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Members of Mariachi Miterra entertain a large crowd at the Hailey Hispanic Heritage Latinx Festival in Roberta McKercher park on Saturday. Leaders hope events like this can help improve relations between whites and Latinos, who a new state report says are underrepresented in Blaine County’s public sphere.

Last Saturday, Roberta McKercher Park rang in the meters of mariachi, with strings and horns and spikes of laughter—in English or Spanish, a good time sounds the same.

The Hailey Hispanic Heritage Latinx Festival boomed in its second year, organizer Herbert Romero said, swelling with crowds from across the Snake River Plain.

Margie Gonzalez came from the capital to see it—and Romero—come to life. The executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs—a government agency working to engage the state’s burgeoning Latino population—had spent four days in the valley across a weekend in July, compiling data for a report on the community in Hailey and Ketchum.

That report was published last week, four days before the celebration. The commission’s findings were not all balloons and bouncy houses—but, Gonzalez said, leaders like Romero and displays like last weekend’s festival offer hope.

The commission spent most of its time in Hailey, where 30 percent of the population identify as Hispanic. There, they met with local government, nonprofits, school leadership, religious groups and health care providers. They met with members of the public, too, including a town hall after Catholic mass Sunday morning.

Much of what Gonzalez noticed was typical for this part of Idaho. Most of the state’s more than 200,000 Hispanics live in its southern flats, according to a separate commission study with the University of Idaho. Blaine County accounts for about 4,500 of them, a little more than one in five people. From 2010 to 2017, the state’s Hispanic population grew 22 percent, compared to 8 percent among other races. Eighty-one percent were U.S. citizens, either native or naturalized, and about three-quarters were born in the U.S. That will only increase: The demographic skews young, with 42 percent under the age of 20.

Here, the population is both growing fast and becoming increasingly entrenched—though those outside that sphere might not know it.

Every local elected official is white, as are most people in government jobs or in charge of major nonprofits, Gonzalez said.

“Hispanics in Hailey/Ketchum remain very guarded, with a high level of distrust directed at public officials, in particular, law enforcement,” she wrote in the report.

Despite repeated talk of “bridging the gap,” it hasn’t translated to civic engagement—which, in turn, “means that Hispanic needs are under-represented and not effectively addressed,” the report states.

“There are people in that community who have been there a number of years,” Gonzalez told the Idaho Mountain Express. “They’re not newcomers. They’ve raised families in Hailey. If they don’t know who the mayor is, that’s a big concern. But it goes both ways.”

Gonzalez praised the city for supporting Saturday’s festival. And Romero said every level of government has been helpful for community events. (He expects to throw 10 to showcase diversity this year.) Just don’t expect the makeup of the delegation to change right away. Of the seats up for election this November, there’s only one nonwhite candidate in the running: Juan Martinez, a Wood River High School coach challenging for a spot on Hailey City Council.

“We’re disengaged,” Romero said. “People don’t understand the system. There’s a lack of understanding there, so there’s a lack of trust. We don’t approach, and we don’t get involved.”

The national message isn’t helping, either. Many Latinos—even citizens, and those with status—are afraid to share basic information, let alone run for office, Romero said.

“They’re afraid they could become a target by speaking out,” he said. “Families are saying, ‘Forget about it—it’s too much.’ There’s fear—people fear for their safety. Whether it’s random, or targeted. This valley is a peaceful place. It’s rich in resources, in wealth. It’s easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the country. I’m saying we can’t ignore it.”

Gonzalez’s team found the same thing: a “high level of concern” caused by “the very bitter public discourse on immigration.”

“Rumors and innuendos run rampant, driving many Hispanics who have lived and worked legally in the United States for decades to seek the shadows in order to avoid the attention of a legal system they do not understand or trust,” the commission wrote. “Not surprising, cultural and language barriers remain a significant challenge to addressing the needs of the Hispanic Community with very few resources available who can help.”

Blaine County Sheriff Steve Harkins took issue with the commission’s snapshot. (Harkins said he was not contacted or interviewed by the team.) His office, which also runs Ketchum’s police force, “has a great relationship with the Hispanic community,” he told the Idaho Mountain Express.

“Under my administration, we have worked hard to build trust and establish a high level of service for anyone who lives here or visits,” he said. “Our deputies are trusted and trained to understand cultural diversity. They’re trained to treat everyone with respect and without bias. Our deputies aren’t concerned about anyone’s immigration status and we are here to help when people are in need, keep the public safe and enforce the law.”

The state commission recommended recruiting more Hispanic and bilingual officers, and offered to help market jobs for local agencies. But it’s a tough climate to find qualified cops, Harkins said—let alone bilingual ones. His office has six Hispanic deputies fluent in both English and Spanish, plus several others who speak some. This year, he began offering a 50-cent-per-hour pay increase for officers proficient in another language.

In her conversations, Gonzalez found that law enforcement isn’t trying to police immigration in Blaine County. (The county jail will notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement at booking if a suspect is undocumented.)

There are places worse off than Hailey, Gonzalez said.

“I didn’t hear of anyone so scared they were trying to leave the area,” she said. “I think they’re looking long term. More people are opening businesses, starting families. They want to become part of the fabric of the area.”

Which is where people like Romero—and events like Saturday’s festival—come in. He’s been in the valley for four years, after moving north from Los Angeles. When he arrived, he found a solid groundwork in place. People were doing great work to “bridge the gap” toward greater engagement, and to help the Latino population access services it needs, he said. Many, though, didn’t realize they weren’t working alone.

“They’re doing incredible things, in their own lanes,” he said. “But connecting the dots—linking it all together—has been a challenge. Now, our leaders are starting to see that. We’re starting to work together.

“We have to show that we’re working on ourselves, before getting involved in other area. That takes twice the work, because we’re trying to bring two cultures together, two communities. It’s an uphill battle, but a lot of time has already been spent to get us here. At the end of the day, we all live together, shop together. Hopefully, we break bread together. We can show our children something other than separation, and division. We can show them adults committed to unity, to bringing this valley together.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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