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Living La Vida Local In The Neighborhoods, New Population Growth Brings Continuing Challenges

Living La Vida Local In The Neighborhoods

by Kevin Pentón

JULY 21, 2002
©Copyright 2002 The Morning Call. All world rights reserved.

Labor Ready, Allentown

As others wait at a Hamilton Street bus stop for a ride to start their day, Magaly Soto emerges onto Second Street to smoke a cigarette. Her work day this Friday, May 31, is already half over.

A customer service representative at Labor Ready, a temp agency, Soto gets to work around 4 a.m. There she coordinates the dozens of people, usually immigrants from all parts of the world, who come to Labor Ready early looking for work at landscaping, construction and cleaning jobs.

"This is like the United Nations of workers," says Soto, 40, an expatriate of Puerto Rico by way of Hoboken, N.J.

A crack-of-dawn coffee lover, Soto says she landed the job during an early morning inquiry four years ago – after getting her coffee fix at a nearby shop.

10:43 a.m.

Basilio Huertas Senior Citizen Center

They are a fixture at the Basilio Huertas Senior Citizen Center on Bethlehem’s South Side – several Puerto Rican veterans of Bethlehem Steel’s coke works mixing it up on the domino table before lunchtime.

Few things – maybe a call from the wife – interrupt these games.

But today, guests from area hospitals and social service agencies have moved into the center with posters and plastic lungs for a health fair. Grumbling, the gamesmen have been driven outside for their daily dose of fun.

Still inside, Angel Vazquez shakes hands all around. A senior center regular, he’s dressed in his trademark guayabera, an embroidered shirt with four front pockets, a south-of-the-border thing. Two sets of silver chains with crucifixes, a couple of bracelets and a pair of sunglasses mark this 80-year-old as a man with his own brand of savoir-faire.

Vazquez believes he has found an antidote for many of the health risks he hears the health fair workers warning his peers about: He dances alone to salsa music in his South Side home 30 minutes every day. It keeps him in shape, he says.

Dancing also preps him for Friday night prayer sessions at Holy Infancy Church, where instead of holding rosary beads, he sings and plays the guitar and guiro – a ribbed gourd scraped with a stick.

"Look, look at this," Vazquez says with a huge grin, squeezing his biceps. He’s demanding that Sis-Obed Torres Cordero, the center’s director, poke his forearms. "Are they hard, or are they not hard?" he asks.

12:22 p.m.

Brisas del Caribe Restaurant, Allentown

A clock laminated with the Puerto Rican flag and shaped like the Caribbean island tells the time for the dozen patrons getting their daily dose of starch at Las Brisas del Caribe – Caribbean Breezes – restaurant on N. Eighth Street.

Over the blare of salsa music from a small radio set on a chair, Wanda Fontanez, 22, orders arroz amarillo con habichuelas – yellow rice with beans – and chicken.

She’s eating lunch with her two children and her brother, Elias Figueroa.

A cozy spot with four booths, six chairs and a counter topped with plates of cornbread and guava pastries, Las Brisas is a popular refuge for women and men escaping the kitchen this Friday.

"You won’t catch me behind a stove today," Fontanez says.

12:57 p.m.

El Barrio Restaurant, Allentown

Not far from Las Brisas is El Barrio Restaurant, a Puerto Rican eatery on Hamilton Street. Wooden parrots are lined up behind the long, blue and cream-colored counter where Labor Ready’s Magaly Soto is finishing her lunch.

Surprised by a second encounter with two men she met and spoke with just after 9 o’clock this morning, Soto laughs and jokingly warns that she expects to be going to a salsa spot in Allentown later that night "alone." She wards off lighthearted inquiries about dinner at her home.

"I’m sorry, but the kitchen is closed for everyone on Fridays," Soto says, turning her head as she walks out the door.

3:27 p.m

Handball courts, Jordan Meadows Park, Allentown

Joe Gritter likes to say he wasn’t too impressed with handball the first time he tried it. "I thought it was the stupidest game in the world!" says Gritter, 24.

Obviously, he got over it. Gritter founded the Allentown Handball Association and its accompanying Web site two years ago to publicize the traditionally inner-city sport.

Even on this humid, 86-degree day, nearly a dozen players hustle across two handball courts at Jordan Meadows Park, many shirtless or in sleeveless undershirts.

