The family took up an entire pew at a packed Ash Wednesday Mass at Rock Hill’s St. Anne Catholic Church.
The words that filled the sanctuary were Spanish. The music, the guitars and a choir, were Spanish style.
There were kids and women and men. The adults were all born in Mexico and other places in the Americas. The kids, for the most part, were all born here in the U.S.
These people are, for some, villains. They are Latino, just like the new spiritual leader of their church, Pope Francis, who has called on everyone to welcome immigrants into their fold.
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Some in York County and elsewhere see these immigrants as dangerous because they dared to seek a better life here – through legal or other means. Politicians debate whether to reform immigration laws, give people in the country illegally amnesty or at least legal status.
Some want walls built, borders secured and nothing legal for the estimated 17 million immigrants who have no standing in America except the standing up to go to work every day, all the while hoping not to be deported.
There was no way to tell how many people in the congregation on Wednesday were in the country legally, yet all worshiped in America just like native English speakers had done at masses and other services throughout the day.
Spanish-language masses happen regularly at St. Anne, but this Ash Wednesday service was so crowded that some people knelt on the floor.
Brazilian-born Father Fabio Refosco, who has dedicated his life in Rock Hill to all people, gave the cue in Spanish that is in all masses for people to shake hands and wish, “Peace be with you.”
“Paz,” said Jonathan Castano Sanchez, a second-grader at Ebinport Elementary School. “Peace.”
Down the row sat his aunt and her family. Liliana Garcia, 14, an eighth-grader who was born here, and seventh-grader Samantha Garcia each play violin and is at the top of their class at Dutchman Creek Middle School.
“I want to study astronomy,” Lilian said.
She was asked if she feels different than other kids, or if other kids point out her heritage.
“Sometimes,” Liliana said. “I am different. A different race.”
Yet she excels.
Samantha wants to be a scientist. A brother in elementary school, Alan, is not sure what he wants, but he will do it because his mother says so. Their mother, Ramona Garcia, beamed at those words.
Ramona Garcia came to the United States from Mexico as a 9-year-old who spoke no English, the daughter of migrant worker parents. Her parents would pick citrus fruit in Florida, peaches in South Carolina, and any other produce wherever it grew in any state.
Whether those parents were in the country legally was not part of any conversation. They came to America to survive.
“The other kids would make fun of me at school,” Ramona Garcia said. “My speaking was not very good yet.”
A generation later, Ramona Garcia has worked her entire adult life, she has legal status and her children are top students, fully bilingual.
“America is where my kids have been born, where they are raised, who they are,” Garcia said. “Where they hope and dream.”
In another row was a Mexican immigrant named Luis Arzarul. A mechanical engineer, he learned English and he and his wife, who was also at the service, came to York County for the job opportunities and raised three children in Rock Hill schools.
“A beautiful service,” Arzarul said.
Joe Zdenek, a retired Winthrop University languages professor, was one of Arzarul’s English teachers years ago. Zdenek, who has taught English to scores of Latinos in York County, said Hispanic immigrants of any legal status, are clearly here to stay in America. Building a border fence, he said, or sending back millions of people, is clearly not the answer.
“These are people who are very hard workers, who are trying to support families,” Zdenek said. “And these politicians, they should know that the Hispanics have a voice. A political voice. They want this immigration problem solved.”
About 10,000 Hispanics live in York County, according to 2012 U.S. Census estimates, but anyone with eyes can see that the real number is far larger. Many of these immigrant Hispanics work in blue-collar construction, landscape, agriculture and service industries. The hard truth is that these people happily do the work many American-born people refuse to do.
“The idea that any of these immigrants does not pay taxes – or takes a job from another person born here – is just ridiculous,” Zdenek said. “In many cases, these people do jobs Americans will not do. It is that simple. And we should honor that hard work.”
The Rev. Paul Nguyen – an immigrant from Vietnam, like hundreds of others in Rock Hill – said as the faithful hundreds left the Spanish-language Mass, “These kids are the future of America, too.”
Nguyen should know: He was a child when his family escaped Vietnam by boat. He is an immigrant who found the dream of America.
Father John Giuliani, who has been in York County for 40 years, said after an earlier Ash Wednesday mass at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Fort Mill that Pope Francis has spoken often about being more comforting to the immigrants, to the poor.
The American immigration solution, said Giuliani, is not deportation or other draconian measures.
“These are people, and they deserve better than servitude and uncertainty,” Giuliani said.
A man named Salvador, an immigrant from the Michoacan state in Mexico, sat alone at an English language Ash Wednesday service earlier in the evening. He watched the other people stand, then kneel, and he followed suit. He went to the altar to receive ashes. Afterward he was asked if he knew English.
“No,” he said. “ Poquito, little, but I work, trabajo, construction. But I learn the English here.”
Salvador has been here for less than a year. He sends money to his wife and three children back home.
Out from the English-language mass came Jesus Ramirez, also an immigrant from Mexico. His wife, Evelyn, is an immigrant from El Salvador. Their 6-year-old daughter, Paola, is an Old Pointe Elementary School kindergartner who was born here. She was asked what she wants to be when she grows up.
“Anything I want to be,” she said with a smile and in perfect English.
Her parents beamed with pride.