Latino professionals hope to set example in Idaho

(Idaho Falls) Post RegisterSeptember 4, 2013 

Sergio Romero talks about his journey to the United States 27 years ago and his path to American citizenship. His days of hiding are long gone. He says he has received a lot here, and he now wants to return the favor.

ALEX MCDOUGALL — Post Register

Martha Martin-Bermudez and Sergio Romero agree a lot has changed for Hispanic immigrants in the past quarter century. When Martin-Bermudez came to the United States from Mexico in the 1970s and Romero came in the 1980s, they each were wide-eyed and curious.

Martin-Bermudez, who was 8 years old at the time, was in awe of the snow blanketing eastern Idaho’s farmlands when she arrived in the late 1970s.

About a decade later, Romero was giddy at the notion of life on his own as he entered the U.S.

“I felt like a child with a new toy,” Romero says.

He was in his early 20s when he crossed the border with vague plans to meet a friend in Provo, Utah, in the middle of the night.[0x0b]

A NEW BEGINNING

Now 50, Romero laughs at how unclear his goals were. In the time since, he’s become more organized and precise.

With little more than a jovial tug of his thick mustache, he recites the exact date he entered the states: Sept. 17, 1986.

Martin-Bermudez was a child when she rode in a car across the West as her family followed her father to his job in Blackfoot.

Now 43, she struggles to remember being overly upset or anxious; she was too young to fully comprehend the move. But she remembers more of that day than she originally anticipated.

Her eyes glossed over as she recalled stepping out of the car and landing on American soil — and the bittersweet memories the moment left behind.

Romero and Martin-Bermudez are hopeful about the immigration bill that passed the Senate and is now before the House of Representatives.

They’re legal now, but they both came here as undocumented immigrants, leaving behind little trace beyond the tire tracks they made on the highways of the American West.

They lived quietly to avoid being deported. Romero dreaded trips to the grocery store. Martin-Bermudez lived in constant fear of the shrill yell — “La Migra!” — sounding the alarm that immigration police officers were nearby.

IDAHO’S EMERGING HISPANIC PROFESSIONALS

Today, Romero is a Spanish teacher at Idaho Falls High School. Martin-Bermudez is a real estate agent for Keller Williams Realty. They’re both members of what many call an emerging social class in Idaho: Hispanic professionals.

In 2000, there were about 4,500 Hispanic professionals, officials or managers in Idaho, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2011, the Census Bureau estimated there were about 8,200 Hispanics filling such positions in the state.

Many of these workers are the U.S.-born sons and daughters of immigrants, says Carmen Gonzales, executive director of the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But others, such as Romero and Martin-Bermudez, came to the U.S. hoping for a slow climb out of poverty.

Gonzales credits this Hispanic sense of entrepreneurialism for the growth she’s seen throughout the state.

The Idaho Hispanic Chamber had 27 members in March. By the beginning of August, Gonzales says, that number had more than doubled to 70.

THEN: FEW LATINO BUSINESSES

Romero says when he first settled in the Idaho Falls area, he was hard-pressed to find one Mexican restaurant, let alone a Latino-owned business of any kind.

In the time since, he says, government and nonprofit aid to immigrants from Latin America has allowed the population to flourish.

He’s thankful new immigrants won’t feel as lonely as he felt 27 years ago. Romero says he sees himself as a role model for Latino students in Idaho Falls School District 91.

“I spent a lot of time to finish my (degree at Idaho State University). It took me 20 years to finish ... I like to motivate kids in the schools to continue,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you have struggles or anything in your life. You can remove that. I was pretty close to saying, ‘No mas, no more, I don’t want to do this.’ ”

Martin-Bermudez agrees that Latinos are feeling more comfortable in Idaho. And the comfort isn’t only when dealing with fellow Latinos. She says the rise of Latino professionals has shown native Idahoans that Latinos are an essential part of the economy.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

When Martin-Bermudez started selling real estate 16 years ago, she says other real estate agents would refer manufactured houses to her, saying the homes were for “your kind of people.”

“The image Latinos had here ... (was) just looked down on,” she says.

Today, her fellow real estate agents embrace the cultural differences. “I think you don’t find that much discrimination among agents anymore, because there are a lot of buyers that are Latinos.”

Still, Martin-Bermudez says more Latino professionals and Latino-owned businesses are needed as more immigrants from Latin America settle in Idaho.

Martin-Bermudez became a U.S. citizen two years ago, but keeps her Mexican heritage alive through her work. She says about 90 percent of her clients are Latinos — many of whom hope to buy their first homes in the U.S.

It’s a struggle that Martin-Bermudez’s family faced 30 years ago. Her father’s knowledge of English came from prime-time television shows, particularly “Bonanza” and “The Brady Bunch,” that she would translate.

She doesn’t want future generations of immigrants to face the same strife her family endured. Martin-Bermudez says both of her parents worked long days in the potato fields to make ends meet.

SOME IMMIGRANTS, LIVING HERE ILLEGALLY, WANT TO BUY HOUSES

“I deal with so many people that don’t have their legal status that call me and want to buy a house. They want to make that dream come true,” Martin-Bermudez says. “... The fact the Senate has passed this bill is just wonderful and is a wonderful thing because I do feel we all need to have that opportunity. ... One person can ruin it for everybody, but the majority of people are good people and hard-working people, and they are in hiding and they’re not accounted for.”

Romero says the bill would benefit many of his friends who want to become citizens, though he doubts it would halt undocumented immigration. But Romero is proud of the progress the government has made in its treatment of immigrants — undocumented and documented.

“The Latinos have businesses now because they have rights,” he says. “In the past, maybe they wanted to do something like create a business, but if you are illegal, you can’t do anything. You hide from the government.”

Romero says he has no regrets about coming to the U.S. and becoming a citizen in 1998. He plans to run for public office someday.

“I have many things to do in this country,” he says.

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