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The Morning Call

New Culture In Old Coal Town

By Dan Sheehan and Jose Cardenas Of The Morning Call

July 25, 2005
Copyright © 2005
The Morning Call. All rights reserved.

HAZLETON - | In this city of church steeples, the twin green spires of St. Gabriel's loom largest, marking the Donegal Hill section where rough-and-ready Irish once defended curbstone borders against encroachments by Italians, Germans, Poles and other immigrants.

Those ethnic groups had their own sections of town, their own churches. Life went on, with anthracite as its center, in this hilly landscape 40 miles north of the Lehigh Valley.

Coal died, gradually, as did the other major industry, textiles. The population aged and shrank, aged and shrank, until Hazleton's mid-20th century population of 38,000 had dwindled to 23,300 by the turn of the millennium.

But today, that graying city of five short years ago – bidding goodbye to its discontented children in search of livelier environs – is itself changing.

The new Hazleton is being built, house by house, store by store, by youthful immigrants who speak Spanish and have brought with them a dose of big-city vigor – and, some dismayed natives contend, big-city problems, from trash to drugs.

Hazleton exemplifies a trend playing out elsewhere in Pennsylvania – notably Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, with its substantial settlement by Mexican farm workers. Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority group by far, are altering traditional cultures across America as they move beyond big urban centers.

In Hazleton the 1990 Census counted 249 Hispanic residents. A decade later, that number had reached 1,132.

Some observers, examining school enrollment, employer rolls and other factors, estimate the current number at 6,000 to 8,000.

The estimate from City Hall falls right in the middle. ''We project at least 7,000,'' Mayor Louis Barletta said, ''and it continues to grow.''

The Pew Hispanic Center, a division of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., says such explosive growth is characteristic of Hispanic populations, as large-scale immigration is followed by rapid second-generation growth.

Hispanic birth rates are twice as high as those of non-Hispanics, which helped drive a 14 percent increase in the nation's Hispanic population between 2000 and 2004, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

For Luzerne County, where Hazleton is located, the increase from 2000 to 2003 was 28.4 percent, according to Census estimates.

''Our population had been on a downward slide for decades. Now we are probably one of fastest-growing cities in Luzerne County,'' Barletta said. ''We're estimating the city population at 28,000 to 30,000.''

Changing church

Nowhere do these abstract numbers take on more life than in cavernous St. Gabriel's at noon on Sunday, where the pews fill to overflowing for the weekly Spanish Mass.

The old-line Irish-Catholic church has grown into a hub of the Spanish-speaking community over the past decade. Guitar-driven hymns and exuberant hugging and kissing as worshippers offer the sign of peace make the Spanish celebrations boisterous at times.

It's a startling change from the restrained English-

language Masses, where the sign of peace, a traditional greeting offered among parishioners, seldom consists of anything more than a brief handshake or nod.

The Spanish Mass has grown steadily since its inception, from 60 or so worshippers a dozen years ago to overflow crowds of several hundred people. On a recent Sunday, when the Rev. Michael Delaney asked new parishioners to stand and be greeted, nearly two dozen people rose.

Few people seem surprised anymore by the pace of the Hispanic community's growth, which has stepped up dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That catastrophe did not cause the immigration, but accelerated a process that had been under way since the late 1980s.

Natives and newcomers, divided along fault lines of cultural tension, agree wholeheartedly on one thing: Hazleton was not ready.

The school district, for one, is shuddering under the weight of its English as a Second Language program, which has nearly 800 students and gains about 30 a month. One of the program's 16 teachers has likened the growth to the mad urgency of a medical triage.

The overwhelming majority of these students are Spanish-speaking. Many come from the Dominican Republic by way of New York City. Others are newly arrived from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala. In all, 15 Spanish-speaking nations are represented.

''We'd love to have 12 more teachers for next year,'' said Deb Carr, the administrator in charge of the program, lamenting the budgetary impossibility of such a thing.

Chilly reception

Beyond the schools, the immigration has given rise to familiar reactions all over town: acceptance in some quarters, resistance in others and a degree of confusion and uncertainty everywhere.

