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Sunday, June 17, 2007

The divide between perception and reality

Violence has many victims, one of which is that it reinforces negative stereotypes.

The killings in Delavan last weekend are the latest incident to force a harsh light on Walworth County's Hispanic community.

Along with news that Hispanics were among the victims in last Saturday's shootings came a sense of relief among some that it couldn't happen to them.

Part if it is a natural tendency to try and make sense of a horrific event and to be reassured that something like that could only happen to someone else.

But that same attitude can paint a whole community into a corner in which they can't get out.

Over the past year, the Hispanic community has slowly had forced upon it a perception that increasingly highlights the bad and overlooks the good.

Perhaps this perception goes back to the Star Packaging raid in Whitewater last year in which some Hispanic employees were detained and accused of using false identities. The raid fueled suspicion of local authorities--a suspicion that local police and community leaders continue to try to diffuse.

Then, a week ago, in our story on the a mortgage broker's complex real estate fraud scheme, we learned that many of the victims were Hispanics who could speak little English. They were used as unwitting victims in a scam that bilked banks and skimmed fees.

Now comes the killings in Delavan, and once again the Hispanic community is seen as either victims or victimizers.

In reality, life is not so tidy.

Simply look at the block where this tragedy occurred.

It's a microcosm of how complex a community can be. In homes on one side of the house were the tragedy took place, young families are raising their children.

The other side of the block features a beautifully restored private home.

Across the street and around the corner is a senior housing complex where the old Delavan High School sat.

Down the block are several churches, and across from them Phoenix Park (named for Henry and Col. Samuel F. Phoenix, the founders of Delavan, not the bird, as some out-of-town media had reported.)

In the middle of the park sits the new community band shell. A festival celebration to dedicate the new band shell was scheduled for Saturday.

It's a rich and diverse neighborhood and reflects the type of people that live here.

Walworth County's Hispanic community has its roots in agriculture, from what I've learned over the years. The fertile earth of southern Wisconsin drew farmers from Texas and farther south to work. Those farmers eventually bought farms of the own.

In recent generations, Walworth County has provided economic opportunities in the recreation and service industries that have drawn families here. They in turn have been supported by small Hispanic businesses that thrive in nearly every city in the county.

Over the years, many who cared for the future of Walworth County have nurtured and supported Walworth County's diversity. The parts of the Hispanic community who were new to Walworth County were supported like any immigrant community seeking assimilation into their new home.

It's an attitude that has helped strengthen the identity of Walworth County.

Despite what's happened, it's an attitude that needs to be preserved and nurtured, if we want life in Walworth County to remain vibrant and healthy.

In news reports over the past week, Delavan and Walworth County have often been described as "bucolic." It's not a bad image to have.

But we need to work to keep that image, and the urge to draw broad generalizations based on race sends us down the path we don't want to go.

~Dan Plutchak, editor


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