It started with the spray-painted, misspelled “Rapest” on the house of a Hispanic man accused of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old white girl. Then the house went up in flames in a suspected arson.
Confrontations, name-calling and threats against Hispanics followed. Men roamed the streets wearing pillowcases with eye holes, and Ku Klux Klansmen in hoods and robes showed up to pass out pamphlets. There were rumors of assaults and beatings.
Now this small Ohio river city’s booming Hispanic population is cowed, the streets in their neighborhoods nearly deserted.
Hamilton has been a hotbed for Hispanic growth in a state that has
lagged behind much of the nation in Hispanic population. The number of Hispanics here jumped fivefold in the 1990s, to 1,566, and is now
estimated at 4,000 or more in a city of some 61,000.
For the most part, the immigrants had settled in without much
controversy in Hamilton, whose mayor in the 1990s was of Cuban descent. But life here was transformed on June 19, when a 9-year-old Caucasian girl was raped, allegedly by a Hispanic man who has apparently fled the city.
While the anti-Hispanic backlash has stunned many of the immigrants,
some say they’ve felt racial prejudice here before. The Rev. Eustaquio Recalde, a native of Paraguay, says he was often harassed and ridiculed while working a factory job as the lone Hispanic employee.
“I think it’s been around,” Recalde said. “This was an opportunity for a few people to express it.”
Ezra Escudero, executive director of the Ohio Commission on
Hispanic/Latino Affairs in Columbus, says Hamilton is not alone in
feeling tension in a state where the Hispanic population has doubled to nearly 280,000 since 1990.
“The challenge for the community is whether the tragedy will bring out the best or the worst in people,” he said.
Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin
American studies at Miami University in Oxford, has helped organize two community forums since the fire. She called the Hamilton unrest an important moment for local Hispanics, churches, police and public officials.
“I think everyone realizes that we need to have a dialogue . . . to make the community feel safe and feel that they have a voice,” Bromberg said. “I think there are a lot of people who want to make this work out.”