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Mi Familia Es Su Familia, Workers Told Tight-Knit Company Adjusts After Move From L.A. To Cheney

Two men sit inside a 1968 Chevrolet Impala, parked outside their rented house in Cheney.

Octavio Ortega and his nephew, Ernesto, have tuned the car radio to a distant station, listening to news and tunes in their native Spanish.

In quiet, largely white Cheney, that station is the best outside link the Ortegas have to their Mexican culture and language.

“We cannot get that station in the house,” said 42-year-old Octavio. “And if we drive around town, we can’t either.”

Moving here eight months ago, the Ortegas and 30 of their relatives have discovered life is now much different from their former home in Los Angeles.

The group - made up of parents, children, uncles and nephews - are Cheney’s best-known Latinos. They’ve quickly earned a reputation for loyalty to their employer and devotion to each other.

They moved to the Northwest because 16 men in the group have worked for years at the Paul Eyraud Company, which shifted to Cheney in May.

The plant, which makes aluminum dishes and pans, moved because owners felt life in Southern California had grown stressful, said company president Jerry Eyraud.

When Cheney seemed the right choice, Eyraud told the workers he’d bring them and their families along.

“These are very loyal, family-oriented people,” said Eyraud. “We treat them like our family, too.”

Respecting their role in the company, Eyraud also told them he’d move only if the workers agreed to leave California.

It wasn’t an easy decision, he recalled. “They were comfortable in Los Angeles in some ways. They had friends and they were surrounded by people who spoke their language,” he said.

After moving to Eastern Washington, many in the family experienced cold weather and cultural isolation for the first time.

Younger family members have adjusted more quickly to the colder Northwest. “Our daughter, (5-year-old) Marisol, has been hoping we have more snow. It’s special to her now,” said her father, Ernesto, 36.

Beyond cold, the families are dealing with disorientation in a community that other Latinos in the area describe as “thoroughly white.”

“They knew, moving here, that the adaptation would be hard,” said Marta Reyes-Lytle, who was hired by the Spokane Area Economic Development Council to visit the families last year.

Reyes-Lytle, who spent more than 20 years in Colombia, took along a video, pamphlets and pictures to help the families decide about the move.

“They knew they wouldn’t find Spanish TV or radio here, restaurants, or just seeing faces like their own here,” said Reyes-Lytle, co-owner of a Spokane translation and interpreting firm.

At the end of her visit, she saw them leaning toward moving. “They said since it would be good for their children, it would be good for them, too,” she said.

Since moving, they’ve learned that people in Cheney and Spokane are friendly. With rare exceptions.

Visiting a Cheney tavern, Oscar Ortega, Jesus Heredia and Hector Ortega - all nephews of Octavio - sat at a table to sip a beer.

Nearby, they could hear other patrons talking. They knew enough English to recognize the words “losing jobs” and “lousy Mexicans.”

“Except for the one or two times, people have treated us very well. Some people come up and say hello,” said Octavio, a supervisor with the Eyraud firm for 20 years and one of four people in the group who speaks English well.

The families share rooms in four rented homes in Cheney. Some even walk the few blocks to the factory - a little easier than the 90-minute car commutes they faced in Los Angeles.

While they turn to each other primarily for food and friendship, they’re developing ties within the Cheney and Spokane communities.

Many attend weekend Mass in Spokane at St. Joseph’s parish, which attracts many Latinos with its Spanish-only services.

With few grocery stores catering to their diet, family members take turns driving 80 miles to Moses Lake to buy groceries such as imported corn meal or Mexican bread.

Since May, six of the group have returned to California. Three were homesick, two couldn’t sell their homes and the sixth moved to Arkansas after his wife decided to join relatives there.

Eyraud has guaranteed he’ll pay for the return trip to California of any in the group who wants to leave as well.

“All I ask is they spend a full year here first,” he said.

Apart from an initial public reception at Cheney’s lone Mexican restaurant, the arrival of the workers and their families has gone mostly unnoticed.

“Now that it’s been several months, there’s a sense of routine about their being here; they’re no longer newcomers,” said Steve Worthington, Cheney’s director of development.

Adelina Gonzales, an EWU graduate who’s met with the Mexican-Americans a number of times, said she encourages area residents to talk to the family members.

“I know people who (speak Spanish) who want to talk with them, but they’re afraid their language skills are too rusty,” she said.

The more contact the newcomers have with residents, the more each group will know their common bonds, she added.

“We hear all this rhetoric about family values in this country,” she said.

“These people really have those values, and they live them every day.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

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