JEROME • Marta Abalos didn’t think she’d be in Jerome this long. v Coming 11 years ago from Guadalajara, Abalos arrived at night. She expected a big city and was shocked when she woke up in the morning. Her first impression of Jerome: “Muy feo!” (Very ugly!). v Abalos intended to save money, then return to Mexico to resume studying for a college degree in tourism. v Josefina Cervantes came to the U.S. 12 years ago from Tecoman, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, to save money for building a house in Mexico. She, too, didn’t expect to stay.
Today, both women are still here, living with their families — and dozens of other Hispanic families — in Jerome’s Stoney Ridge subdivision. And the Latino population is growing faster in Jerome than anywhere else in south-central Idaho.
The U.S. Census recorded Jerome’s population as 7 percent Hispanic in 1990. Twenty years later, that number had shot up to 34 percent.
Along Main Street and Lincoln Avenue, businesses and professional offices display “Se Habla Espanol” signs in the windows. Downtown meat markets, Mexican bakeries and salons cater to a Hispanic clientele. In June, thousands of people crowded onto the Jerome County Fairgrounds to celebrate a Spanish-language radio station’s first year in business.
It’s a new Jerome.
In the 1990s, the draw for many Hispanics was employment in the Jerome area’s dairy and agriculture industries. But as a Hispanic community became established, people started to come because they have family or friends here, or because Jerome is the kind of place they want to live.
Mike Williams, from Jerome High School’s class of 1999, still remembers Socorro Gomez, the first non-English-speaking girl in his elementary class in the 1980s.
“By the time I graduated high school, the Hispanic population was pretty influential and predominant,” Williams said.
Today, Williams is Jerome’s city administrator, running a government that’s figuring out how to serve a large Spanish-speaking population. The city and school district have increased outreach to the Hispanic community, translated documents and recruited bilingual employees.
Some Hispanic residents say they have a long way to go.
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Last year, the number of Hispanic students in the Jerome school system surpassed non-Hispanic whites for the first time.
Santiago Garcia, a 2013 Jerome High graduate who came from Guadalajara in 2009, observed Jerome’s rapidly growing Latino population — from the window of the taco truck he operated beside an auto parts store on Lincoln Avenue South.
Much of the growth, he said, is from migration within the United States. While serving from the taco truck — or from the restaurant he opened in mid-July on Main Street East — Garcia talks to people of Mexican descent who are coming from Arizona, California and New Mexico. Some of his relatives plan to move here from Utah.
One of Jerome’s draws, he said, is that you can find what you need: nearby shopping, gas stations, a variety of restaurants. It’s also generally safe, he said, with few problems with violence or drugs.
“It’s a pretty nice town,” Garcia said.
Many of Garcia’s customers work at dairies. Others, though, have jobs with banks, the school district and the city.
“Those families are working all kinds of jobs now,” Jerome school Superintendent Dale Layne said.
Latino parents tend to be highly involved in their children’s education, Layne said. To communicate with parents, his district’s schools often send home information in English and Spanish.
“I think those little things like that have done a lot to break down some of those barriers,” head football coach Sid Gambles said.
But it requires employee time and skill. The district has more bilingual workers than in past years, Layne said, but it doesn’t track the number.
Seeing people struggle to communicate in English helped Garcia decide on a career. While earning money in the food business, he’s studying at the College of Southern Idaho to become a bilingual teacher.
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Other Jerome youth are already part of the solution.
Members of Jerome High’s Latinos in Action help by interpreting at parent-teacher conferences. The Utah-based national organization, launched in 2000, has more than 90 groups, but Jerome High is the only participating school in Idaho. More than 40 kids here were involved last school year.
Before Latinos in Action teens began helping five years ago, teachers had a tough time communicating with Spanish-speaking parents.
Census numbers show 28 percent of Jerome’s population speaks a language other than English at home, and 15 percent is both foreign-born and speaks English less than “very well.”
