Nantucket, Microcosm of a Changing Region

Sep 15, 2014

About 200 people, mostly immigrants, show up every Sunday night at St. Mary, Our Lady of The Isle Catholic Church on Nantucket. The church has seen such an increase that the Catholic Diocese of Fall River sent a Spanish-speaking priest for the community.
Credit Fr. Marcel Bouchard

Young immigrants have been crossing the border into the U.S. in record numbers over the past few years.  This summer, Governor Patrick offered Camp Edwards as a temporary place to house the youngest of them. People held rallies around the Cape in response – some opposing the plan and some showing support. The Governor’s plan may have struck a chord with Cape Codders since demographics are in flux here, too.

Nantucket is one place where this change is evident. Walking downtown any Sunday evening anytime of the year, you’ll hear hymns in Spanish emanating from St. Mary’s, Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church. Spanish mass is held every Sunday night, all year round and it’s well attended. Father Marcel Bouchard says there are usually 200 people in attendance at every mass. Half of the confirmation class this year was Spanish speakers. The population of Spanish speakers on the island has grown so much over the years that the Catholic Diocese of Fall River sent a Spanish-speaking priest for the community, Father Carlos Patiño.

“I think more than anything it’s a life of work for them,” he said.  “The difficulty is the cost of life here is very high on the island so you have to work a lot.”

Nantucket is changing fast. It has the highest population growth in the state. But in the last few years, it’s also had the largest increase in minorities. 21% of Nantucket’s population is non-white, the highest percentage by county in the southeastern part of the state. Many are from El Salvador, moving to the island for work and for a more peaceful life than the one they left behind – no civil conflict, no gang violence.

The change is also evident in the Nantucket school system. When Michael Cozort first took the job as Superintendent in 2010, he created a 20-year snapshot of enrollment. In 1993, the school population was 95% white and 1% Hispanic. Now, the percentage of Hispanic students has gone up to 20% of student enrollments. That’s one in five students, a surprising trend for a place with Nantucket’s reputation of being wealthy and white.

Francisco Deras came to Nantucket from El Salvador nearly 20 years ago. He’s the nighttime supervising custodian at Nantucket High school. Once he found a place to live and a job to work, he brought his wife and his daughter here, too – also U.S. citizens. He’s had his job at the school since he arrived on the island in 1997 – back when he was one of the few Salvodorans living there.

Deras heard about Nantucket from a nephew in the 90’s, who’d heard about it from another Salvadoran before that. They told him there was work and there was. The word spread. Deras now owns two houses on the island, has two full time year round jobs, and he’s an example of success for the newest immigrants.

Nantucket Police Chief William Pittman says one of the biggest challenges of this new population has been the language barrier. Sometimes calls come in and the dispatcher on duty can’t communicate with the caller. Only one dispatcher and one police officer speak Spanish in the department. Pittman sometimes hears complaints that aren’t openly expressed in the community, so he knows not everyone is happy with the changing year-round population. But he sees a middle ground moving forward.

“It's not unreasonable to expect people coming here to adopt and embrace our cultures and norms. But it's also not unreasonable for us to adopt and understand their culture and norms. And to integrate them,” Pittman said.

No one knows exactly how many immigrants live on Nantucket year round. The census put the Latino population at nine percent in 2010. But most think the general count of immigrants is low. There is also no count of how many immigrants are living on the island without authorization. But, people who are watching population trends say this one is likely to continue.

 

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