Published March 13. 2011 4:00AM Updated March 14. 2011 11:42AM
When Lorena O'Dell Vanegas was just Lorena Vanegas, a Colombian new to New London and Connecticut and the United States, she could hardly spot a fellow Hispanic to help her translate what she needed at, say, the grocery store.
Her companion was a dual-language dictionary, her support group her entire extended family of about 30 that in 1999 together left a comfortable middle-class life in Bogotá for bigger, better opportunities in the United States.
"I only knew the alphabet and numbers," Vanegas, now O'Dell, said in a recent interview in Spanish of her grasp on English then. She is now fluent.
New London had few services to offer new immigrants like O'Dell then, or perhaps O'Dell didn't need them because unlike many newcomers, she arrived with a built-in support system in the form of her family.
Either way, O'Dell - who sometimes goes by Fransy - remembers there being no store in New London specializing in money transfers to Latin America, no real Hispanic restaurants to speak of.
Today, New London's downtown offers such stores as the Latin goods store Mi Gente Express and restaurants such as Mambo and Tropical Breeze that attract Hispanics of all nations. Venture past the downtown and you'll find the Peruvian chicken restaurant Pollos a la Brasa on Broad Street.
The Hispanic population nationwide saw a boom over the past decade, according to newly released data from the 2010 U.S. Census. In Connecticut, the number of Hispanics grew by close to 50 percent, or by more than 158,000 people, between 2000 and 2010.
That's not accounting for those who identified themselves in a different racial category in the Census forms distributed to households last year, or those illegal immigrants who chose not to fill out the form.
Hispanics are now the largest minority group in southeastern Connecticut, according to Connecticut numbers released Thursday. The Census data shows Hispanics make up 28 percent of New London's population of 27,620.
O'Dell, 33, lives in Groton but chose to open a Latin store in New London because of the foot traffic and concentration of Hispanics in the city.
Surprise Party Goods, at 54 State St., opened last June at the former Alva Gallery. Like its name suggests, the tidy store is filled with trinkets, decorations and party favors for weddings, baby showers, birthday parties and, above all, quinceañeras, the Latin equivalent of the Sweet 16 (but celebrated on the 15th birthday).
"I wanted things that Latin people could use to decorate according to their customs," O'Dell said.
After all, decorated wicker chairs for a decked out quinceañera to sit in isn't something you come across at just any party store. And while Hispanics are made up of natives of dozens of Latin American countries with varied customs and cultures, they share common ground in traditions such as the coming-of-age celebration for girls.
The store is O'Dell's side job, and one her husband, Joshua O'Dell, runs while she works full-time as a receptionist at the Community Health Center, a statewide nonprofit with an office on Shaw's Cove that serves the uninsured and underinsured.
It's common for newer immigrants to hold down multiple jobs - most in O'Dell's extended family members do it. Even O'Dell's husband, a non-Hispanic white American, works weekend nights bartending at Mohegan Sun casino.
Thursdays through Sundays, when Joshua O'Dell is bartending, Lorena O'Dell often doesn't even see her husband of 10 years until morning.
Lorena O'Dell's typical workweek goes something like this: wake up at 6 a.m. Work at the health center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a 2 p.m. lunch break during which she runs back to the store to check on things.
After work, pick up daughter Samantha O'Dell, a bubbly, bilingual 3-year-old, from day care. Head back to the store until closing time (meanwhile, keep O'Dell happily snacking on a sleeve of Ritz crackers and half a roast-beef sandwich from Subway). Drive home to Groton. Start dinner. Check e-mail. Keep Samantha entertained until bedtime.
Running Surprise Party Goods isn't just about store management, either: O'Dell is also a party planner who sets up event halls with theme-appropriate party centerpieces and decorations she makes at the store.
O'Dell has been known to take 300 balloons home to inflate for parties. She and her older sister Yenny will stuff the balloons in garbage bags and make three trips to transport the balloons and arrange them into arches held together with fish wire.
Oh, and in her free time? O'Dell photographs babies, weddings, portraits of quinceañeras. She'll even do face-painting while her younger brother works party crowds as a clown.
But it's all worth it because running the store is something O'Dell professes to truly enjoy. Plus, she hopes to retire young and return to Colombia to enjoy the food, the lifestyle and the mild climate.
Though O'Dell, now a U.S. citizen, laments the fact that she never got to apply her journalism degree and become a news anchor, she's happy to have had the opportunity to build herself a life here in the United States. She and her family moved here in search of the financial stability and opportunities for advancement that aren't always as abundant in Colombia.
They found the New London area via an aunt who had already moved here and was settled in Waterford.
"You're grateful," she said. "This is a country of opportunities. And it's a country that provides you with many options if you just take advantage of them. In the 10 years I've been here, I already have a house, my personal belongings. But I've worked hard for them."
O'Dell is especially grateful to have made the transition with her extended family. She doesn't think she could have done it alone, the way many others - especially undocumented immigrants who must often leave children behind - have to.
"Without family, I don't know how long I would have managed for," she said.
This family tends to stick together. O'Dell said her friends here are her family, and she is constantly fielding phone calls from them. A cousin, Victoria Flores of Norwich, helps out at the store when O'Dell needs her.
Immigrants who struggle to assimilate and never learn English can have it rough here, but a combination of tenacity and a cheerful outlook kept O'Dell afloat. O'Dell's own father returned to Colombia after five years because he missed his home country too much.
When she first got here, O'Dell worked odd jobs before finding the health center job seven years ago. Affable by nature and quick to pick up English, O'Dell was soon introduced to her now-husband, who worked with a cousin at Supreme Pizza in Waterford. The couple married in 2001, and Joshua O'Dell has embraced the Colombian culture, learning Spanish and dancing salsa and merengue.
Because many Hispanics arrive with poor English skills, they work jobs cleaning houses, and Americans assume that's all they're good at, O'Dell said. They're prone to thinking all Colombians are linked to drug trades and that Bogotá, the country's capital city, must be poorly developed.
In fact, O'Dell said, Bogotá has much to offer, and cleaning ladies here worked back home as dental technicians, accountants and other professionals.
Everyone's got their own prejudices, but O'Dell said that can change if people take the time to educate themselves about those from other cultures.
All the same, O'Dell said, "I don't think I'll get to the point where I feel all this is mine. Because I'm an immigrant."