Heavy rain didn’t stop a crowd from packing the meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church last Thursday evening for a forum on issues involving the fast-growing local Hispanic community.

Organized by the Latin American Services Organization, the forum featured guest speakers Dr. Miriam Urizar Rittmeyer, SPD Sgt. Armando Tamargo, and Pastor Samuel Rodriguez of the Primera Iglesia Bautisto Hispana.

The first Latino that SPD has ever promoted to sergeant, Tamargo said that while the 2000 census counted only about 5,000 Latinos living in Chatham County, “pretty much everyone knows” that with the recent boom in population and the large numbers of undocumented residents, the real number is at least 15,000 now.

“And probably a lot more than that,” he said.

Tamargo said that to cope with the increase, SPD last year formed the Latino Officer Outreach Program (LOOP), which currently has four bilingual officers.

“We want to break down the barrier between the police and the Latino community,” Tamargo said.

“A lot of them are afraid that if they talk to us, we’ll instantly call immigration. Also, they have a lot of preconceived notions from their native countries about how police will treat them.”

When pressed about SPD’s policy on illegal immigrants, however, Tamargo allowed that local police often do indeed inform immigration, though he clarified that it’s generally done on a “case-by-case” basis, and almost never done when an undocumented Latino is a crime victim.

“Our job is not to enforce immigration laws,” Tamargo said. “We aren’t designed or equipped to enforce that.”

In any event, Tamargo said Chatham County’s Latino community, particularly the undocumented portion, is at a critical stage.

“Right now, the vast majority of them are male,” he said. “They’re over here establishing a homefront and sending money back home.”

Tamargo said that dynamic will change when these men begin bringing their families to the U.S. permanently. He said the department’s goal now is to cement good relations now so the effort will pay off in the future.

Ideally, Tamargo said, local police will one day have a full-time Hispanic outreach coordinator. Pointing to Clearwater, Fla.’s success with a similar program, Tamargo said that such a staffer would ideally have their office “in a centralized location, along with all the other advocacy groups that Hispanic citizens usually use.”

Rittmeyer, speaking on behalf of Memorial Health’s new Hispanic outreach initiative, the Community HealthCare Center, said she and her colleagues are seeing growing health problems in the local Latino community.

“Many of them have changed their eating habits since they’ve come here. We’re now seeing the same diseases that afflict many other Americans,” she said, referring to diet-influenced maladies such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Rittmeyer said that, like other disadvantaged Americans, Hispanics are facing a crucial vacuum of health insurance.

“At least 44 percent of Hispanics in Georgia are uninsured,” she said.

Half funded by Memorial Health and half funded by grants and private sources, the Community HealthCare Center provides free medical service to Latinos. It is only the fifth such site in the nation, she said.

Rittmeyer echoed Tamargo’s analysis of the Hispanic community’s relationship with police.

“In many of their countries if they have to go to a policeman they’re very scared,” she said. “Here, it’s different. The policeman is here to protect you.”

Rodriguez said that contrary to popular opinion, HIspanic immigrants often face an identity crisis.

“I’m not from here and I’m not from there,” he said. “If we go to our country, there they say ‘You’re American.’ If we come here, they say ‘You’re Mexican.’”


“We dedicate our performance tonight to our queen -- Coretta Scott King,” said Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Artistic Director Judith Jamison last Tuesday night, not 24 hours after MLK’s widow died.

Jamison opened the performance by accepting the key to the city -- “it opens nothing but our hearts,” quipped Mayor Otis Johnson as he presented it to her -- and opining at length on her love for Savannah.

“The first thing I said when I got off the plane was I need some good food and some good prayer,” Jamison said.

“And I got both. But that’s what you have in Savannah -- good prayer and good people.”

The nearly sold-out crowd at the Johnny Mercer -- including much of the city council and county commission -- was so psyched for the show that they gave Jamison a standing ovation when she was introduced.

After Jamison’s heartfelt speech, the Alvin Ailey dancers began the evening’s first segment, several dances accompanied by the music of Earth, Wind and Fire. A brief break signalled the second set, a tour-de-force to a classical string accompaniment by three of the company’s male dancers, all of whom showed a command of ballet and modern skills that was almost alarming in its virtuosity.

After intermission, dancers performed jazz-themed compilation set in a ‘30s bar scene. Closing the show was a classic piece of Ailey choreography with a spiritual theme.


About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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