Many Hispanics in Manatee live in fear they will become targets of racist violence

At La Marketa, a Hispanic market in east Bradenton, business has been slow in the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

Customers are fearful that a Hispanic business could become the target of a racist-driven violence like the attack at the Walmart in El Paso that left 22 people dead. El Paso police say the alleged gunman confessed to targeting Mexicans during the attack.

Some, such as store owner Angel Guerrero, fear going out to any public places, including restaurants and bars, and just go from work to home.

Some of his customers are too afraid sometimes to go to work.

“It’s ugly,” Guerrero said on Thursday. “The store has been quiet. Quiet, quiet.”

A native of the Dominican Republic, Guerrero is an American citizen and took over the local market about four years ago. But like many Hispanics, he feels he is a target regardless of his citizenship status.

Guerrero is armed daily, he said as he demonstrated for the Bradenton Herald the handgun he carries. His son also carries a gun for protection.

“When you say in public, ‘The only way to stop immigrants is to shoot them,’ come on, we got a big problem,” Guerrero said.

The targeted attack of Hispanics in the El Paso mass shooting has had a ripple effect across the country, and Manatee County is no exception. Many said they feel that it’s President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric that is responsible for inciting the violence.

“The only thing that is going to fix that is election time,” Guerrero said. “Election time, people have to go out and vote.”

For Guerrero, party affiliation is irrelevant. He does not understand how well-educated or respectable people can work for or support the president given how he insults and disrespects anyone who doesn’t agree with him or doesn’t do what he wants.

“That’s not democracy,” Guerrero said.

At a taco shop in Parrish, a 60-year-old woman who works as a cook said she thinks people such as the shooter in El Paso feel their acts are supported by the president’s rhetoric against Hispanics, especially Mexicans.

The woman was too uncomfortable and scared to tell the Bradenton Herald her name or be photographed, even though she immigrated from Mexico 43 years ago and is now an American citizen.

“If it’s my time, it’s my time, but I feel it for my babies that are in school, my children and my grandchildren,” she said in Spanish referring to her three children and five grandchildren.

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 322,833 people in Manatee County, 16.7 percent of whom identified as Hispanic or Latinx. About 12.6 percent of Manatee County residents who answered the survey said they were foreign-born, a category that includes naturalized citizens. The participation rate for Manatee County in the 2010 Census was calculated to be about 74 percent.

Census estimates for 2018 say Manatee County has grown 22 percent to 394,855 residents, with about 16 percent of the population being Hispanic or Latinx.

However, the Census Bureau acknowledges that young children are often under counted in the census and surveys.

At Garcia’s Bakery in Wimauma, in southern Hillsborough County, sisters Sonia Garcia, 28, and Bricelda Cantu, 35, spoke of their own fears as they helped customers at their family-owned Mexican bakery that draws customers from Parrish, Palmetto and Bradenton for the freshly made Mexican breads, tacos, tamales and other traditional food.

“I think it’s kind of scary to be honest,” Garcia said. “I just feel like now we can’t go out in public without feeling scared of what’s going to happen.”

Their brother was at the Walmart store in Gibsonton when 31-year-old Wayne Lee Padgett called the store the day after the El Paso shooting and told an employee he was minutes away and planned to shoot up the store.

Their brother was already being cautious when he was at the store in the wake of El Paso. When he learned later about the local threat, he had a panic attack.

That same day, Cantu and her husband had been hesitant about going to the Walmart in Sun City Center, she explained, recounting how they questioned whether to go but realized they needed to go.

As they shopped, she heard other customers commenting about the presence of law enforcement and other extra security.

“You could tell people were hurrying up and getting what they needed and were out the store right away,” Cantu said. “It’s upsetting.”

What’s most upsetting to the two sisters is that they were born American but still face the same threats.

“You get anxious. I am from here, why should I feel threatened?” Cantu said. “Why should I feel threatened if I was born here. Just the fact that we are Mexican, we have to be more aware of our surroundings.”

Just like Cantu, her 11-year-old daughter — who was born in the U.S. — is perceived as Mexican because it’s her parents’ native country. Unfortunately, she explained how she had to prepare all three of her children for the harsh reality of the current climate in the country.

“I just tell them to be aware of their surroundings and when you hear gunshots, duck down right away,” Cantu said.

As to the president’s rhetoric, she said, “I can’t wait until we vote again.”

“I feel like I’m from here and when someone brings up Mexicans, ‘That they don’t belong here,’ it hurts. It really does, because this is all I know and for someone to say, ‘You don’t belong here,’ ” Cantu said. “We’re all categorized in one category.”

Not just the fear of violent attacks

Fabio Betancourth, Spanish language pastor at Bible Baptist Church in Bradenton, said there are other issues more concerning to members of his congregation than being targeted in a shooting — being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“People are very concerned, even if they have paperwork, of losing their status,” he said.

Betancourth, who has been with the church for more than 10 years, said he recently became a citizen after being a green card holder for years.

“The president’s position has an impact on the community,” Betancourth said.

“I think what happened in the recent days tragedy in El Paso that targeted Latinos but also the immigration raid in Mississippi (Wednesday) has created anxiety and fear nationwide,” said Luz Cocuera, executive director of UnidosNow, an organization that seeks to elevate the quality of life of the growing Hispanic and Latino community in Manatee and Sarasota counties through education, integration and civic engagement.

On Wednesday, the largest workplace sting in years saw more than 600 people, mostly Latino workers, rounded up by ICE agents in Mississippi. About half were later released from custody.