Many newcomers say it is hard to find the right kind of help here. They also say their reception by Hazleton's traditionally insular natives has been chilly, if not downright hostile.

''I would go to the mall and stand in line and people would move away from me like I stank,'' recalled Jennifer Boudier, a Dominican teen who followed her mother here two years ago from the Bronx.

Native perspectives seem rooted in suspicion. These immigrants, the complaint goes, haven't adopted the model of their predecessors, who cast aside old-country tongues and customs for assimilation's sake. The Hispanics, in other words, remain stubbornly Hispanic.

''I think that's where the prejudice comes from,'' said Cathy Getz, who runs a combination religious goods store and coffee shop on Broad Street, one of the city's main commercial thoroughfares. ''They're not your typical working class trying to fit in.''

Forgotten in this anxiety over the newcomers is the long, slow arc of assimilation that marked Hazleton's history.

The European settlers of the 19th and early 20th centuries did not blend instantly into the homogenized city of recent decades. When the English were ascendant, for example, the Irish took the lowliest jobs, moving up a social and economic notch with the arrival of Europe's non-English speakers.

''The neighborhoods developed based on the ethnic makeup,'' said Neal Oberto, director of the Catholic Social Services Hazleton office and the son of Italian immigrants. ''The various ethnic groups came. They enriched the community with their culture, their strong commitment to family and faith.''

Now, with the explosion of the Latino population, ''You have a group coming in, a new wave, that in some sense threatens the established order. People can have a hard time with that.''

Consider just one symbolic change: Hazleton has long been known as the Italian center of the Eastern coal regions. The 2000 Census counted 7,477 residents who claimed Italian heritage. That includes the mayor, whose great-grand-

father came from Italy around 1900.

So, if Hispanics have exceeded that number, they have ended the decades-long reign of Italians as Hazleton's largest ethnic group.

'A blessing for Hazleton'

Against Hazleton's prevailing uncertainty stands the upbeat assessment of Delaney, who was pastor of St. Gabriel's until being transferred to Scranton last month in a diocesan reshuffling.

In his 11 years at the church, he said, he watched the shrinking city take on new life as the newcomers charged in.

''What a blessing for Hazleton,'' Delaney said. ''What would have happened without this influx of young, vibrant people?''

Certainly the business community has received a jolt, with more than 60 Hispanic-owned shops opening in recent years. Donna Palermo, president of the Hazleton Area Chamber of Commerce, said an increasing number of Hispanic business owners are taking advantage of small-business workshops sponsored by Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. She has heard talk of Hispanic entrepreneurs forming their own business association, though she is lukewarm toward that idea.

''Personally, I would like to see us as one,'' she said. ''We have a diverse community here. I would like to see us come together under one roof.''

A man buying groceries at Jasmin's, a Dominican-owned store on Wyoming Street, summed up the growth of the Hispanic community this way: ''El Hispano está poniendo este pueblo para arriba.''

It means ''The Hispanic person is making this town rise.''

Parallels to Lehigh Valley

To people in the Lehigh Valley, this is a familiar story. Allentown, especially, is still trying to come to grips with the Latinization that transformed it through the 1980s and '90s into the culturally fractured city of today.

When Democratic mayoral candidate Ed Pawlowski stumped at a city senior center not long ago, a woman fairly singed his ears with her grievances about the Seventh Street corridor, with its old gentility buried under an avalanche of urban-flavored retailers. The Puerto Ricans, she told him – pronouncing it ''porta rickans'' – will knock you down and take your bag in broad daylight.

Afterward, Pawlowski said it was hardly the harshest assessment of the new Allentown he has heard from the city's longtime residents, who cherish memories of downtown as an upper-crust shopping district anchored by the late, lamented Hess's department store.

Delaney said those kinds of stubborn, simmering resentments are exactly what he and other Hazleton leaders have been trying to prevent as they struggle through these fledgling years of change.

''This is a permanent thing,'' he said. ''And 25 years from now, I would hope this is a community that will be able to build bridges and create relationships.''

