Cover Story: Home Sweet Casa

Price Hill is Spanish for 'opportunity'

Jul 26, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Silvia Krull is the contact person for many new immigrants.

About four years ago a van pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant in Newport — an event that changed the life of Silvia Krull.

"A van pulled in, and I was looking out the window and I started seeing all these men and women coming out," Krull says.

The men and women, about 15 in all, were looking for cornmeal to make tortillas. They were immigrants from Guatemala.

Krull found cornmeal for them. Soon she would be translating for them, giving them rides and becoming their friend. She gave them her phone number, and they started calling two or three times a week.

"They were poor," she says. "You can see that these people were poor."

Krull learned the immigrants were being charged $2,000 to be brought to Cincinnati and as much as $150 to get help finding a job.

Although she lived in Newport, she found herself frequently driving to Price Hill — a neighborhood with a burgeoning Hispanic population — to translate at police stations or doctors' offices.

"They go through a lot," Krull says. "Sometimes they spend weeks or months in the desert, sneaking through the desert."

After a while, Krull began taking items the immigrants needed to Lower Price Hill. She decided it would make more sense to open a store. She hired a Guatemalan to run the store, called Conchitas — and soon there was trouble.

"The racists started going into the store, knocking everything on the floor, making fun of them and spraying them with water," Krull says.

Rather than back down, Krull moved from Newport, where she had lived for more than 20 years, and crossed the river to make a new home in Cincinnati to help.

After a large group of Hispanics living in Lower Price Hill were picked up by immigration officials while working in a factory, some wanted to leave. But Silvia decided to stay.

"Some of them says to me, 'If you stay, we stay. We're not going to leave you,' " she says.

Krull started renting out the area above the store to make a living space. Today she owns eight buildings, housing 400 to 500 Hispanics.

Cultures clash
Krull is not your typical "slide the rent under the door" landlord. In the course of two hours at her home, the phone rings several times with calls from people who need help. She speaks to them softly in Spanish.

Some of the people of Lower Price Hill, she explains, are less enthusiastic about living among the people she loves so much. Last year some white residents of Lower Price Hill scratched the car of a Hispanic man. He went to Krull for help, and she went outside, calling the police from her cell phone. Soon angry people showed up, ready to fight. Krull says men showed up, calling for the "Mexicans" to leave.

"They don't know that they're Mexican," she says. "I guess to them they all look Mexican."

As a man was flinging his arms in anger, he hit Krull. After she maced him to defend herself, she was knocked unconscious by a blow to the back of her head. She spent five days in intensive care.

"It's took one year of just depression and anger," Krull says. "I wanted just nothing but to die. I started telling people, 'You know, I'm dead, but I'm alive.' "

Today Krull has finally recovered. Surrounded by her family and friends, she works to make Lower Price Hill home for those who are so far away from the people and places they had known.

"They leave families and kids," Krull says.

Some are kids themselves, as young as 12 years old. They come to Cincinnati looking for fake identification so they can work. These are not typical 12-year-olds playing video games and eating hamburgers.

"They've got a regular job and they cook their own meals and wash their own clothes," Krull says. "I wish that our kids in America would have a little bit of taste not to have what they have. But here we give them everything."

The Hispanic people of Lower Price Hill, mostly from Guatemala, all have a story, and often it is jarring.

"They all tell me their stories when they get here," Krull says. "They have to go through two or three countries illegally. I have people that come here that have gastritis from not eating."

Not eating doesn't mean skipping a bowl of Wheaties at breakfast. It means two weeks with nothing in their stomachs as they battle the desert to arrive in the United States.

They come to Silvia sick, hungry, but full of hope; and she finds them a place to stay. If she can't, she lets them stay in her own home.

She says people often ask her if she is afraid of trouble with immigration officials.

"If I go to jail, it will be a good cause," she says. "I can say I'm in jail for something good."

Krull knows something about making a home in a foreign country.

"I'm not a wetback," she laughs. "Thank God no, but I could have been."

In Mexico City, where she lived before moving to the United States, Krull was an entertainer in a circus. She walked on hot coals, swallowed fire, performed magical stunts.

After meeting a German American from Hollywood, whom she later married, Krull came here as a tourist. She began working at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and toured the country performing. Traveling in a motor home with 30 animals that were part of her act, she ended up in Newport several times. There she met a woman who owned one of the venues for her act. The owner's daughter asked Krull if she would like to start a restaurant, and in 1979 she opened the first Mexican restaurant in the area.

"It was a lot of work," Krull says. "I had to quit show business and get into the kitchen and do dishes. No more Hollywood. Hollywood is gone."

