HENNESSEY — A scattered collection of photos covers the living room table in the home of Francisco and Connie Marquez.
The images document the Mexican-American family's journey from a humble wedding in 1983 to the birth of three children, to high school and college graduations.
One photo shows the couple walking down the aisle nearly 30 years ago in what they believe to be Hennessey's first Hispanic wedding.
“We didn't have any money back then,” recalled Francisco Marquez, known to family and friends as Frankie. “I had to borrow a suit.”
The photos illustrate the classic cycle of immigration in America.
They also reflect the distinct history of the Kingfisher County community the Marquezes call home, far from their birthplaces in Cuauhtemoc and Independencia in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Built atop the wagon ruts of the Chisholm Trail, Hennessey grew from the sweat and blood of newcomers determined to create a better life for their families on a distant, foreign prairie.
Today, oil field work, a hog farm and agricultural jobs are the bedrock of the local economy. Socially, it's the love of God, country and football, although maybe not in that order.
Yet a profound change has occurred here. During the past few decades, increasing numbers of Hispanic families like the Marquezes have quietly sunk roots in the community. According to the 2010 Census, Hennessey's 599 Hispanic residents now account for 28 percent of the town's 2,131 residents. The statewide average is 9 percent.
That's enough to rank Hennessey ninth on a list of Oklahoma cities and towns with high concentrations of Hispanic residents, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis. And it places Hennessey squarely in the middle of a national debate over the influx of Hispanic immigrants.
In May, new birthrate data released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of the children born in the United States.
The numbers suggest a monumental demographic change in this country, where non-Hispanic whites could become the minority as early as 2040. It's a future that opponents of illegal immigration have been fighting aggressively in states such as Oklahoma and Arizona.
Tensions over immigration are present in Hennessey, residents acknowledge. But the anxiety seems less intense and the conflicts less contentious. In fact, some demographic experts say Hennessey may be a model of successful assimilation, a place where immigrants have settled in, worked hard, raised families, contributed to the economy and encouraged their kids to do well in school.
Perhaps no one has noticed the change more than Bill and Barb Walter, publishers of Hennessey's weekly newspaper, The Clipper. Bill Walter grew up in Hennessey, back when everyone in the countryside flocked to town Saturdays to shop and socialize. He left town in 1953 and returned in 1978 to run The Clipper.
“When I was in grade school, it wasn't uncommon to hear folks talking Czech down on Main Street,” Walter noted with a smile. “When I returned, I heard people talking Spanish.”
Change didn't happen overnight, but rather like a trickle of water.
Gloria and Julian Anaya Sr. were among a handful of Mexican couples to first settle in Hennessey. They did so, illegally, in 1979, crossing the border with little more than a hope and a prayer.
“We drove across the border with three small children 5 and under in the backseat,” Gloria Anaya recalled. “I remember saying a prayer as we approached the border guard. When it was our turn, he really didn't ask any questions. He just asked where we were going. We said, ‘Oklahoma City.' He said, ‘Is the car running good?' We said, ‘Yes.' He said, ‘Good luck' and waved us through.
“It was a miracle.”
Eventually, the Anayas were drawn to Hennessey by the allure of work on local farms and oil fields, as well as the security and tranquility of small town life.
Theirs is a family legacy shared by many Hennessey Hispanics.
The last time Frankie Marquez crossed the border illegally he put his fate into the hands of a smuggler — or “coyote” — who secreted him into the United States in June 1984, aboard a sealed railroad car with 20 other men. The eight-hour journey to Albuquerque mercifully ended when the smuggler opened the railroad car door as promised.
“Thank God,” recalled Marquez.
“A lot of times those cars are disconnected from the rest of the train and abandoned, and nobody knows there are people inside. We were fortunate.”
Marquez was returning to his wife, Connie, and their firstborn son, Randy. The young couple had married the previous year.
Today, Marquez is a foreman for Oklahoma City-based San Jacinto Gathering Corp. and oversees 40 well sites — a testament to former President Ronald Reagan's 1986 immigration reform act, which provided amnesty to some 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Frankie and Connie became legal residents in 1987, and in 1998, they became U.S. citizens.
