Latino population in Oswego mirrors nationwide trend

Veronica Valenzuela, daughter of Azteca Mexican Grill in Oswego owners, seen here at the restaurant. (Moraima Capellan | The Oswegonian)
Veronica Valenzuela, daughter of Azteca Mexican Grill in Oswego owners, seen here at the restaurant. (Moraima Capellan | The Oswegonian)

Forty years after arriving in the city of Oswego, a Latina activist still feels the need for growth and change in a skeptical community.

High school experiences have shaped another Oswego native’s conflicting views on the Latino community in her hometown.

And six years after the opening of her family Mexican food restaurant, a young Latina feels welcomed by the city that has become her home.

These situations all reflect not only the dilemma that the country is facing with the fast growing Latino population but of the different effects this growth has in a small city not accustomed to diversity.

The presence of the Hispanic population has never been stronger. Just with the past Presidential Election where according to polls by the Pew Research Hispanic Center more than 70 percent of Latino votes were for President Barack Obama. The Latino population is also expected to rise to 29 percent by the year 2050 compared to the white population, which is expected to be at a 47 percent. This is compared to the 2005 population, which for Latinos was at 14 percent, and the white population was at 67 percent.

According to the latest U.S. Census, the City of Oswego has 4.4 percent of people of Hispanic or Latino origin. This is a small number compared with the 17.6 percent New York state average, but the Oswego community is becoming aware of the growth.

When asked if there are any initiatives by the city to serve the percentage of Latinos, Mayor Thomas Gillen, believes that by promoting Oswego as a whole, diversity will follow.

“We are certainly open to people of all races,” Gillen said. “Our focus at the city of Oswego is to grow the economy by creating new jobs, primarily with knowledge-based industry and technology.”

Gillen believes those initiatives will not only bring more jobs but more Latinos to the growing community.

“It’s a vibrant culture and will enhance our overall identity as a city,” Gillen said.

Gillen believes that Oswego is not as diverse because of the location and the economy.

To Oswego native and Oswego State student, Karly Babcock, the growing Hispanic population is only making city relations between non-whites and whites worsen. The 20-year-old witnessed situations while a student at Oswego High School that were full of racial tension and stereotypes.

“We kinda had a race war in high school,” Babcock said, describing an incident in which a group of Latino students faced off with the popular hockey players.

“The (Latina) girls scared me,” Babcock said of the females that stood up to the intimidating hockey players. “They weren’t afraid to say anything.”

Babcock never personally had a experience with any of the Latinos in her high school but she witnessed a lot of name-calling and discrimination being done to them and stayed away.

“I did not know a lot of them cause none of them were actually in my classes,” said Babcock, who upon arrival at Oswego State and seeing the difference between the Latinos in the community and the college campus concluded that this was not a race problem.

Babcock explained that in her community and high school the Latinos “normally don’t care about academics, (are) in a socially wrong crowd and have behavioral problems. But not because they are Latino, they just got pushed into that crowd.” To her this was different from the college students who were able to stay away from such crowds.

“One of the stereotypes is that if you are Latino you are pretty much already ‘sucking our system,’” said Babcock, who has also witnessed the conflicts between adult Hispanics and whites in the Oswego community.

She said that a lot of adults blame the Latinos, specifically Mexicans, for “ruining the town.”

“They’ll eat Mexican food but they won’t be accepting of Mexicans,” Babcock said, reflecting on one of Oswego’s most popular restaurants, Azteca Mexican Grill. “I don’t think they make the connection that they are Latino. It’s like they are different.”

To Veronica Valenzuela, daughter of the owners of Azteca Mexican Grill, their presence as a successful business and Latino family in Oswego is positive. Rarely have they had problems due to their ethnicity and most people love the food. The 24-year-old moved from Chicago to the Syracuse area and her parents opened Azteca six years ago after a spot in Syracuse fell through.

Valenzuela remembers the move to Oswego as a complete culture shock and that she and her siblings barely had any friends in school. Although everyone was welcoming, she recalls an unpleasant incident that her sister endured in a Spanish class at Oswego High School. The teacher asked the students to translate the word ‘robber’ to Spanish and a student yelled out “Mexicans.” A few days later the student came to the restaurant and saw her working with her family.

“We try to bring everyone together, make it a family environment,” Valenzuela said. “Oswego is quiet, it’s a nice place to grow up but if you look for trouble you will find it.”

Valenzuela said that aside from the college students and occasional gatherings they don’t see a lot of Hispanics in Oswego.

But not everyone had a smooth transition into the life of Oswego. Catherine Santos, the first Latina to become a Common Councilor for the city of Oswego, came to Oswego in the 1970s and remembers a city full of prejudice.

“There were certainly expressions of racism, people yelling out of their car windows and calling me names and treating you disrespectfully in a store or following you,” Santos said. “It wasn’t a welcoming environment.”

From having to travel to Syracuse for food and hair products to people vandalizing her house, Santos and her family had to learn to live in Oswego. She became very active and vocal in the community because she believes, “the only way people are gonna learn about you is if they see you.”

Santos, who is now the Associate Provost for Multicultural Opportunities and programs at Oswego State, believes that everyone is responsible for one another in a community and that unpleasant events continue to occur because they are not reported.

“I’m still worried about my grandson being profiled as a 16-year-old black male,” Santos said. “Things have changed but there’s a long way to go. The same way that I had to fight for my kids 25 years ago, I still go into the schools to fight for my grandson.”

Santos refuses to give up because she believes that she cannot complain if she does not do anything to stop it.