Although she had her share of responsibility — three kids by the time she was 18 — she says she was too young to have experienced the problems of many Hispanics. Married to a U.S. citizen, she lived in a neighborhood where she was the only Hispanic and surrounded herself with American friends.

Today Krull knows immigrants' problems all too well. Ten babies and three pregnant women live in her properties. She's fixing a place in her backyard where they can play.

"It's dangerous to live around here for Hispanics," she says.

Krull has witnessed rocks being thrown from cars at Hispanics standing on the street. Some of her tenants have been robbed at knife-point inside their homes. One man was shot in the head with a BB gun.

Krull says she went through hell recuperating from her head injury last year, and some friends in Newport have tried to get her to return to Kentucky, where they feel she would be safer. But she says she has to stay and fight.

"Black people have a voice," Krull says. "Gays have a voice. Whites have a big voice. But Hispanics around here have no voice."

Part of the problem is jealousy, according to Krull. She says she sees many people in Lower Price Hill who refuse to work to get ahead, while most of the immigrants have two jobs.

"I can get a family of Hispanics with no job, no money, no clothes — and in no more than 30 days he'll have a paycheck in his pocket," she says. "They cannot stand me as a Mexican, as an immigrant, that I have this nice house."

Hispanic people in Lower Price Hill are easy targets of robbery because some keep cash with them, according to Krull. Some send the money to relatives in Latin America, and most don't use banks, she says, because they never know when they'll have to leave suddenly.

A matter of interpretation
Carolina Krull, Silvia's granddaughter, works at the family store in Lower Price Hill. Conchitas sells such items as phone cards in Spanish, spices and foods popular in Hispanic cultures, and Latin music. Even the groceries and toiletries have directions in Spanish.

"They feel happy they found stuff that they like," Carolina Krull says.

A member of the Krull family or a friend makes a trip to Chicago every week to buy goods to stock the store and fill special requests.

On a Saturday afternoon in July, people stream in and out of the store, stopping to chat or just grabbing what they need and moving on. A large pot full of homemade tamales sits near the front, and visitors grab some of the authentic Mexican food for lunch.

Carolina Krull and her siblings were the first generation of her family born in the United States. They were also some of the first Hispanics to attend school in Newport. Carolina Krull, who says she has often served as a translator, interpreted for this story during interviews with her customers.

Geronimo Diaz talks about what life has been like in Cincinnati in the six months he has lived here. Diaz lives by himself, working in construction. It's the same kind of work he did in Mexico, with an important exception — the money he makes here allows him to support his family in his former country.

He had to leave his three children behind.

"I feel empty without my family," Diaz says. "Nobody's sure about the future, but that's why I'm here, to help them be better."

Carolina Krull says the majority of Hispanics living in Lower Price Hill are men. Sometimes, after a few years, they might send for their wives and mothers, but for the most part, it's hard to do.

"It's not very often you see a family," Krull says.

Diaz says that although he misses Mexico, he likes the sincerity and honesty of Americans.

He ended up in Cincinnati for the same reason as many Hispanic immigrants — the availability of work.

"I asked around and they said this was the best place to come for a job," Diaz says. "For right now, I'm going to establish myself here."

Alicio Reyes came to Cincinnati from Mexico four years ago, citing a critical lack of jobs in Mexico and opportunity in the United States. Reyes, like many of the Hispanic men in Lower Price Hill, had to make the journey to Cincinnati without the rest of his family. They work with the purpose of sending money home.

"Anybody who comes here feels very scared and insecure, because of the papers, but I think it happens to everybody," he says.

The "papers" involve the many documents immigrants need to buy a car, get a job, etc.

Reyes works as a cook at a Chinese restaurant, a job he got after applying at about five places.

"It's easier here, because there's more opportunities," he says.

In the United States, Reyes has things not readily available to him in Mexico — for example, a telephone, a television and medical appointments that don't have to be made months in advance.

Reyes says friends told him where to apply for a job. Word of mouth is one of the best ways, many immigrants say, to find jobs and housing.

In a land where English rules, those who speak Spanish sometimes run into problems. Reyes says that for the most part, things have gone well for him, even in places where few people understand Spanish.

"Sometimes I try with English to make a little bit of communication with them," he says. "Most of the time they are willing to help us and find someone to translate for us."

Reyes says if he could be anything in America, he would be a social worker helping fellow Hispanics.

He says offering Hispanics a place to learn English would be a great help.

"It would help if there was a school to show English, so doors won't get shut on us as much as they do," Reyes says.