“We had a lot of parents struggling to understand what’s going on,” Jerome Middle School Principal Ryan Ellsworth said.
One afternoon in October, Jerome High student Jenny Magallon waited in the Jerome Middle School foyer with a portable radio, listening for the front office to alert her to the arrival of Spanish-speaking families. Just after 4 p.m., dozens of parents and students started filing in for student-led conferences. It was Magallon’s fourth year to interpret for parents and teachers.
“At first, I was a bit scared,” she said. But she found the work wasn’t hard.
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Latinos in Action activity is visible elsewhere in Jerome High and the community, too, as members volunteer at soup kitchens or tutor younger students. But Latino representation lags in other school activities.
While half of Jerome students are Hispanic, “the football program is not representative of that number at all,” coach Gambles said.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement. I feel like there’s a lot of kids who don’t play anymore,” said Jerome High football player Lucio Carrillo, 17, preparing for his senior year. In the six years he’s played, he’s watched Hispanic teammates leave football because they don’t have many friends on the team, or because they’re worried about injuries interfering with their basketball or cross country involvement.
Sometimes, they regain interest in football when the team is doing well, Carrillo said. “That happens a lot.”
Jerome’s soccer team has a lot of Latino players, but all the other Jerome sports need better Latino representation, Carrillo said. Not just the football team.
Gambles compared Jerome High’s Latino student numbers with Minico High School in Rupert. But, he said, “they seem to have more who are involved in athletics.”
Jerome has students who would be great for athletic teams but aren’t participating, Gambles said. “We might as well tap into the resources.”
Gambles doesn’t speak Spanish but wishes he did. A few new coaching hires do, but that’s coincidental rather than a result of targeted hiring.
The language barrier can be problematic in the football program, where parental involvement is key.
“Parents need to know everything we’re trying to do,” Gambles said. Coaches need to talk with parents about practice and game schedules, off-season weightlifting and conditioning, concussion information, the importance of hydration and fundraising.
Without parents’ support, teenagers can’t play football.
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City government, too, has had to adjust to serving a substantial Spanish-speaking population.
Police Chief Dan Hall said his officers frequently encounter people who don’t speak much English. The department has a couple of officers who speak Spanish, and a few more with limited knowledge of the language.
The department’s records specialist, Sylvia Rosales, often translates when people stop in or call the police station, or when a Spanish-speaking victim, witness or suspect is being interviewed at the station.
“She’s fantastic for helping us with our normal daily tasks, as far as being able to help with the language barrier,” Hall said.
Hall wants to hire more bilingual officers, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. “As you can imagine, the few Spanish-speaking officers there are around the Magic Valley are pretty hot commodities.”
Here, too, the children of immigrants are a big help. At times, police are called to a residence and the children are the only ones there who can help officers communicate with the adults.
“A lot of these folks have kids who speak English fairly well,” Hall said.
The bigger problem, he said, is that people who don’t speak English well are sometimes reluctant to go to the police.
“It’s my assumption there are probably crimes that go unreported,” he said. “There’s information that may be useful in solving crimes or helping the community; things go unsaid because of the lack of communication.”
At City Hall, the face of outreach to Spanish speakers is Esmeralda Chavez, hired as city planner a year and a half ago.
Chavez, a Jerome native who is of Mexican descent, said one of her goals when she started the job was to increase communication with Spanish speakers.
“I just feel like it’s an underserved population,” she said.
Now, the city has reference planning and zoning applications available in Spanish, which people can follow along while putting their answers on the official, English one. Chavez also translates the city’s codes for people who need help. Making sure people are aware of the rules they need to follow, especially for commercial construction projects, can be an issue, Chavez said.
An example is Tiger Stop, a Mexican restaurant, gas station and convenience store on Lincoln Avenue North.
