Ku Klux Klansmen visited to pass out pamphlets.
HAMILTON, Ohio (AP) -- The neighborhood's streets are nearly deserted this pleasant summer day. No laughing children on bikes, no friends gathering in front yards to catch up on each other's lives.
Outside the office of the Living Water Ministry, which two months ago drew hundreds of people to its first Cinco de Mayo festival that celebrated this city's booming Hispanic population, there is still a smell of charred wood from the June 21 fire that gutted the house next door and caused damage to the outside of the ministry's office.
The fire damage, and the spray-painted, misspelled "Rapest" on the burned house, are grim reminders of the day normal life was transformed in the blue collar Fourth Ward neighborhood near the city's downtown.
Hotbed for growth
"Before, the street would be covered with people, people out all over the place," said Sasha Amen, community outreach coordinator for Living Water. "There's a lot of fear now. People are shutting themselves in their homes."
This southwest Ohio river city has been a hotbed for Hispanic growth in a state that has lagged behind much of the nation in Hispanic population. Hamilton's Hispanic population jumped fivefold in the 1990s, to 1,566, and is now estimated at 4,000 or more in a city of some 61,000 residents.
For the most part, the immigrants had settled in without much controversy in Butler County's seat, whose mayor in the 1990s was of Cuban descent. They worked plentiful construction and service jobs, and restaurants and supermarkets catering to Hispanic tastes began popping up. But simmering resentment of the Spanish-speaking newcomers among some residents was ignited June 19 when a 9-year-old Caucasian girl was raped, allegedly by a Hispanic man who has apparently fled the city.
The next day, the house where the man was staying was spray-painted by angry residents, and the next evening, the home went up in flames in a suspected arson. Angry confrontations, name-calling and threats against Hispanics followed; men roamed the streets wearing pillowcases with eye holes, and then Ku Klux Klansmen in hoods and robes showed up passing out pamphlets this month. Rumors of assaults and beatings have spread.
"Yes, there is fear," said Ramona Ramirez, who owns a corner deli-supermarket where she says business is off and her bread delivery man is now afraid to come. "They are attacking all the Hispanics, and it is only one person. We don't know what will happen."
The Mexican-born Ramirez, who says she moved to Hamilton with her husband more than a decade ago from Los Angeles and loved it because of better jobs, lower rents and "fewer crazy people," worries now about their seven children, ages 3-16. Lupe Galvan, another Mexican-born woman who has been here five years, adds that some neighbors are talking about moving away.
While the anti-Hispanic backlash has stunned many of the immigrants, some say they've felt racial prejudice here before. The Rev. Eustaquio Recalde, a native of Paraguay, says he was often harassed and ridiculed while working a factory job as the lone Hispanic employee.
"I think it's been around," Recalde said. "This was an opportunity for a few people to express it."
City and community leaders are trying to heal the wounds and promote dialogue. Police have beefed up patrols, and social services workers are trying to work to calm the community, Mayor Don Ryan said Friday.
Ryan said authorities are stressing that the crime was not racially motivated, that it was "strictly a random act of violence." He said the city won't allow the anti-Hispanic emotions of some who see it differently to disrupt efforts to keep the peace.
Ryan noted that in its past, Hamilton grew with influxes of German, Irish and Italian immigrants.
"We're continuing to be a melting pot in this country," he said. "Assimilating into our culture is tough; I firmly believe that it will take time."
Ezra Escudero, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs in Columbus, says that language barriers and culture shock have been linked to scattered incidents in other parts of the state, whose Hispanic population has doubled to nearly 280,000 since 1990.