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Ohio rape provokes racial tension in town

Residents' backlash has area Hispanics fearing retaliation

HAMILTON, Ohio -- It started with the spray-painted, misspelled ''Rapest" on the house of a Hispanic man accused of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old white girl. Then the house went up in flames in a suspected arson.

Confrontations, name-calling, and threats against Hispanics followed. Men roamed the streets wearing pillowcases with eyeholes, and Ku Klux Klansmen in hoods and robes showed up to pass out pamphlets. There were rumors of assaults and beatings.

Now this small Ohio city's booming Hispanic population is cowed, the streets in their neighborhoods nearly deserted.

Outside the office of the Living Water Ministry, which two months ago drew hundreds of people to its first Cinco de Mayo festival, there is still a smell of charred wood from the June 21 fire that gutted the house next door and caused damage to the outside of the ministry's office.

''Before, the street would be covered with people, people out all over the place," said Sasha Amen, community outreach coordinator for Living Water. ''There's a lot of fear now. People are shutting themselves in their homes."

Hamilton has been a hotbed for Hispanic growth in a state that has lagged behind much of the nation in Hispanic population. The number of Hispanics here jumped fivefold in the 1990s, to 1,566, and is now estimated at 4,000 or more in a city of some 61,000.

For the most part, the immigrants had settled without much controversy in Hamilton, whose mayor in the 1990s was of Cuban descent.

But life here was transformed on June 19 when a 9-year-old white girl was raped, allegedly by a Hispanic man who has apparently fled the city.

The next day, the house where the man was staying was spray-painted by angry residents, and the next evening, it went up in flames. Threats were made, the Klansmen showed up, and rumors of violence spread.

''Yes, there is fear," said Ramona Ramirez, who owns a corner deli-supermarket where she says business is off and her bread delivery man is now afraid to come. ''They are attacking all the Hispanics, and it is only one person. We don't know what will happen."

Lupe Galvan, a Mexican-born woman who has been here five years, said some neighbors are talking about moving.

City and community leaders are trying to heal the wounds, beefing up patrols and trying to calm the community, Mayor Don Ryan said Friday. Ryan said authorities are stressing that the rape was ''strictly a random act of violence" and not racially motivated.

''We're continuing to be a melting pot in this country," he said. ''Assimilating into our culture is tough; I firmly believe that it will take time."

While the anti-Hispanic backlash has stunned many of the immigrants, some say they've felt racial prejudice here before. The Rev. Eustaquio Recalde, a native of Paraguay and the pastor for Living Water, said he was often harassed and ridiculed while working at a factory as the lone Hispanic employee.

''I think it's been around," Recalde said. ''This was an opportunity for a few people to express it."

Ezra Escudero, executive director of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs in Columbus, said Hamilton is not alone in feeling tension in a state where the Hispanic population has doubled to nearly 280,000 since 1990.

''The challenge for the community is whether the tragedy will bring out the best or the worst in people," he said.

Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Miami University in Oxford, helped organize two community forums since the fire. She called the Hamilton unrest an important moment for local Hispanics, churches, police, and public officials.

''I think everyone realizes that we need to have a dialogue . . . to make the community feel safe and feel that they have a voice," Bromberg said. ''I think there are a lot of people who want to make this work out."

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