LIFESTYLE

Hispanic Jehovah's Witnesses on the rise in Arizona

Jurrors and court workers, a cross section of Orange County,   leave the Santa Ana, Calif.  courthouse on Tuesday, March 8, 2011.  Surging Latino and Asian populations accounted for virtually all of California’s population growth over the last decade, new census data showed on Tuesday.  In the decade spanning 2000 and 2010, Latinos grew by 28 percent to 14 million in the nation’s most populous state, while Asians grew even faster, by 31 percent, to reach 4.8 million.   In contrast, non-Hispanic whites decreased by 5 percent and the state’s African-American population dipped by 1 percent.  Over the decade, California’s population grew only 10 percent to 37.3 million, ranking just 20th nationally and lagging behind other western states such as Nevada and Arizona.   (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Jebb Harris)

Jurrors and court workers, a cross section of Orange County, leave the Santa Ana, Calif. courthouse on Tuesday, March 8, 2011. Surging Latino and Asian populations accounted for virtually all of California’s population growth over the last decade, new census data showed on Tuesday. In the decade spanning 2000 and 2010, Latinos grew by 28 percent to 14 million in the nation’s most populous state, while Asians grew even faster, by 31 percent, to reach 4.8 million. In contrast, non-Hispanic whites decreased by 5 percent and the state’s African-American population dipped by 1 percent. Over the decade, California’s population grew only 10 percent to 37.3 million, ranking just 20th nationally and lagging behind other western states such as Nevada and Arizona. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Jebb Harris)  (AP2011)

Yuma's thriving community of Spanish-speaking Jehovah's Witnesses all began with the work of five women and has grown to a dozen  congregations of 1,300 Jehovah's Witnesses.

I cry at conventions when I see so much growth," Garcia said, her voice breaking. Today there are 12 Spanish and four English congregations in Yuma County.

But back when Garcia arrived from Mexico in 1953, there wasn't even an official Spanish congregation in the county.

Soon after arriving in town as a young lady, Garcia, now 77, started studying the Bible with Jehovah's Witnesses.

However, she didn't set out to become a Witness. Upon her arrival, she found her mother already studying with them. Having been born and raised a Catholic, the 20-year-old became concerned with what the Witnesses were teaching her mother.

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"At first I only wanted to know what my mom was learning. Maybe they're deceiving her. Then I started to read the magazines (Watchtower and Awake) and I liked them. I thought, this is very nice," Garcia said in Spanish.

In 1954 she and her mother got baptized, making them official Jehovah's Witnesses. They became two of five women who were part of an emerging Spanish group.

The women ran the group, conducting meetings and handling all duties, from accounting to organizing the house-to-house preaching, the work Witnesses are most known for.

The group met in a small Kingdom Hall, as their meeting places are called, on 10th Street and 6th Avenue, where an English congregation already met.

When a new Kingdom Hall was built on Avenue A in the early `70s to accommodate the English congregation, the little group moved with them. This hall still houses several congregations, both English and Spanish.

The Spanish group then received needed help when Pedro Rojas arrived from California in 1968. He would become the first elder when the group became an official congregation.

By the time Rojas arrived, the congregation had grown to 40 people. That congregation grew until it became two, and the congregations continued to multiply.

"We went through the roof," said Ricardo Rodriguez, who arrived in Yuma in 1974 when there was only one congregation. "Pioneers of the work here in Yuma include Pedro Rojas, Enrique Ramos, Eleuterio Ceniceros and Wilfredo Ponce."

"Their wives supported the arrangement. Women like Jessie DeAnda and the late Lidia Ponce were founding women who dedicated their lives to this work," said Jaime Medina, a congregation elder.

Today there are five Kingdom Halls: three in Yuma, one in Somerton and one in Wellton. In the Yuma and Wellton area, some 700 Spanish-speaking Witnesses and interested ones meet in six congregations.

Based on Reporting from the Associated Press.

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