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Area Latinos still seeking political clout despite growing numbers

POSTED: May 7, 2017 12:30 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Good News at Noon Director Alejandro Oropeza recently has been cleaning out one of the shelter's storage buildings. Oropeza has acquired insights into the local Hispanic community from his almost 18 years as a pastor and work at the faith-based men's shelter.

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There’s no doubt in the mind of Alejandro Oropeza that Gainesville will have a Latino mayor within the next 20 years.

Oropeza is no political scientist, but has acquired insights into the local Hispanic community from his almost 18 years as a pastor and work helping the poor and homeless through the faith-based organization Good News At Noon in Gainesville.

The prediction that a Latino will be elected mayor of Gainesville sooner rather than later may not be a shock to many given the dramatic growth of the Hispanic population that is expected to keep rising in the coming years.

Population projections by the Atlanta Regional Commission indicate that by 2040 more than 80,000 new residents in the area will be Hispanic. ARC, a regional planning and intergovernmental agency, provides demographic and economic data for the 20-county Atlanta region, including Hall.

In 23 years, Hall County’s demographics will flip with the white, non-Hispanic population forecast to be the minority group at 48 percent, according to long-term population projections by Woods & Poole Economics, Inc., a Washington D.C. firm specializing in county economic and demographic projections.

Woods & Poole predict that by 2040 Hispanics will comprise 44.7 percent of Hall County’s population, with African-Americans at 5.2 percent and Asian/Pacific Islander 1.8 percent. Together, these minority groups will become the majority in Hall County.

Oropeza is convinced that when a Latino mayor is elected in Gainesville it won’t be because Hispanics have acquired political clout to do so. Based on what he’s learned over the years about Latinos, and particularly Mexicans, of which he’s one, Oropeza said it will be the “Anglos,” the white population, who ultimately will put a Latino in power.

Incumbent Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan rose to power in 2013 by grabbing 62 percent of the vote against three rivals that included Latino candidate Charles Alvarez, who earned 6 percent of the vote. Alvarez is a New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots.

Dunagan’s term expires at the end of this year. Also expiring in December are the terms of city councilmen Sam Couvillon and George Wangemann.

Although Mexicans make up about 80 percent of the approximately 42 percent Latino population in Gainesville, they’ve yet to flex any political muscle. Oropeza said many differences pulling the Hispanic community apart are keeping them from exerting a unified political voice.

“There are many things that unite us, but many things that divide us, too, and that’s unfortunate,” Oropeza said.

Fascinated by history, Oropeza said even among Mexicans there are deep-rooted differences that work against unity.

“I come from a country with great indigenous cultures that fought against each other,” he said. “It was no different than the conflicts between the Navajos, Cherokees, Apaches and Comanches.”

Oropeza sometimes wonders whether differences, jealousies and distrust within the Latino community is holding back progress. He said that may explain why he’s not aware of a local Latino merchant’s association, civic club or political action group organized.

Nonetheless, some Hispanics believe progress is being made and a brighter future lies ahead.

Ivan Martinez, a 50-year-old construction worker in Gainesville, said he moved into the area from Mexico in 1984 and immediately found work in a poultry processing plant. After a few years at the poultry plant, Martinez said he transitioned into construction work.

“It was better then because there were less Mexicans,” he said sarcastically. “(Americans) liked us more because there were less of us.

“They needed laborers and would pay for everything we needed — a place to live, food.”

On a more serious note, Martinez said his son graduated from Gainesville High School and is continuing his education.

“I’m thankful because he has a better future ahead,” Martinez said.

About 59 percent of students in Gainesville are Hispanic.

Mary Vega, 37, said she moved to Gainesville 12 years ago from Indiana because she has cousins who live here.

“The most important thing for us is our children,” Vega said. “We want them to finish school and have a better life.”

Oropeza said he’s hopeful that through faith and education the Latino community will set aside differences, become more involved and make a positive impact in the Gainesville community.



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