A street version of racquetball, handball entails two to four players using their hands to smack a blue rubber ball against a wall. Its simplicity grows on people, observes Jonny Moya, a regular at the courts.

"People might think it looks goofy, but you can get in really good shape running around the court," says Moya, 19.

Jonathan Gonzalez, 14, another court denizen, talks to two newcomers observing the games, then calls his mother on his cell phone to ask if they can come to his Gordon Street house for dinner later this Friday.

He gives them a thumbs-up sign.

4:50 p.m.

A stoop, Bethlehem’s South Side

The aroma of pernil – roast pork – wafts from La Favorita Restaurant. Vociferous children play ball in the middle of Third Street. Car horns honk as they swerve around the vehicles.

It’s the end of the afternoon in el barrio on the South Side, and in the center of it are Vanessa and Jose Cruz, sitting on the stoop as they crack jokes and get some air.

"He gets them redone like every two days, it’s ridiculous," Vanessa, 14, tells two passersby as she undoes the cornrows from Jose’s long hair. The children on the stoop start to giggle as Jose, 23, sheepishly explains that he gets his hair done so often because another friend does it for free.

When someone spreads the word that La Favorita, something of a landmark on the South Side, is set to move out of the neighborhood in late June, Jose does not like the news.

"I’m going to have to go over to Fourth Street now? I don’t think so," he says. "They’re going to have to come to me."

5:08 p.m.

Natural Beauty Salon, South Side Bethlehem

The muggy air of the streets is nothing compared to the humidity inside the Natural Beauty Salon, where two humming fans and an air conditioner struggle to lower the temperature.

The small shop, hidden behind window shades doing their best to shield patrons from the sun, sees upwards of 60 people each Friday, owner Lluveres Grecia tells two visitors.

Nearly as hot as the banter between the patrons and the employees over the latest neighborhood gossip on nearby Buchanan Street is the air underneath two huge hair dryers, where Itzamar Rodriguez and Denise Colon are sitting side by side.

"This is the place where everyone goes," says Rodriguez, who is getting "twisties" done on her hair before heading to Banana Joe’s dance club in Allentown later in the night.

6:15 p.m.

House for sale, Lynn Township

Realtor Pete Ramos is still working, even after 6 p.m. He’s showing a house to a client just outside New Tripoli.

A self-described, small-time entrepreneur with a real estate business on the South Side, Ramos made a deal to show properties to Agere Systems’ employees relocating to the Lehigh Valley. He did so by networking with key contacts at a series of Latino business mixers, he tells two observers tagging along.

That’s why he’s here this Friday evening in the rolling hills of Lynn Township, showing a house to Russian emigre Vicky Shparber, whose parents plan a move to the Valley.

Shparber seems sold on the 19th-century farmhouse, already making informal plans to host a Jacuzzi party on its backyard deck. She is less solid on the house’s dark basement, however, sending Ramos downstairs to investigate.

"Are there any dead bodies down there?" Shparber calls out, slowly tip-toeing down a rickety set of wooden stairs for a peek of her own. "Oh, it has a fireplace, great! But there’s spiders! Let’s go."

7:09 p.m.

Sacred Heart Church, Allentown

Once the maracas start shaking and the guiro begins shh-shhing, no one in the crowd needs a hymnal for the words.

Dozens of people – young and old – stamp their feet and hold hands, swinging them in unison as the basement of Sacred Heart Church takes off on a rhythmic and religious journey known as a "charismatic renovation" service. The folkloric beats and rhythms played by the Dicipulos de Emmaus – disciples of Emmaus – lead the descarga of praises to the Lord that leap from the crowd.

Nothing about the weekly Friday event, 22 years in the making, seems to be traditional, and that is the way Deacon Saul Hernandez, who leads the group, likes it. Hernandez says he has seen people cleansed of evil spirits while attending the service and has seen others healed of illnesses.

"In Puerto Rico it is said that Friday is Viernes Social – Social Friday," Hernandez tells the group. "But in this country Friday is for praising the Lord."

7:48 p.m.

Gordon Street, Allentown

A day of roaming the streets of the Lehigh Valley on Social Friday has taken its toll on the feet and stomachs of the two visitors who stroll into Jonathan Gonzalez’s Gordon Street house.

