February 12, 2011 | Sun Herald | Original Article

Census: Local Hispanic population up 108 percent

Years ago, Frisly Garcia could find only one store on the Coast that carried groceries familiar to Hispanics.

Today, he can pick and choose shopping destinations.

U.S. census figures released this month show the number of Hispanics in Mississippi jumped from 39,569 in 2000 to 81,481 last year. That’s an increase of 106 percent. Collectively, the six Coast counties showed a 108 percent gain in Hispanics from 2000 to 2010.

Garcia, who retired in Diamondhead with his wife, Mary, believes that number is accurate.

“I believe that number is very close to being true,” he said.

Garcia, 45, left Guatemala for America in 1984. Here he finished high school and then joined the Navy, seeing the world. Of 60 countries he visited in 21 years of military service, it was the United States and the South in particular that felt like home.

He doesn’t recall seeing a lot of Hispanics on the Coast in 2001. Stores, restaurants and churches catering to the Hispanic culture were few and far between, he said.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and Hispanics and Latinos headed to the Coast in droves for construction jobs that opened as South Mississippi dug out of the mud and began to rebuild.

After a few years, many of those workers had made their money and as construction jobs dwindled, they set up their own businesses and became part of the community.

Now, stores stocked with Hispanic-friendly merchandise can be found in most cities. Eateries offering authentic tamales and carne asada have popped up all over. Catholic Mass in Spanish is a regular occurrence.

Those changes through the years assure Garcia he is not alone anymore in South Mississippi.

“Mississippi is definitely going through a change, and it’s a good change,” he said.

The Biloxi Catholic Diocese shows 3.9 percent of its membership of 17,500 families is Hispanic, based on 2010 parish reports, spokeswoman Shirley Henderson said. She noted the population has slowly risen from 2.9 percent in 2006.

Henderson believes that number is low, though, because only those parishioners registered with the diocese are counted. Many who attend Mass have not registered in their parishes, she said.

Some Coast immigration specialists don’t think the increased census number paints an accurate picture.

Mary Townsend with the Biloxi nonprofit organization El Pueblo (“The Village”) said the 2000 numbers were extremely low because of a severe miscount of Hispanics and Latinos across the state.

Paul Morris, a Gulf Coast organizer with Mississippi Immigration Rights Alliance, said the higher 2010 numbers look good on paper but aren’t completely true. Though there are more Hispanics and Latinos in Mississippi now than 10 years ago, it’s not as huge an increase as it looks.

“A lot of that can be attributed to the inaccuracy of the census in 2000,” Morris said.

Many in the Latino and Hispanic community are “suspicious of anyone from the government” and avoided the census workers doing head counts a decade ago, Townsend said.

In 2010, El Pueblo and MIRA joined other minority-focused organizations, area churches and community leaders to educate the minorities on the importance of being counted. Many of those counted in 2010 were probably missed 10 years earlier, she said.

That’s not to say the building boom after Hurricane Katrina doesn’t account for a large migration of people from Mexico and Central and South America, she said.

Townsend believes the Hispanic and Latino population tripled in South Mississippi after Katrina, though she bases her estimate on experience and not hard data.

“We’d still be under piles of debris if the Hispanic and Latino immigrant workers had not flooded in here after Katrina,” she said.

She said Hispanics and Latino workers slept in tents and in the elements on the bare ground just to earn a paycheck. “They were willing to endure the conditions that many American workers were not willing to endure,” she said. “A lot of those people who came here stayed here, and have become a part of the economy.”

She said South Mississippi Hispanics and Latinos are “good, hardworking people” who found a home on the Coast.

“These folks are just like your ancestors and mine, looking for a better life and freedom,” she said. “They found it in South Mississippi and they’re just as anxious to hold on to it as our ancestors.”

Townsend and Garcia both worry the passage of an immigration-enforcement bill may have a negative effect on the population growth.

“A lot of people are starting to get scared of what Mississippi is going to do, so they’re finding places to go already,” he said. “The skilled labor isn’t needed as much and those without documents are finding other places to go to.”