The Marquezes own their home in Hennessey, a two-story, white frame house where they raised three children — Randy, 28; Eric, 25; and Elizabeth, 21, who goes by Betsy.
Randy attended college at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva but returned to Hennessey to work in the oil fields. Eric, who earned valedictorian status at Hennessey High School in 2005, graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in biomedical sciences. Betsy is pursuing a community health degree at the University of Central Oklahoma.
“As a family, we were all so proud of Eric,” Betsy Marquez said. “During his commencement speech, he paused to tell everyone in the crowd he wanted to say a few words for his family in Spanish. He was the first valedictorian to deliver part of his speech in Spanish, and that was a very special moment for all of us.”
Acceptance is still a work in progress in Hennessey.
Frankie Marquez remembers a time when he was routinely harassed by a local police officer. In time, the harassment ceased when non-Hispanic residents began vouching for his character.
Gloria Anaya fondly remembers the kindness of her non-Hispanic neighbors, Wesley and Mary Wilson. In those early years, when the Anayas didn't know anyone in town, Mary Wilson often stopped to visit.
“I didn't speak English then, but it didn't matter,” said Anaya, who became a legal resident in Reagan's amnesty program.
“She would come into my home, sit down and visit anyway. I didn't know what she was saying, and I'm sure she didn't understand me. Then one day I became very sick. Mary brought me a big pot of soup.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is real love.'”
The Anayas remained in Hennessey, and worked hard to put all three of their boys through college.
The eldest, George, works at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Twins Samuel and Julian Jr. are employed as an Oklahoma City schoolteacher and police officer, respectively.
Not long ago, many Mexican families could be found living in a cluttered collection of battered old trailer homes on the west side of town. Locals referred to the low-income neighborhood as “Little Mexico.”
“I lived there,” Monreal said proudly. “We were here for the American dream. We were willing to go through whatever we had to, to obtain that dream. We put our pride aside.”
Today, many of those same families have climbed the social ladder and become owners of their own homes and businesses.
They include second-generation Mexican-Americans such as Abel Moreno, a 1987 Hennessey High School graduate who owns his own oil field company, Quick Pump Service.
Moreno, 43, made local history in 2004 when he was elected to the five-member town board.
A sign of progress: It wasn't until after the election that Moreno reflected on the fact that he was Hennessey's first elected Mexican-American official.
“In Hennessey, we're not about the politics,” Moreno said. “We're about lives.”
Graduate roll call
A sampling of Hennessey High School's 2012 roll call of graduates speaks volumes about what is taking place: Buckner. Cervantes. Buford. Garcia. Hardy. Gonzalez. Holder. Benitez ... Twenty-four Hispanic surnames account for nearly half of the total graduating class of 55. Three of eight valedictorians were Mexican-Americans.
“Obviously, the number of Hispanics in town has grown,” said Joe McCulley, Hennessey's school superintendent. “I've seen a noticeable growth in my six years here, but no one talks about it. Now it's just part of life … Even just three years ago it was a real fight to get the Hispanic kids and their parents involved. Now they are involved in everything we do.
“In our school, we all bleed one color — Hennessey blue.”
In 2010, Hennessey's football team won its first 2A State Championship under Head Coach Shannon Watford.
Afterward, at the annual sports banquet, Watford called all of his players together on stage and said their opponents had no idea “what a bunch of farm boys and their Hispanic brothers” could accomplish.
The same held true in 2011 when the Hennessey Eagles — once dubbed the “Hennessey Illegals” on Facebook — won their second straight 2A State Championship with a 21-7 victory over Jones.
Football, some are convinced, has been the great bridge to true assimilation.
“I think it has definitely changed the way some non-Hispanics look at us,” said one recent Hennessey valedictorian who asked to remain anonymous because of her illegal status. “Winning back-to-back state football championships has a way of bringing a community together.”
Richard Simunek, a fifth-generation Czech-American who grew up on a Hennessey farm, said the debate over immigration in his hometown sounds all too familiar.
“I laugh when I think about the Mexicans, and the things people say about them,” said Simunek, who now lives in Miami Beach. “They complain they dance too much, drink too much and so on. I laugh and I laugh. That's what they used to say about the Czechs. History is simply repeating itself in Hennessey.”