Carolina Krull says Cincinnati does seem to be making an effort to offer more pamphlets and information with Spanish translations than in the past.

"At first I think it was hard for Cincinnati to accept, but now since they're getting used to seeing different cultures around, they're getting used to it," she says.

Raul Ortiz left Mexico when he was 15 years old. Ortiz, who now lives in Hamilton, came to the United States alone, without his family and without his friends. Just like millions of other Hispanic immigrants, he came to work. Finding jobs is not the problem for Ortiz; getting help from the Cincinnati community is.

"I don't think Cincinnati people pay attention," Ortiz says. "They use the Spanish people to work, and they don't care what they want, what they think."

Ortiz says he has had to go to the hospital several times to translate for friends.

"The Mexicans, they get hurt and they come to me and ask me to talk to the nurses and doctors," he says. "Sometimes they don't even understand me. I ask if they can help these people. It's all I can do. I don't know nothing about medical things."

Ortiz's experiences with hospitals are not isolated incidents, according to Maritza Dyer, a family support worker for Every Child Succeeds at Santa Maria Community Services in Price Hill.

"The hospitals are the main concern, because there are no interpreters," Dyer says, "Different agencies, when you refer them — there's no interpreters to help them."

Silvia Gonzales walked much of the distance from Guatemala to Cincinnati. Arriving with one bag of clothes, Gonzales started her life anew in a city thousands of miles away from home. She had to leave her 3-year-old daughter behind with her mother.

Gonzales has lived in Price Hill for more than a year. She arrived with relatives looking for work, and found a job working at a factory.

"I feel more safe and tranquil here," she says. "It's a lot better here, because in my country there was not a lot of jobs and everything was high-priced."

Like Reyes, Gonzales would welcome classes in English. She says she would also like to see more accessible medical care.

Carolina Krull says the majority of the Hispanics in Lower Price Hill are from Guatemala.

"Guatemala is a lot poorer than Mexico," she says. "Compared to Mexico, Guatemala is really bad."

Entrepreneurs and missionaries
Frank Dominguez, co-owner of Dominguez Industrial Inc., says the reason many Hispanics settle in the Cincinnati area is because of the availability of jobs.

"When people come here, they come out of necessity," he says.

In places with a high concentration of Hispanics, such as New York, California, Florida and Texas, the competition for jobs is high, and the pay is often low.

"Unfortunately we're getting too many immigrants in here, and it will knock down the pay rate here as well," he says.

Dominguez knows firsthand the problems that confront Hispanic workers.

"Most of the time when we show up at job sites, we get dirty looks. But we start working, and our workmanship wins the customer," he says.

In fact, the immigrants laborers are so hardworking, Dominguez says, that new contracts often come with the stipulation the same crew will perform the job.

The job site isn't the only place immigrants sometimes encounter suspicion. Dominguez says Hispanics are often pulled over and questioned by police for such offenses as windshields with too much tint and missing front license plates.

Dominguez started his business in 1993, installing polymer floors and coatings for such clients as Miller Brewery, Procter & Gamble, Seagram's and Swan Foods. His company also offers painting services. He says about half of his employees are Hispanic.

Dominguez says he would never have been as successful today if he were still in Mexico, a place where he says political connections provide the only access to money.

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati wants to see more successful Hispanic-owned businesses in Cincinnati. The chamber began in 1996. Roberto Peraza, who works for Procter & Gamble, is the president.

"The chamber has about 25 that are members in the chamber right now that are Hispanic businesses," Peraza says.

The goal is to bring Hispanic businesses to Cincinnati.

"We want to encourage entrepreneurs to come and start a business in Cincinnati and in the county," he says.

According to Peraza, some of the Hispanic-owned businesses already in place throughout Hamilton County involve landscaping, architecture, translations, real estate and printing.

Peraza says programs to help people learn English are available at places such as Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center and the University of Cincinnati, but people need to be told where to find help.

"It's a matter sometimes more of people making the right connections," he says. "There are a zillion resources around. The challenge is to match the right resource with the right person at the right time."

Peraza says Procter & Gamble and General Electric have donated money to help the chamber, and there is a commitment at the corporate level to help.

"Most people want to progress and grow," Peraza says. "Cincinnati is growing and developing and trying to become a global city."

Unlike most Hispanics, Roger Reyes did not come to the United States looking for work. He was forced to leave his native Honduras.

"I was asked by the military government to leave the country, because I knew too much," Reyes says.

In the late 1970s, Reyes was a young lieutenant in the Honduran military when a power struggle occurred between two factions of the military: the younger generation of colonels and the older generation of generals. Reyes says the younger generation wanted to change the way things were done, while the older generation wanted things to stay the way they were.

