The Magazine

Hola, Delaware!

How Guatemalan immigrants changed a small American town.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

After the Civil War, the C.H. Treat Co. opened a wooden-plate factory and brought in employees to run it. Kimmeytown was built to house them. They were white, English-speaking Protestants from further north, and still they got the cold shoulder. According to the historian William H. Williams, Wesley United Methodist Church took them in as worshipers, but refused to give them any positions of responsibility. So they built Grace UMC, the rival church that exists in Kimmeytown to this day. During World War II, a smattering of Jewish entrepreneurs from New York set up chicken operations in this part of the Delmarva Peninsula, according to Williams. There were a few dozen Bahamians and Jamaicans brought in to farm land for men away at war. They soon went home.

In the past decade, the Anglo-Saxon Methodists have not just encountered immigration--they have suddenly become a minority. Georgetown had 4,896 people in the 2000 census, 32 percent of whom described themselves as Hispanic. It is hard to find an official in Georgetown who believes that percentage was accurate even at the time it was compiled. Conservative estimates of the town's Latin American population put it at 3,000. Other guesses run over 5,000, higher than the official population of the town. That might not be far off, to judge from the outlying concentrations of Guatemalans and Mexicans--like the chock-a-block County Seat trailer park, hidden in a forest northeast of town, where mobile homes of 1950s and 1960s vintage are festooned with Christmas lights as if this were Central America.

The majority of Delaware Guatemalans come from near Tacaná, in San Marcos province. Most can use Spanish as a second language but speak an Indian language--usually Mam--at home. They are leaving their mark. On Race Street, there is a place called Central Service where you can do laundry, get guanábana juice, wire money, cash checks, and watch the World Cup. There are a number of Latin American grocery stores, including the big Mercado, which sells Mexican CDs, coconut water, and big plastic bags of pork scratchings. Outside is a cart where a man sells grilled corn-on-the-cob. Many once-sleepy towns on the Delmarva peninsula--particularly those, such as Millsboro, Selbyville, and Seaford, that have chicken plants--are taking on a Central American cast, with money-wiring services, young men in cowboy boots, girls decked out in elaborate dresses for quinceañera parties, and soccer games in vacant lots.

You probably can't expect everyone to love that. There are communities in Delaware that have come down on immigration like a ton of bricks. Over the past two years, the town of Elsmere, near Wilmington, has sought to pass a variety of controversial (and legally questionable) ordinances. One would have imposed $100 fines on those who couldn't prove legal U.S. residence within 72 hours, an other would have banned on-street parking for those with out-of-state plates. And there have been various edicts affecting landlords, including $1,000 fines for those who rent to illegal aliens, and requirements that all landlords give local authorities a list of the vehicle registrations of their tenants.

This approach may have been tempting in Georgetown. Workers have sometimes crowded into rooms to the point where they were sleeping in shifts. A worker who came back from his night shift job at 2 A.M. and found his bed occupied would wander the streets of town alone to kill time until his bed freed up. This kind of normal Latin American behavior scared the dickens out of the locals. In 1993, an immigrant who had been out drinking drove his car across a median strip and hit a popular high-school cheerleader, killing her instantly and sparking tensions. Bob Ricker, a longtime fire chief and former mayor, infuriated immigrants when he said: "It is their job to bring themselves up to our level, not bring our society down to theirs." A Latino congregation hoping to worship at a local Methodist church while they built a church of their own got a lukewarm reception. Worries were expressed about the "spread of disease" from too close contact with immigrants, according to one parishioner. At a church meeting to clear the air, a local custodian stood up and shouted, "You're going to regret bringing these people in here!" There was bitter resentment of the local chicken companies, whose need for labor, it was said, had changed the town beyond recognition.

Sitting at a desk in a tiny cabin at the front of the used-car lot he runs, Mike Wyatt, the mayor of Georgetown, says the town really didn't have any idea what was happening to it until it had become a different place altogether. "The demographics started changing in the early 1990s," he recalls, "but people didn't wake up to it until about 1997. Back then, everybody hated them. Today, I would say that 85 percent understand them."