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Census: Pa. Hispanics Growing Fast

March 10, 2001
Copyright 2001 © ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — If he had followed his parents' footsteps and become a physician, Jose Urdaneta might never have ended up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.

But Urdaneta wanted to be a photographer. After working several years in his native Venezuela, he realized his earnings would be limited, so he decided to immigrate to the United States.

His journey took him on a well-worn path: In 2000, he was among 394,000 Hispanics who called Pennsylvania home -- a population that has grown 70 percent since 1990, according to census figures released Friday.

Pennsylvania's situation is hardly unique. Initial census figures released this week point to an explosion in the Hispanic population in the U.S. during the past decade, to about 35.3 million in 2000.

For Urdaneta, a visit with a cousin who lived in Lancaster sold him on the city, and the family moved there in 1992.

``It seemed like a wonderful place to raise a child,'' said Urdaneta, 35, who grew up speaking English and Spanish. ``And it was very conveniently located for me to market my services to many areas; Baltimore and Philadelphia are close, and New York is just a few hours away.''

In Lancaster County, the Hispanic population increased by 71 percent -- to nearly 27,000, or 6 percent of the county's population, census figures show. More than 17,000 Hispanics live in the city of Lancaster, almost a third of the population.

And although they live in a region synonymous with Amish buggies and shoofly pie, Lancaster's Hispanics can still connect with their native culture.

They can listen to salsa or merengue on Spanish-language radio station WLCH-FM, which has been on the air for 13 years. La Voz Hispana, a bilingual, biweekly newspaper, began publishing seven years ago.

Their presence is most evident in the city's southeastern section, where neighborhood grocers stock staples such as black beans, canned jalapeno peppers and cornmeal, and churches of several different denominations offer Spanish services.

Many Hispanics are from Puerto Rico, but others are migrating from major Northeastern cities, primarily New York and Philadelphia.

``There are more and more individuals hearing about Lancaster ... Relatives are telling them there are jobs down here. It's a very nice neighborhood to live in, and crime is not as rampant as in New York or Baltimore,'' said Lt. John Fiorelli, a community relations officer with the city police department.

The city has 11 Hispanic police officers, comprising 8 percent of the 167-member force. When Fiorelli joined 27 years ago, there were only two.

The swelling population has also led to more frequent Masses and Sunday school sessions at San Juan Bautista Iglesa Catholica, a Hispanic Roman Catholic church.

Two-hundred families registered with the church when it opened in 1982, and that number has increased to about 1,000, said the Rev. Bernardo Pistoni, the church's pastor and an Italian immigrant.

``Up to 10 years ago, about 90 percent of the population was from Puerto Rico,'' Pistoni said. ``Now, we're seeing a sizable number from South and Central America as well. It's a microcosm of New York.''

Enid Pereira-Vasquez, 49, the manager of WLCH, remembers when Hispanics were not readily accepted in Lancaster. Her family moved to the city from Puerto Rico in 1952, when she was an infant.

``I remember older adults not being allowed in certain establishments, fighting all the time trying to get into a bar,'' she said.

Pereira-Vasquez says the community is more integrated today.

``On my block in the city, we have whites, blacks and Hispanics. I really enjoy living like that,'' she said.

Pistoni is increasingly concerned about problems such as youth violence and teen pregnancy, and his church is trying to reach out to children. In September, he plans to start an after-school program in which children can get help with homework.

``You have parents who cannot speak English and cannot help their children with their schoolwork, or worse, single mothers trying to raise them,'' he said.

Despite their day-to-day struggles, Hispanics who move to Lancaster generally decide to stay within a year or two if they adapt to their new surroundings, Pereira-Vasquez said.

``I love Puerto Rico and I want to stay sometimes when I visit, because my heart is in both places,'' she said. ``But then my children are here, my grandchildren are here -- my roots are pretty much here. It gets hard to leave.''

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