"The generals that were in charge of the army were also in charge of the country, because in those days, a general would be the head of state, like a president and the chief officer all in one," he says. "His word would be the law."

The younger generation attempted to oust the older generation in a coup. The coup failed.

"The older generation fired the younger generation — colonels, majors, captains, even brand new second-lieutenants like me," Reyes says. "So I got booted out, too."

For two years Reyes stayed in Honduras, all the while being watched by military intelligence. In 1982, Reyes was told by the military it would be better if he left the country. It was not until 1991 that Reyes was able to return to Honduras for a visit. By that time a civilian government was in place.

From 1983 to 1985, Reyes was a Mormon missionary in Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming.

"(I went) to teach people about the church in English, and I did not know much English," Reyes says. "So that's where I learned English, in the West."

In January 1985, Reyes moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University. After two years he moved to the Hawaii campus to finish his bachelor's degree in international business management.

After graduating, Reyes moved to Indiana to go to law school and met his wife, Pollyanna, at a Mormon dance in Montgomery. Now Reyes, his wife and their two children live in Hamilton, where Reyes also has his law practice.

"This country — for someone who comes from abroad, right away notices that this country is very tolerant," Reyes says. "Even when we think of the most conservative people, still people are very tolerant here. In other countries as an illegal alien, you cannot get a job, you cannot own property, you cannot do a lot of things. Here people live, they work, they have kids, they own homes, sometimes without having a green card."

Reyes says the family structure in Spanish-speaking countries is very different from that of most American families.

"It's more of a matriarchal society," he says. "The women in the house call the shots for everything."

In his law practice, Reyes has noticed some problems within the legal system when it deals with Hispanics. The courts often do not offer interpreters in the courtroom or in the jail. Inmates must depend on each other to know what to do. Reyes says, however, that Butler County is making more attempts to help with the Hispanic community than Hamilton County is. While Butler County has offered Spanish classes to its employees, Hamilton County does not even offer a bus schedule in Spanish, according to Queen City Metro.

'Nobody likes change'
After six months in Ohio, Dominguez says, Hispanics learn more English than those who live in places with a saturation of Spanish-speaking people. His employees speak Spanish while they work, but he doesn't help them when it comes time to order lunch at McDonald's. They have to learn English, he says, and serving as a translator doesn't help. You can't be successful in the United States unless you can communicate, and you'll never learn to communicate if someone does it for you.

He says that a basic understanding of English isn't just helpful: It's a safety issue. If the building where they are working is on fire, and they have no idea what someone is telling them, they could be hurt.

Silvia Krull agrees learning English is a necessity. She offers space in one of her buildings for classes twice a week, taught by a volunteer from a local Bible college. Some don't bother to learn, because someone will always be around to translate, and they take the attitude they are only in the United States temporarily to earn money.

Inside Station F of the U.S. Post Office in Lower Price Hill, Dave Pretty opens a box that recently arrived. Inside are posters, pamphlets and other items in both English and Spanish. The post office, it seems, is pretty hip to what's going on in Lower Price Hill.

"The post office is pretty aware of the demographics of people in the neighborhood," says Pretty, a window clerk.

He says the new residents have helped post-office box sales at the small station, with about 20 being rented by Hispanics.

"My box rentals have gone up quite a bit," he says. "It seems to be a popular way of doing things."

Overall, Pretty sees no problems with the changing face of the neighborhood.

"I haven't seen anything negative at all. Everyone seems to like these people," Pretty says, noting they are polite and hardworking and stay out of trouble.

Gene Osborne likes his Hispanic customers at Davis Grocery, a store he owns in Lower Price Hill. He describes them as hardworking and honest.

"I wish there was a million of them here, because they all have cash and they spend it," Osborne says.

Osborne says he has seen some tension between newcomers and those who lived in the neighborhood prior to the boom in the Hispanic population.

"Nobody likes change," he says.

Osborne sometimes has trouble communicating with his Spanish-speaking customers, and at times it comes down to using a little sign language to complete a sale.

"My biggest problem with the whole influx of the Spanish population is they want us to speak Spanish," he says.

Pretty doesn't have to speak Spanish. He knows there will always be people around to help him out with translation. But in his spare time he tries to learn some Spanish using a computer program at home.

"If we're really having trouble communicating I'll say Silvia's name, and they know who I'm talking about," Pretty says.

