Pennsylvania becomes Latino
The Hispanic population of this historically white city shaped by English and German ancestry â€” along with the surrounding Lehigh Valleyâ€” has skyrocketed in the past decade, echoing a national trend highlighted by the 2010 Census.
Reading, now 58% Hispanic, is the latest harbinger for a more diverse America in regions where Hispanic migration has been a relatively recent development.
“If you look at the Census data from 2000 and now 2010, you can see that there’s this phenomenon of Latinos moving to parts of the United States where there hasn’t been Latinos before,” says Stanton Wortham, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who specializes in linguistics and immigrant studies. “The biggest research question from a national point of view is the question of, what are these new Latino populations’ trajectories going to be over the next decade?”
In this area, Hispanic community members and ethnic organizations have brought dramatic culture change. Downtown centers brim with signs in Spanish pointing to corner bodegas (grocery stores), travel agencies and money-wire services. Local police officers enjoy $1 tacos on Tuesdays at TaquerÃa Los Amigos in Allentown, and a Dominican establishment, Mi Casa Su Casa, in Reading offers empanadas (turnovers) with lattes. Passing cars reverberate with the modern salsa beats of cumbia music or hip-hop-influenced reggaeton blasting from a 24-hour, FM Spanish-language radio station.
Such street scenes, long common in Los Angeles or Miami, have migrated to city centers in eastern states, including Virginia, Georgia and New Jersey.
Workforce propels change
Maricel ConcepciÃ³n, 34, a quality analyst at a software company, moved in 2000 from Puerto Rico to Allentown, about 40 miles northeast of Reading. She says the downtown reminds her of cities in Puerto Rico, while Allentown’s small-town feel and quiet living remind her of the countryside in her native land. “I think that’s why I feel comfortable here,” ConcepciÃ³n says.
Octavio PeÃ±a, 60, who moved to the Lehigh Valley in 1976, says it took awhile for native residents to adjust to their new neighbors. “They didn’t accept the Latinos” at first, he says. “But now there’s a different culture here; a lot of people got more comfortable with it.”
Gregory Lauray, an accountant who lives in Bethlehem, next door to Allentown, says he has heard non-Hispanics speak resentfully about the new arrivals in the area. “I understand on the one hand because of the rapid growth and the rapid change it’s happening quicker than anybody anticipated,” he says. “But the thing is also America is built on immigrants. I think that’s a major part of our history.”
Vaughn Spencer, an African American who graduated from Reading High School in 1965 and is Reading’s current City Council president, remembers attending school with three blacks and one Hispanic.
“Go out there now,” Spencer says. Reading High is currently 72% Hispanic, according to John Duggan, the school’s guidance counselor.
Wortham says demographic movement is principally about chasing jobs. “It’s the same reason my ancestors came over a hundred years ago.”
The Hispanic immigrant experience deeply mirrors that of Europeans, particularly from Italy and Poland, says Emilio Parrado, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in Hispanic immigration. These immigrants came from disadvantaged backgrounds, and in many cases, took more than three generations to make significant progress in education, employment and intermarriage.
Today, Hispanic small-business ownership is booming, especially in restaurant work, construction and landscaping, where fluent English might not be a necessity. The 2007 survey of business owners by the Census Bureau showed that Hispanic business ownership had grown by 43% in just five years.
“They look for opportunities to move up, socially,” Parrado explains. “That’s why the immigrants, especially, they work a lot, they work more than one job. And they try to provide opportunities for their kids, to send them to school. They look for better housing, and they open businesses. And everything is guided by this expectation of social mobility.”
Good work ethic translates
Reading High valedictorian Noe Cabello’s father left his family in their small town of Lobera, Mexico, to find work in Texas.
After a few months, Victor Cabello says he came to Reading because friends told him there was more work here.
After 13 years, he saved enough money to bring his wife and five children, including 8-year-old Noe, to Reading.
This fall, Noe will attend Johns Hopkins University on a full scholarship.
Noe attributes some of his educational success to the English Language Acquisition courses he took for 2Â½ years when he first moved to the USA.
His greatest motivation, he says, comes from his parents: “They try to do their best to sustain us and give us the best life they can provide.
“Even if it might not be a lot, they try their best. Sometimes I feel I’m not only doing this for me, but for them.”
Noe understands the significance of being his school’s first Hispanic valedictorian but says he looks forward to the day when such distinctions no longer matter or qualify as headline news.
“I just hope that later on â€¦ just being the valedictorian for Reading High School would be enough,” he says.