Outside, rain clouds cool the evening air. Inside, the visitors anticipate capturing the sights and sounds of a bustling kitchen filled with a Puerto Rican family sharing a home-cooked meal.

But it’s evident the grill is cold, the kitchen unused.

What’s going on is that there are two Viernes Social parties in the neighborhood, and mom is still working at her Seventh Street hair salon.

"I like cooking rice and beans, but not on Fridays," explains Gonzalez’s sister, Nastashia, 13, who’s been tussling with her two cousins.

As a brother eats a bowl of cereal in the back yard, Gonzalez places a roast beef sandwich and french fries into the microwave.

"Is this dinner going to be OK?" he asks his guests as he watches the plate spinning inside the machine.

Of course it is.

Gonzalez’s visitors are beginning to understand – it’s Viernes Social.

11:53 p.m.

Puerto Rican Beneficial Society, South Side Bethlehem

Carmen Alamo meets Cirilo Mateo. They dance.

Alamo quits Mateo for another dancer.

Mateo finds another partner and he buys her a drink.

Viernes Social is ticking down to midnight, and the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society is jammed with people getting their groove on on the 50-year-old social club’s dance floor.

Throughout the smoky crevices of the club, the official language is Spanish.

For a $5 fee at the door for nonmembers, and a $6 annual charge for club members, patrons get $2 mixed drinks and hours of a continuous mix of salsa, merengue, bachata and freestyle.

Sweaty backs are slapped as pals say hello. Rum drinks are offered by hopeful men to women in tight dresses and hip-hugging jeans.

"I’m not committed to anyone here," says Alamo, 40, sitting with two friends. "The only exception I make is that you’ve got to be a good dancer."

On Viernes Social, that makes sense.

Valley Puerto Ricans Succeed, Struggle

New Population Growth Brings Continuing Challenges

By Edgar Sandoval

JULY 21, 2002
©Copyright 2002 The Morning Call. All world rights reserved.

When Puerto Rican leaders meet with other Latinos in the Lehigh Valley to discuss problems in their communities, the same issues continually come up: high unemployment, crime in the inner cities, poor student performance.

For 64-year-old Miguel Marrero, who in the 1970s was one of the first Puerto Ricans in Bethlehem to run for public office, it’s a familiar refrain.

"When I first arrived here [in the late 1950s], we talked about…crime, youth, poverty," said Marrero, a central figure in the local Puerto Rican community although he now lives on the island. "Fifty years later, I see the same issues that we need to tackle."

For decades Puerto Ricans have been part of the Lehigh Valley. Many came seeking to escape island poverty during the great movement of the 1940s and ’50s. They became more established as legions of workers, encouraged by the U.S. government, escaped the poverty of their island and filled a need for workers at area farms and factories such as Bethlehem Steel.

They raised families in the region, bought homes and sent their children to college. They moved out of the inner cities to other parts of Allentown and Bethlehem and beyond. They established a social agency to serve the community and teach literacy.

But the progress made by earlier arrivals has been overshadowed in recent years by a new and larger wave of Puerto Ricans from the island, New York and other states, and immigrants from Latin America countries.

"New arrivals tend to be poor and uneducated," said David Vaida, an Allentown lawyer serving primarily Latino clients. "That has not changed over the years. It just so happens that our new arrivals are Latinos."

Puerto Ricans continue to make up the largest group of Latinos in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding six counties, at 57 percent of the total. They were a higher percentage of the Latino population a decade ago, but immigrants from Latin American countries have tempered the percentage growth.

Still, the Puerto Rican population grew 72 percent in the past decade, to 73,276 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. Most reside in Allentown, where they are 17 percent of the city’s total population, and in Bethlehem, where they are 14 percent of the city’s total population.

As a whole, they are still one of the poorest groups in the Valley. But with the growth has come some progress as Puerto Ricans work together with other Latinos to build alliances with non-Latino groups like never before.

Among the community leaders who are Puerto Rican are such people as Wanda Velazquez, who heads the Latin Alliance coalition; and David Vazquez, principal of the Roberto Clemente Charter School in Allentown, named after the late Puerto Rican baseball star. Luis Ramos was chairman of the Allentown School District’s Empowerment Team, which devised a plan to improve students’ state test scores; and Candido Garcia won a seat on the Allentown School Board, the first Puerto Rican to do so.

There were at least 240 Puerto Rican-owned businesses in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area, according to a 1997 economic report from the U.S. Census.

