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Celebrating West Michigan's Hispanic heritage

Sep 24, 2015

Credit flickr user Texas Military Forces / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The city of Holland in West Michigan has certainly made its Dutch heritage known. If the name alone isn’t enough for you, the city has held an annual Tulip Time Festival, celebrating all things Dutch for the last 86 years.

But there’s a sizeable Hispanic community in Holland. The latest census numbers indicate Hispanics make up 23% of the city’s population.

That’s why the city is leading many area groups in a joint effort to collect and share the oral histories of Holland’s Hispanic Americans.

City of Holland Human/International Relations Manager Esther Fifelski tells us that their oral history project Nuestra Comunidad Hispana - “our Hispanic community” - invites members of the Hispanic community to share their stories as part of National Hispanic Heritage month.

“We’re hoping to … gather the stories, put together a profile, and then celebrate them at our [Latin Americans United for Progress] dinner in November,” Fifelski says.

Sister Noella Poinsette of Outreach and Social Justice at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Holland tells us that the parish is between 55 and 60 percent Hispanic, and also that it is the most diverse parish in the whole Grand Rapids Diocese.

She says she’s always been passionate about working with diverse populations, and is excited to be working with Nuestra Comunidad Hispana.

Poinsette says that many of the stories they've collected so far are hopeful tales of families working hard as migrant laborers, "but believing in education and so making that possible for their children and grandchildren.”

Migrant, immigrant and seasonal workers have been the backbone of the agricultural industry for decades, harvesting everything from our sugar beets and peaches to cherries and apples.

It’s estimated that in the next 10 to 15 years West Michigan may well have the largest number of Latinos in the state.

Ruben Martinez, director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University, tells us that the boom in Latino population really kicked off a little under a century ago.

“It really began to take off in the 1930s. Farmers in West Michigan had been using migrant and seasonal workers for some decades before that, but Latinos did not come in any sizeable numbers until about the 1930s and began to … settle out of the migrant stream probably in good numbers in the ‘40s.”

He says that Michigan is historically a "family-friendly state," meaning that farmers were set up to host entire families during work seasons, and until only a couple decades ago the majority of Latino workers who migrated did so with their families.

According to Martinez, scores of Mexicans sought refuge in South Texas during the Mexican Revolution. He tells us that Michigan’s migrant workforce was largely comprised of those refugees and the following generations born in Texas.

Martinez says the migrant worker population in West Michigan is much smaller than it once was, decreasing in line with the rise of automation and mechanization in the agricultural industry.

The majority of those workers now are single males from Florida and individuals with an H-2A Visa, according to Martinez.