But some in the community, frustrated by what they say is the slow pace of accommodation for newcomers, aren't sure Hazleton is on the right road.

Anna Arias, a community liaison for a social service group called the Commission on Economic Opportunity, has been a forceful critic of private and public institutions that she believes have not put enough effort into providing services, particularly bilingual, to Hispanics.

While the school district has hired a bilingual facilitator and taken other steps to help new families, Arias said she has hounded administrators to add Hispanic teachers to the English as a Second Language program.

All of the teachers in the program are white and most don't speak Spanish. It isn't legally required that they do so. Besides, the district eschews bilingual teaching in favor of English immersion, finding it a more effective approach. Carr, the school district administrator, said students whose previous tutelage was bilingual typically have the hardest time learning English.

There are free English courses available in town, and there are a variety of committees, councils, networks and partnerships aimed at easing the immigrants' way, including Arias' own group.

Even so, ''I still believe they are not ready,'' she said of the perceived failure of private- and public-sector agencies to catch up with the influx. ''Maybe,'' she added glumly, ''they don't want to be ready.''

Such pessimism crops up in random conversations around town as suspicions, misperceptions and resentments on both sides of the native-immigrant equation emerge without much prompting.

A clerk at a Catholic shrine outside town says she has nothing against the newcomers ''except they won't learn English.''

But a young Dominican says his white peers often mock newcomers' efforts to learn the language.

''If you speak at American white people, they know where you come from because of your accent,'' said Pierre de Leon, 15. ''When we say hello, they make fun of us. When you say 'hi,' [it sounds like] 'guy,' They say 'Oh, my God, he said guy.' They make fun of you.''

A store owner on Broad Street complains that young Latinos, unimpeded by police, throw trash from their cars, ignore stop signs and traffic lights and jar neighborhood serenity by blasting music from their car speakers at teeth-rattling volume.

A Latino grocer across town, on the other hand, says police seem to make a point of tailing Latino drivers, looking for reasons to pull them over and ticket them.

The reality of crime in Hazleton is that it remains low, despite the contention of some natives that newcomers have made the streets more dangerous.

''When you read a Spanish name in the newspaper it stands out more and the perception is that's where all the crimes are being committed,'' Barletta said. ''Percentage-wise, that's not the case. But it's the perception, and perception is reality to people.''

In 2003, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton metropolitan area boasted the 11th-lowest crime rate in the country, according to FBI statistics.

Lt. Jim Shellhammer, interim head of Hazleton's 30-

officer police force, said thefts from vehicles and drug-related crimes have risen in recent years, but that was probably inevitable given the rapid population growth. The department plans to add two officers in response, said Shellhammer, who also dismissed the notion that police target Hispanics.

In the contention, he finds support among immigrants who believe some of their peers are too quick to cry racism when they do wrong.

Manuel Saldana, a native of Santo Domingo who is forming a Hispanic cultural association, said many of those claiming racism ''are those who have acted wrongly and the weight of the law falls on them. They want to excuse themselves and use the excuse of racism. Here they call it racism. In their country, it's police brutality. It has a name in every place.''

Sense of discontent

That Hazleton is undergoing any sort of change is surprising. Time does not pass here so much as it accumulates and hardens, like the black mountains of culm dotting the valley. Bingo parlors and lunch counters and other faded tokens of the old culture enhance the sense of past-as-present.

It has, too, its own dialect, the quirky coal-region patois that turns ''Shenandoah'' into ''Shendo'' and is peppered with a euphemistic expletive, ''frick.''

A retiree might like it here. A teenager probably wouldn't, as any of the young people bouncing from mall to multiplex in search of diversion might testify.

''Why would anyone want to move to Hazleton? Half the people here want to leave,'' said Cathy Getz, the gift shop owner, noting the amorphous sense of discontent among some residents.

Arias, of the Commission on Economic Opportunity, summed up her reasons for settling here in an anecdote of surpassing charm: In the summer of 1988, out for a walk during a visit to her mother, an elderly man tipped his hat to her.

