When Estela Gonzalez moved to Rathdrum with her family in 1982, she felt alone and despondent.
A Mexican native who’d been living in California, Gonzalez didn’t speak English and felt walled off from the community.
“It was very depressing,” she said. Everywhere the family went, “everyone just turned around and looked at us. My dad moved back to California because he couldn’t cope with it.”
Gonzalez, 64, said she’s seen attitudes change since then, as the population of Hispanic residents has grown. But that very growth has sparked another kind of conflict – born of the debates over English-only proposals and fences along borders.
She said it’s common for people speaking Spanish on their cell phones to be interrupted by someone telling them to speak English – she said it happened to her one day after a church service, when she was told, “I know that you speak English, why are you speaking Spanish? You’re in the United States, don’t you know you’re supposed to speak only English?”
Incidents like that one make Gonzalez feel that cultural friction is alive and well in this region, and that many members of the white population don’t understand or appreciate people with different cultural backgrounds.The rapid growth of the relatively small Hispanic population in this region looks dramatic in one light. Kootenai County’s population of Hispanics has grown by 80 percent in the last eight years. In Spokane County, it’s grown by 47 percent.
Still, in both counties, the growth in real terms of the Latino population has fallen well behind the national pace. Hispanics accounted for 14 percent of all population growth in Spokane during the past eight years, and they made up 8 percent of all population growth in Kootenai County. Nationwide, that figure is 50 percent.
Gonzalez and her husband, Jorge, run Kootenai County Hispanic Ministry, a Catholic outreach that helps people with everything from housing to translation to finding jobs. One of the ministry’s efforts is teaching English, she said, because many Hispanic immigrants here are coming from California, where they can get by without learning it.
Gonzalez herself spent several years living essentially apart from the community. She said she and her family ran into racism frequently – she recalls being asked to leave a booth at Pig Out in the Park about 18 years ago, with her two daughters.
“We were asked to leave the place because we were not allowed,” she said. “We just went to the car and cried. I think that was a motivator, also, because I wanted to be able to express myself.”
Gonzalez herself, who grew up in Mexico and immigrated to California at age 16, decided to go back to school, learn English and earn a college degree when she was 50. She took classes at North Idaho College, and finished a four-year degree in social work through Lewis-Clark State College in 2000.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “Very, very difficult. But I was determined. I was determined to get out of the depression and to make use of myself. I always liked to work in the community.”
Gonzalez said the majority white community isn’t the only one with a responsibility to understand people of a different background.
“I think there is a two-way understanding – for us to understand the larger community and for the larger community to understand where we come from.”