Such achievements have not come easy. Puerto Ricans have clashed with the mostly white community over cultural differences, such as the volume of their music and their use of Spanish over English.

Today, prejudices persist against Puerto Ricans. But population shifts, particularly in downtown Allentown, have allowed Puerto Ricans to create their own communities that serve as buffers against daily hostility from the community at large.

Still, community leaders say Puerto Ricans want what any newcomers want: to win the respect of the majority, to fit in.

"Every time you hear or read about Puerto Ricans, it is always negative," said Maria Teresa Donate, a Northampton Community College professor. "We need to change that and show people that we are good, hardworking people too."

Miguel Marrero worked in Bethlehem for 20 years, retiring to San Juan in the 1980s. He is so well-known among local Puerto Ricans, however, that when word got out in June that he was in Bethlehem visiting his mother, he was named grand marshal of the city’s Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Marrero was one of the founders and the first executive director of the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, a grassroots organization that provides social services in Bethlehem.

He was one of the first Puerto Ricans to run for City Council in Bethlehem and one of the first to make inroads in the power structure, reaching out to local and state leaders. When he ran for council in the 1971 primary, he was sending the message that Puerto Ricans too were leaders.

In his speeches, he would tell how Spaniard colonists and a large contingent of Puerto Ricans founded one of the oldest cities in the United States, St. Augustine, Fla., in the 1500s. When European immigrants later settled in Florida, he said, the Puerto Ricans would say, "There goes the neighborhood."

He said his story got chuckles from Lehigh Valley socialites, but they also got the message. Some whites understood discrimination when presented from their point of view.

Marrero lost the primary election, in part, he says, because voters were not ready for a Puerto Rican.

More than 30 years later, Bethlehem has yet to see a Puerto Rican hold citywide elective office, but Allentown has. And Marrero measures progress in the fact that Puerto Ricans are medical professionals, lawyers and educators. That was almost unheard of in the 1960s and ’70s, he says.

While leaders stress the need for more Puerto Rican and Latino professionals to serve the community, a small but aggressive group of activists often meets to target problems and find solutions.

Guillermo Lopez, executive director of the social agency Casa Guadalupe in Allentown, is trying to bring prosperity to poor neighborhoods. He has drawn attention to the need for banks and other businesses, particularly in the Second Street area of Allentown. Delia Rivera Diaz is Latino affairs coordinator for state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton. She is among those encouraging Latinos to vote and run for political office.

"There are a few of us out there," said Donate, of Northampton Community College. "But we need more."

Cassandra Colon, 17, resides at Seventh and Chew streets in Allentown, where she has lived since her parents relocated from Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. Five months’ pregnant, she dreams of the day when she can move out of the neighborhood with her husband, Troy Thompson, also 17.

"I have a lot of Puerto Rican neighbors who are poor, but they are good, hardworking people," Colon said. "As soon as we can, we will leave here and move to a more suburban area."

Thompson works two part-time jobs, at the Lehigh Valley Mall and at a supermarket, and plans to attend equivalency classes to get his high school diploma and later enroll in a community college.

"I don’t want my daughter to be raised in poverty," he said.

Angel Rosario, 39, of center city Allentown also hopes for a better future, if not for him, for his three teenage children. He is a night supervisor of housekeeping at Sacred Heart Hospital – "an honest job," he says – but he wants his children to do better. His oldest daughter is attending DeSales University and hopes to become a nurse. His two youngest ones, a boy and a girl, plan to follow her footsteps to college.

He protects his son, 16-year-old Angel Jr., by taking him wherever he goes in daytime when school’s not in session. "If I leave him alone, in the neighborhood, he may get recruited by gang members," said Rosario, a Puerto Rico native. "This neighborhood steals the young."

Nowadays he does not encounter problems with the white community, as he did when he moved to Allentown 20 years ago. His white neighbors did not understand his culture, he said. Today, his neighbors are other Puerto Ricans and new immigrants, who, he says, understand one another and have the same dreams of a better future.

He judges people not by skin color, but their actions.

"There are good Puerto Ricans, but there are also a lot of bad Puerto Ricans," he said. "Your nationality does not make you a bad person. You make you a bad person."

Puerto Rican and other Latino leaders want to fight many long-held perceptions of their community. But before they do, they say, they need to fight realities such as poverty and lack of education.

