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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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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.”

Growing pains

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.”

Repeating itself

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.”


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