Blanca Herrera, owner of the Immigrants Foundation of Northern Kentucky, in Elsmere, knows all about language barriers. Working to become a certified translator in Kentucky, she offers translation services to many Hispanics in the area. Herrera often accompanies people who don't speak English so they can get the services they need, or she calls government agencies on their behalf.

"There are so many issues — doctors' issues, wanting to enroll kids in school," she says. "I started this business originally as a translator," she says, but people asked for help on so many topics that she expanded her services to fit their needs.

In Mexico, according to Herrera, many people work for wages as low as 15 cents per hour. For them, a chance to come to the United States may be their only choice for survival.

"Either they look out somewhere else or they see their children starve," Herrera says. "They'd rather risk their lives crossing the desert than see their children starve."

Although she says that the whole area has been very supportive of the Hispanic population, the boom of the last few years may have caught them off guard.

"I don't think the Kentucky and Cincinnati area was ready for the huge amount of Hispanics that have come over," Herrera says.

Families are the future
The 2000 U.S. Census count shows there are 4,230 Hispanics or Latinos living in Cincinnati, making up 1.3 percent of the total Cincinnati population. The 1990 census count showed 2,386 Hispanics living in Cincinnati.

Some Hispanics, however, believe this is not an accurate count. They say fear of immigration officials may cause some Hispanics to shy away from participating, despite assurances that the information is not shared with immigration officials.

"There are many groups that are hard to count," says Betsy Guzman, a U.S. Census Bureau statistician.

The census does not ask whether a person is living in the United States legally or illegally.

"We're feeling pretty good about the census in general," Guzman says.

But Sister Margarita Brewer, S.C., of Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center, says the number of Hispanic immigrants accounted for in the census is "not even close" to the actual number.

According to Brewer, the majority of Hispanic immigrants are young men.

"They come to work and to send money to their families and that way (the family) can survive," Brewer says.

Some Americans, however, don't always see it that way.

"The idea of many people is that they come to take their jobs, that they don't pay taxes, they collect welfare," Brewer says. "None of that is true, because the jobs that they take are the jobs that nobody wants to do."

Another thing that bothers Brewer and other Hispanic immigrants is that many do not see people from Spanish-speaking countries as Americans.

"We are Latin Americans, we are Americans also," she says.

Brewer does not like to be called Hispanic, she says she should be called Panamanian.

"They put us together because we speak the same language, but we have many different cultures," she says.

Brewer moved from Panama to the United States in 1964. The majority of Hispanics living in Cincinnati are Mexican, but Su Casa helps people from almost all Spanish-speaking countries.

"They feel safe coming here because of the church, and the majority are Catholic," Brewer says. "We help with whatever problem they have."

Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center offers many services to Hispanic immigrants. Funded by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Su Casa served more than 24,000 Hispanic client needs in 2000. Su Casa offers job referrals, job fairs, housing assistance, English classes, translation services, income tax preparation services, medical referrals, legal referrals and even Alcoholics Anonymous in Spanish. Su Casa is a non-profit organization and except for English classes, all of the services they provide are free to the community.

St. Charles Borromeo Church has a Mass in Spanish every Sunday. The church and Su Casa are a special place where Hispanics from all over the area can come together, according to Catalina Landivar-Simon, who moved from Ecuador eight years ago to pursue a master's degree at the University of Cincinnati.

"People come here — it doesn't matter what their religion is, it's an open house," Landivar-Smith says.

For the first five years she lived in Cincinnati, Landivar-Smith attended church in Clifton, where Mass was in English. Going to St. Charles and hearing prayers in her native language, she says, was like going home.

"It just brings to you different memories and feelings," she says.

Silvia Krull sees families starting to form in Lower Price Hill, and the Hispanic community starting to thrive. She says she has heard that when Hispanics first moved to Chicago, people threw rocks at them and tried to drive them away.

She hopes Cincinnati, too, will grow into the idea of diversity.

"These babies are going to grow up and go to school around here," she says. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to be hard for those that are already here to get used to them."

Cincinnati Public Schools are already seeing a slow but steady growth in Hispanic student population.

Chris Wolff, assistant communications manager for the district, says Cincinnati Public Schools have two programs for English as a Second Language students. Children in kindergarten through eighth grade who don't speak English attend the Academy of World Languages in Evanston. Older students attend Withrow High School in Hyde Park. After the students learn English, they can go to a neighborhood school or a magnet school in the district.

Wolff says there are a total of 245 Hispanic students in the district, a slight increase over last year.

Krull has high hopes for the young Hispanics of Cincinnati. After all, she points out, the United States has always been built on people with similar dreams.

"Everybody wants to come to this country," she says. "It has always been like that — since your ancestors were looking for a better place to live." ©