Latinos make up 60 percent of the welfare recipients in Lehigh County and 47 percent in Northampton County, according to the Pennsylvania Deprtment of Public Welfare.

"I see people who need help," said Lopez, of Casa Guadalupe in Allentown. "We have the energy and talent to move forward. We just need the tools – education – and once we educate our fellow Puerto Ricans, we will enjoy the same dreams and benefits like any other American."

Many organizations have been created to serve Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the Lehigh Valley. They range from older institutions such as Casa Guadalupe, the Hispanic American Organization and the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, to newer ones such as the Puerto Rican Cultural Alliance.

The Latin Alliance is a coalition of more than a dozen Latino organizations. The principal goals are to help new arrivals make an easier transition and improve their social status.

The organizations help Puerto Ricans and other Latinos learn English, computer and job-hunting skills.

Another goal is to reduce the unemployment rate among Latinos – 14.2 percent in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area, in contrast to 4.2 percent for the overall population, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Community leaders also want to help Puerto Rican and Latino children stay in school and do better. Language and cultural barriers have hurt student performance. Latinos make up about 45 percent of the Allentown School District’s student body, 26 percent of Bethlehem Area’s students and 9 percent of Easton Area schools. Most of the Latino students are Puerto Rican.

In Allentown, nearly half of Latinos in the fifth, eighth and 11th grades scored in the bottom 25 percentile of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. Latinos also have higher high school dropout rates.

In Allentown, the Empowerment Team, headed by Luis Ramos, created a plan to raise the scores and try to avert a state takeover of the city schools. Wanda Mercado-Arroyo has been hired to help increase parent participation. In the Bethlehem Area School District, Iris Cintron is district coordinator of minority affairs.

To help break down stereotypes, the Puerto Rican Cultural Alliance in Allentown, formerly known as the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, has begun to showcase talent and cultural contributions to the community.

Its main event is the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Allentown, first held in 1993 and scheduled this year for next Sunday. But the alliance is planning to open a cultural center downtown that would display, for example, the names of Puerto Ricans who served in the U.S. armed forces and wars.

"We want all people to come and see that we, the Puerto Ricans, are not bad people," said alliance member Felix Molina. "We have pride for our land, and we are going to show that. We are festive, people of the Caribbean. But we are also hardworking people.’’

In reaction to the years of controversy and clashes stemming from its annual parade, the alliance is even more determined to educate the community at large about Puerto Rican culture. The parade was at risk of not being held last year because of the problems, which included allegations of rowdy behavior by parade spectators.

Organizers and city officials agreed to changes that routed the parade along Sixth and Gordon streets instead of Hamilton Street. It culminated with a festival at Jordan Park, where attendees could continue peacefully celebrating, said alliance President Antonio Marrero, Miguel Marrero’s brother.

Efforts are paying off. Last year’s parade and festival were lauded by participants and city officials alike.

Community leaders also want Puerto Ricans to learn the history of the region. To help out, the Lehigh County Historical Society museum and Trout Hall expanded services, adding tours and recordings in English and Spanish.

Tour organizer Pat Arnold said many Puerto Ricans who take the tours see similarities with early immigrant groups. As with Puerto Ricans, other immigrants faced struggles and discrimination.

"People who have things in common tend to like each other better," Arnold said.

Local governments are taking other steps to draw closer to Puerto Ricans and other Latinos.

Police officers in Allentown and Bethlehem have taken Spanish lessons to better communicate. And Allentown’s new police chief, Stephen L. Kuhn, a Spanish speaker, told Latino leaders he will make it a priority to diversify the department’s ranks and investigate any allegations of police brutality toward minorities.

Less than 13 percent of the Allentown police force is black or Latino. Bethlehem and Easton police departments have fewer than 10 Latino or black officers each.

Lawyer Vaida questions whether some Latinos are unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Latinos make up 28 percent of the Northampton County Prison population and 32 percent of the Lehigh County Prison population.

But community leaders are optimistic. They say Puerto Ricans will find more success as their families take root here, with more education and more organization.

Miguel Marrero, who returned to San Juan after serving as grand marshal of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Bethlehem, said a new generation needs orgullo – pride – for where they live and the initiative to make a difference.

"I have done what I could," he said. "Now the new people have to work to make where they live a better place."

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