That modest, civil gesture transported her back to the genteel simplicity of her childhood in the Dominican Republic.

''I said 'Oh, God, this is like where I was born, where people have respect for each other,''' she recalled. ''It's a good environment, a healthy environment. To this day, I believe that is what people are looking for.''

That, and jobs. In the old days, many newcomers went into the mines. Their successors take jobs that are safer but not necessarily more pleasant. For instance, one of the area's largest employers of Hispanics is Cargill Meat Solutions, an enormous meatpacking plant in the vast Humboldt Industrial Park on the city's outskirts.

According to city officials, the plant's work force of nearly 1,000 is 70 percent Latino, but attempts to verify those numbers with Cargill officials were rebuffed without explanation.

Beyond its job opportunities and comparative safety, Hazleton's houses and rents are far cheaper than New York's. Even without the anxieties and massive job losses caused by the 9/11 catastrophe, New York was far too expensive for most. So they followed the call of family members who had gone before.

''That [9/11] was one of the reasons my mother moved here,'' says Boudier, the Bronx transplant, who works in a combination clothing store and barber shop called New York's Finest on Wyoming Street, the burgeoning Latino shopping district. ''She heard about this area from a friend she met on the train in New York. We moved here and then my brothers brought all my aunts and uncles from New York.''

Thus the Dominican population, biggest of all the Hispanic groups to settle here, grew by another generous handful.

The settlement, however, goes back further than that. Edwin Abreu, who runs a combination pool hall and pawn shop on Wyoming Street, said his grandmother was among the first Hispanics here. In the late 1980s, bound for a new life in California, her car broke down near the Hazleton exit of Interstate 80, so she decided to stick around.

''It was as simple as that,'' Abreu said. ''Dumb luck.''

Latinos have made smaller inroads in some of the towns around Hazleton. Shenandoah, where the population of 5,600 is 97 percent white, has become home to an increasing number of Mexicans who have broken away from the migrant worker stream and settled down. The Hispanic population grew from 33 to 155 between 1990 and 2000.

Those numbers are hardly jaw-dropping, but the Hispanic presence is still keenly felt as a symbol of change where nothing much changes.

In Tamaqua, for example, 12 miles south of Hazleton, the school district remains 97 percent white. Of the six non-English speakers taking English instruction, only half are Hispanic. And yet a visitor to the borough of 6,000 will hear natives talk of how different things are since the Hispanics moved in.

''Yeah, there's friction,'' said a thrift shop clerk who has noticed a ''fluctuating'' population of Hispanics in her apartment complex. ''Some are friendly, some are not. I have to honestly say they are all hard workers. I see them come out every morning and go to work. There are a lot of townspeople who don't do that.''

Weekly haven

If the schools and streets of Hazleton don't always feel friendly to newcomers, the basement of St. Gabriel's offers a weekly haven for the two dozen or so mostly Dominican teenagers in a parish youth group.

On a recent Friday, the basement filled with teenage chatter in Spanish and English, spoken haltingly by some of the teenagers. Many of the teens came to Hazleton within the last few years, making brief stops in New Jersey or New York before coming to this town.

Marisol Velez, a graduate of Hazleton High School and now a freshman at the local campus of Penn State University, runs the youth group. Her family has been in Hazleton 13 years, long enough to know how Hispanics were treated when there were just a few of them in contrast to the large population today.

''When we first moved here it was a lot more confrontational. Because we've been growing in numbers they don't confront you anymore,'' said Velez, whose father is a deacon at the church. ''There's a lot of tension but they don't like to talk about it in the open.''

Because she has been in the area longer than other teenagers and speaks English with no accent, Velez said she has noticed that some white friends seem to hold her in higher regard than they do new arrivals.

''They say 'Why are they so loud? Why don't they learn English? I'm not talking about you. You're different,''' Velez said.

Recently, in talking with friends about a fire at a Mexican bakery on Wyoming Street, the hub of Latino commerce, Velez said someone derisively called the neighborhood ''Hazle Rico,'' and ''Wyoming Rico.''