Cocuera said the organization has been getting calls, with people asking “what to do, how to help, because the community is really shaken.”

Bradenton immigration attorney Luis Castro was bombarded by calls on Monday. Clients were eager to know the latest status of their immigration cases.

“I can understand their sense of urgency,” Castro said. “They want to get something done.”

Other clients who are already American citizens were calling to find out when his office would be participating in another concealed weapon permit class he sponsors.

Castro and his partner, Starcee Brown, have partnered with Bullseye Pistol Range, 1012 10th St. E. in Palmetto, in teaching a class that goes above what the state requires.

They want to people to understand things like the difference between self-defense and the “Stand your Ground” law in Florida. The special class is something his partner began about three months ago in conjunction with the Black Chamber of Commerce.

This past week, Castro has gotten even more calls from clients who fear deportation in the wake of the raid in Mississippi. His clients have shared their fears of going out in public.

Those fears, he said, were noticeable when he was shopping for office supplies at a Walmart in Palmetto last week. The store was unusually slow, he said.

“It is definitely being felt, even here in our community,” Castro said. “It’s sad and unfortunate that it has come to this.”

Castro, who moved to Palmetto from Mexico at age 4, believes that politics aside, the rhetoric of some politicians is part of the problem.

His biggest suggestion for immigrants or the Hispanic community right now: “If you see something, say something,” Castro said. “Don’t be afraid to go to law enforcement.”

Castro also encourages anyone with questions to speak to an immigration attorney, regardless of who, to know what their rights are. He always asks potential clients if they have been a victim of a crime, and often hears that many have been but did not report the crime for fear of being deported or getting on ICE’s radar.

But he wants immigrants to understand that if they have been a victim of a crime, that they have rights and may be entitled to certain immigration benefits.

On Thursday, that fear was enough to cause panic for one woman who works at a taco stand in Oneco when she saw several Manatee County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicles pull into a nearby parking lot. Too scared to share her name because of her undocumented status, the woman said she came from her native Mexico about six years ago.

“It’s horrible. I feel so bad,” she said when asked about how she felt about the mass shooting in El Paso.

An employee at Nora’s Honduras Restaurant in Oneco, Elvia Duarte, 27, her husband and their 2-year-old son immigrated from Honduras about four months ago. They have applied for asylum and their application is pending.

“It’s worrisome, I tell you, and it’s disillusioning because you came with other expectations, not expecting the country to be like this, so violent,” Duarte said.

It’s the violence in her native country that caused them to flee.

Duarte said it was disheartening to watch how children were left without parents as a result of the El Paso shooting. The fear keeps Duarte and her family at home other than when they go to work, church or grocery shopping.

When they do go out, they take precautions.

“I tell you, your expectations are shattered, because you thought this country was better than your own,” Duarte said in Spanish. “But we pray to God that everything gets resolved and the situation changes.”

Not every immigration story is the same. For some citizens, they live with the fear of worrying for a loved one. That is what Stephanie, a U.S. citizen, has lived day after day for 16 months, separated from her husband who is in Honduras waiting for his immigration case to be resolved. She asked that her last name and husband’s name not be used so as not to potentially interfere with his pending immigration case.

Stephanie said some days it’s hard for her to function at work. She lost her home and now has to support her daughter, herself and her husband, who is only earning $10 a day working in Honduras.

It could be another nine months before her husband is able to return to the U.S., assuming all his paperwork is approved.

“My anxiety has increased 1,000 percent. What if (his waiver) doesn’t get approved?” Stephanie said.

Thankfully, she has support from members of her church who pray with her — and for her — on the hardest days.

“At the end of the day, God is in control. God is in the U.S. and God is in Honduras,” Stephanie said. “He sees the big picture, I just see the moment.”

As a notary, Stephanie has seen the panic other families have of being suddenly separated. She said she tries to help them plan for an uncertain future.

She spoke of a time she notarized a letter directing care instructions for the children of someone who fears deportation.

To those looking to go through the process to become a citizen, Stephanie advised doing research and making sure you get a good, knowledgeable lawyer.

Start of school year adds more fear

As some immigrants try to live under the radar, the return to school for children adds new fears for some families.

”There are families who are deeply affected. They’re asking questions. ‘Are we safe to send families to school? Are they targeting minorities, immigrants, Latinos?’ Those are real concerns,” said Cocuera of UnidosNow.

Stephanie said she has heard immigrants are scared to send their children to school, afraid it will provide an opportunity for ICE to find them.

“The people I know are really devoted parents and want to make sure an education is given to their children,” Stephanie said.

The School District of Manatee County offers a Migrant Education Program that provides education access and support to children of migrant farm workers. As of Friday, a district spokesman said there are 386 students enrolled in the program for the 2019-2020 school year.

However, the district predicts it will see 492 students in the program, as many do not arrive until the first week of September. That is far fewer than the almost 800 students that were enrolled in 2015-2016.

Harold Medina, coordinator of the district’s program, said the drop is mostly because of farms in East Manatee giving way to development projects. Farmers hiring temporary, non-immigrant workers have also played a role in diminishing the opportunities for migrant workers and forcing them to go elsewhere for jobs.

This, Medina said, is also contributing to a declining number of participating students in the last few years. Medina said they want to make sure students feel they are in a safe environment while at school.

“Going back to class means a new chapter, new learning for kids. That feeling of not being safe is horrible,” Cocuera said. “Education is a public right. Kids should not have to be afraid of someone shooting or losing their relatives or loved ones.

“We need to care for the children. They are our future, after all.”