When the owner painted the building its current blue-turquoise, Chavez said, he violated a city regulation that calls for commercial buildings on Main Street and Lincoln Avenue to have approval for exterior modifications. City guidelines encourage “warm earth tones” within that district.
Tiger Stop’s owner was not aware he needed approval, she said, but has been notified and agreed to comply.
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On the first Wednesday of every month, Chavez appears on Benjamin Reed’s talk and news show, “En Vivo y en Directo con el Chupacabras,” on Spanish-language radio station 99.1 La Perrona. Each month, she brings along a different city official or department head to talk about what the city government is up to and take calls.
“Ben has been very helpful in trying to get information out to the Spanish-speaking community,” Chavez said.
Reed, a familiar voice on the southern Idaho airwaves for years, goes by “el Chupacabras” but is not Hispanic. His wife, who also works at the radio station, is Mexican, and he lived in Mexico for several years when she couldn’t re-enter the U.S. due to a problem with her visa.
In July, Chavez appeared on Reed’s show with water supervisor Larry Bybee. After Reed read the day’s local news in Spanish, Chavez and Reed translated as Bybee talked about news of the city’s public works department — the roadwork on North Lincoln, the new bathrooms going into North Park, Sen. Mike Crapo’s plan to visit Jerome the next day.
When they went to commercial, the three chatted about the monthly segment and its benefits. Reed said it both demonstrates the availability of the city’s officials and makes people understand that they’re only human and have limited powers. The segment he did with the police chief was the most successful, Reed said, with many people calling in for that one.
Chavez often has messages in Spanish waiting on her office phone when she returns from the studio.
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Not everyone believes the government’s outreach has made a difference.
In the Stoney Ridge subdivision in June, as Abalos sat in her garage and watched her children play in a splash pool in the driveway, a couple of reporters asked her what she’s heard from her local government.
“Nada,” she replied.
So what do Hispanic residents want from their government?
In Stoney Ridge, many say they want increased traffic safety and speed limit enforcement — and for tragic reasons. A 2-year-old boy was struck by a truck and killed on 21st Avenue in September.
Abalos also wants to see more recreational opportunities for her children — especially in the winter, when there isn’t much to do — and more contact with the English-speaking community so people know what’s going on around town.
Garcia wants to see more downtown parking and better road maintenance. He told a story about his brother, recently pulled over by a policeman after swerving to avoid a pothole.
One June afternoon, Teresa Rodriguez sat at a picnic table in the otherwise deserted Jerome City Park, eating a meal from a plastic grocery bag.
For 17 years, Rodriguez has come from Mexico to Jerome for three months each year to clean Jerome houses and see her granddaughter in Boise. Rodriguez hears among Jerome residents that their pay is “very low,” and she said city administrators could be more strategic about the types of jobs they attract.
“I don’t really see any economic progress within the city. One or two restaurants is not enough,” she said through an interpreter.
She’s worn out and her bones hurt. Rodriguez knows people who make $7 per hour doing agricultural work, she said, and they’re tired too.
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The subdivision around 21st and 22nd Avenues East, west of Tiger Drive, is called Stoney Ridge on planning maps, although few people call it that conversationally. In June and July, Times-News reporters interviewed a dozen Stoney Ridge residents with the help of interpreters. Most said they generally like Jerome and are glad to live here.
Cervantes worked in California’s grape industry before moving six years ago to Jerome. She lives on 21st Avenue East, where an Aztec symbol of the sun decorates the front of her house, with her husband and her youngest son, 6. Her husband commutes to Sun Valley for landscaping work, and her grown children live in Mexico and Wendell.
Cervantes doesn’t feel connected with the city. And she doesn’t keep up with news because she finds it depressing, she said in June, in a living room decorated with family photos. But she likes Stoney Ridge.
“The neighborhood is very peaceful,” she said through an interpreter.
Abalos stayed in America when she got married. Now, she has two young children in school, and she has grown to like Jerome for the same reason as Cervantes:
“Es muy tranquilo.”