''People who know who I am feel comfortable saying that around me. I don't feel comfortable,'' said Velez, who is half-Puerto Rican and half- Dominican. ''Just like when they said Wyoming Rico, everybody's laughing hysterically, when I'm half-Puerto Rican.''

But as much as some Latinos feel unwelcome, others say they have not experienced any tension.

Jose Lechuga, a Mexican grocer with a store in Hazleton and another in nearby Tamaqua, offered a statistical assessment of prejudice 10 years ago, when he moved to the area, and today.

''Back then, 80 percent,'' he said. ''Today, maybe 30 percent.''

Mario Giron, 32, who supervises the St. Gabe's youth group, came from Mexico three years ago and lives in Conyngham, a mostly white Hazleton suburb.

''I have lived there always and I have never had an incident of racism,'' said Giron. ''I play basketball on Thursdays with all Americans. Fridays, too.''

He has, however, witnessed tensions flare among some of city's Spanish-speaking young people, and that underscores another point – Hispanics may share a language, but their cultures and world views can be vastly different.

''There's a lot of difference between us Hispanics,'' Giron said. ''Including between Dominicans and Mexicans. There's even been fights.''

Sign of a sea change

Perhaps the most obvious sign that Hazleton has undergone a cultural sea change is the ubiquitous presence of El Mensajero, the free monthly Spanish-language newspaper published by Amilcar Arroyo.

The courtly Peruvian was out of work in Miami in the late 1980s when he saw an advertisement in a newspaper. It was a Cuban contractor looking for workers to harvest tomatoes in Luzerne County.

Arroyo signed on and arrived here in 1989. There were only about 25 Hispanic families in town then, he said. Now, he estimates the number of Latinos by counting how many go to church on Sunday or are employed at local companies.

''I think there are 7,000 and growing,'' said Arroyo, figuring each person he counts has four other family members.

He started his newspaper two years ago. It has grown from eight pages to 48 and has a circulation of 5,000.

Arroyo said Hispanics have embraced Hazleton because they can afford a lifestyle that was out of reach in pricey, dangerous New York – and beyond imagination in the Dominican Republic or other impoverished homelands.

''People who struggled to pay the rent, with the danger of being hurt, they came to a city where within a year they had their own business, rental properties and on top of that, a job,'' he said.

Good citizens, in other words. But as Hispanics have moved in, Arroyo said, he has watched whites moved out.

''The block where I live, I was the only Hispanic,'' he said. ''There are about 10 houses. Only two [white families] are left. We are all homeowners.''

Arroyo said this so-called white flight may be partly attributable to the way Latinos handle themselves in public when they come to Hazleton.

''It has to be said because it's true,'' Arroyo said. ''In a block, a Hispanic has a way of living, [for example] loud music. To the Americans in Hazleton, it's different, so soon they put a 'For Sale' sign. And a Hispanic buys it.''

Those sorts of cultural clashes may subside over time as the newcomers and old-timers strike a balance of respect. But Arroyo believes that to become blended into Hazleton's history, as past immigrants were, Hispanics need to learn English.

''One piece of advice I tell my people is 'Learn English without forgetting your language or culture,' '' he said. ''But you have to learn English. We ourselves, for lack of communication, we think we are being marginalized. If there's no communication, there's no integration.''

Oberto, of Catholic Social Services, said the city can accommodate Hispanics just as well as it accommodated his own forebears – not to mention the Irish, Poles, Germans, Slavs and others who built the city's once-ethnic, now homogenized, neighborhoods.

''Mutual respect has to be the key,'' he said.

Respect, and time. Hazleton has not coped with such an influx of immigrants in generations. ''With each generation it's changed,'' Mayor Barletta said. ''There was a time when Italians married Italians, Irish married Irish. You don't see that anymore. My wife's Irish. We've become more and more of a melting pot.''

Decades hence, it may be old-timers of Dominican descent watching anxiously as newcomers arrive with a different language, a different culture, demanding a place in the neighborhood.

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