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Oklahoma Watch: Hennessey, Oklahoma, A case study in Hispanic population growth

The face of Hennessey changes as town's population becomes 28 percent Hispanic
BY RON J. JACKSON Jr., Oklahoma Watch Published: June 30, 2012
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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.”

The migration

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.

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