of Hispanic children being verbally harassed by other children on the way to school, and on the bus. “They are so scared that they are going to be singled out,” she said. “It (becomes) a mental health issue – depression, anxiety.”
In the past, Montesino said, hostility was focused on undocumented immigrants. “The danger of this moment is that no matter whether you are a naturalized Latino or an undocumented, you are 'part of them.' That strips you from your condition as an American. That's really dangerous.”
Montesino cites the Anti-Defamation League's “Pyramid of Hate,” which illustrates how acts of bias such as name-calling can grow into discrimination, bias-based violence and, ultimately, genocide. “If you see what happened with words in the rest of the country ... and then you end up in El Paso, it's exactly the same pyramid. Prior to this new situation, everything was latent – it was there – but it is now in the open.”
Education will help; getting to know people one-on-one eradicates racism; politicians who are exploiting fear and prejudice may energize Hispanics to flex their potential strength at the ballot box. Everyone we talked with last week held onto hope things would get better.
Last weekend, Guisti had a glimpse of how things ought to be, when she and her family went to the opening of Promenade Park. “I was seeing all these kids playing in the camino” – the Doermer Kids' Canal – “all different ethnicities. And they were all so happy ... It was so pretty, to see them playing.”
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.