WILLARD — Have Willard’s migrant workers been disinvited to a welcome home party?
While there’s no denying some type of event involving the Hispanic community was announced and then canceled, officials offer differing accounts on what the original plans entailed. According to Willard Chamber of Commerce executive director Ricky Branham, the situation has been misunderstood in the community.
Politics or ‘just bad timing?’
“’Welcome back’ was never the official title,” Branham said. “Someone said it was almost like a welcome back, but that’s not what she meant. She just meant with the timing. What it was supposed to be was there used to be a Hispanic heritage festival years ago and so we wanted to kind of bring back a similar community festival.
“I wanted it (to be called) something like ‘Soccer Spectacular,’” he added. “The idea it could be like we’re welcoming (the migrants) back, no, they meant it as a party-like atmosphere. That’s something down the road we want to bring the whole community to.”
When the Reflector first reported the cancellation earlier this month, chamber president Carrie McClendon said the Willard Business Association decided not to have the event due to “scheduling issues.”
When asked if negative responses from the community forced the cancellation, McClendon said it had no bearing in the decision.
“No, the majority of the workers aren’t here until later in the year,” she said in a previous Reflector story. “We don’t want them excluded.”
McClendon could not be reached for further comment.
City Manager Jim Ludban said he wrote a letter to Branham and the WBA president when he heard the event was canceled, saying he was “highly disappointed.” Ludban said he didn’t know the reason for the cancellation since it was a chamber event and not put on by the city. Ludban said he felt the community gathering was important as 15 percent to 20 percent of the city’s population is of Hispanic-descent.
Ludban said he never received a response, nor was he ever “officially” told the party was canceled.
“I heard it from others and came to that conclusion, but we were never officially notified,” he said
“I told them I hope they reconsider before canceling. There are a lot of Hispanic people that still live and work in the area and would benefit.
“I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of the party,” Ludban said. “I think it was Carrie's idea (of a welcome back party) and she's been a great supporter by reaching out to the Hispanic community, especially the farm workers, and welcoming them to the bank where she works. Before any type of confrontation came about, we said we’ll make it a community event for everyone with vendors and all of the community will be welcome.
“(Willard’s Hispanic population) is not necessarily all farm workers, so excluding them wouldn’t be fair. If we don’t hold this though at all, I feel we've let them down.”
Ludban said Branham told him the chamber has received “negative press” on social media and was afraid veterans would form a rally against it.
“I said we’re allowing ourselves to be bullied online,” Ludban said.
Politics causing division?
On Thursday, though, Branham said the main cause of cancellation was politics.
“It became political unfortunately and we weren’t trying to make it political,” he said. “We wanted it to be something for the whole community to enjoy, not just any one group.
“There were a few reasons (we canceled it). For one, the timing. We realized the time frame of June was not the best time when everyone is right in the middle of things. Before we used to have it in September. We were going to move it up to the late summer, early fall, but then we decided against it.”
When asked if he thought it was an issue involving local politics or national politics unfolding locally, with the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, Branham said he thinks “it has more to do with national politics.”
“And we weren’t trying to get involved in national politics,” he said. “We definitely didn’t want any problems from it. We belong to Ohio Chamber of Commerce but not the national chamber so we try to stay out of national politics. Maybe not everyone does it that way, but we try to stay out of it.
“I kind of think the timing just wasn’t right with these things going on. As we get more Hispanic population residents, it would be nice down the road to bring everyone together. We’re just going to postpone the event and see when the timing is right and maybe re-look at it when the timing is right.”
Branham said he’s not losing hope that the event will, some day, be a welcomed idea in the city.
“In the future I would like to see the community come together more — every country, every background, every race — for the betterment of the community,” he said.
“The event wasn’t canceled, really, more postponed to explore how to bring the whole community together. The goal is to have community all together. The idea was to be a party-like atmosphere and the soccer tournament. It was for all residents. We just want to bring everyone. Never was it a welcome back for Hispanics. It was just to bring the whole community together. It was to promote unity, not division. If it brings disunity, why have it?
“There’s no hidden schedule and no hidden secret. It’s just simple,” he added.
Deportation an issue in Willard?
At a recent round-table meeting held in Willard, church community members met to get information from immigration experts on their options, rights and the laws that could threaten their lives here in America. There also was the request for help in preventing the deportation of Jesus Manuel Lara Lopez, a Mexican national who has made Willard home for 16 years.
Lara Lopez told the New York Times the agency denied his lawyer’s request not to remove him from the states. Despite having “never been in trouble,” a good report from his community, employers, family and friends, Lara Lopez still is scheduled for deportation on July 18.
Is deportation an issue in Willard?
“Not that I know of. I didn’t know this nor have I ever known this to be an issue,” Branham said, adding he feels like he has a “good sense of what goes on in the community.” He admitted he didn’t know about Lara Lopez’s case, though, adding the first time he heard about it was when the New York Times brought it up in an interview.
“She (a reporter) said I’m flying in. And I’m like, ‘To Willard?” he said with a laugh. “What’s the New York Times doing in Willard? And then I found out it’s for a bigger story and what she really wanted to ask me about.
“Then it made sense why she came. The story was kind of subset to the Lappa story. It had to do with Hispanics. She had a lot of questions, trying to find information about that situation and that case, but I didn’t know anything.”
Backlash from vets
Two Norwalk Reflector letters to the editor tell stories from veterans of “outrage” over the party, saying veterans never got a “welcome home party.” One letter from Willard’s Christopher C. Shepherd called it a “spit in the face” from the city.
Branham said this was an unintended side effect that he hopes to make right.
“With the veterans, we are very interested in working with them,” he said.
“We want them to know we would like to work with them. We want them to know we’re supporting them. We’ve actually wanted to build a veterans memorial in Willard. We’ve been throwing around that idea, kind of like Norwalk has that memorial on Shady Lane. It’s a very nice memorial and we’d like to have something like that in Willard.”
COMING WEDNESDAY: We will examine the lack of migrant workers, the effect on the local economy and how deportation may play a role.