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Allentown Morning Call

"People Like Us" - Hispanics Of Lehigh Valley Honor Their Heritage, Diversity

By Edgar Sandoval

October 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved. 

About two years ago, a dozen people gathered at St. Martin de Porres Church in Allentown, drawn together in search of "people like us" -- Hispanics who share a language and cultural values.

But early on, the new arrivals from such diverse countries as Mexico, Ecuador, Panama and Colombia became fascinated by their differences -- particularly in their use of street language and the foods they ate.

"People see Hispanics as one same group," said Isidro Barriga, a member of Grupo Apoyo. "But meeting people from other countries, I have come to realize how different we are."

Now, every year the group views Hispanic Heritage Month -- which runs through Oct. 15 -- as a time to not only celebrate what unites Hispanics, but also to learn about their cultural differences.

Congress first acknowledged Hispanics' 500-year history in the Americas and growing U.S. presence by creating Hispanic Heritage Week in 1964. In 1988, it was expanded to Hispanic Heritage Month.

The U.S. Census counts in the category "Hispanic" the more than 30 million Americans, or about 12 percent of the population, who trace their origin to Puerto Rico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands.

That gives the rest of Americans the sense that Hispanics are a homogenous group of people, said Erika Sutherland, a Spanish professor at Muhlenberg College and founder of Grupo Apoyo.

That might have been true in the Lehigh Valley some 20 years ago when the majority of Hispanics were Puerto Rican. But two decades of immigration from Latin American and Caribbean countries have diversified the 49,749 estimated Hispanics living in the Lehigh Valley.

Puerto Ricans make up about 67 percent of the Latino population in the Lehigh Valley, according to the 2000 Census. The rest are natives of Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Ecuador and other Spanish-speaking nations.

Today, newcomers can no longer arrive in the area and automatically fit in with the rest of the Spanish-speaking community, Sutherland said.

"We have spent hours and hours at the dinner table talking about how the meaning of words can differ from one country to another and how different our foods are," Barriga said.

Hispanics have to be careful which Spanish words they use, because identical words are taken differently by people from different countries. They also have to adapt to exotic foods they haven't tasted or heard of before, Sutherland said.

Fernando Almazon, a Mexican native, learned that lesson the first time he talked about one of his favorite dishes, tacos de lengua, or steamed cow tongues wrapped in a corn tortilla.

"Tacos of what?" other non-Mexican Hispanics asked him.

"Lengua [tongue]," he replied, as if it were no big deal.

Cows tongues aren't regular cuisine in every Spanish-speaking land.

"People assume that Latinos have much in common, but one does not realize how different they can be until you learn about different Spanish-speaking cultures," Sutherland said. "It's fascinating."

Barriga and fellow members of Grupo Apoyo have learned about their Hispanic differences mostly by being part of the group.

In his native Ecuador, Barriga commonly used the word "vaina" loosely, as English speakers would use the word "that," as in "Que es esa vaina?" or "What is that?"

But he quickly learned that "vaina" has a more literal meaning for some people raised in Puerto Rico. There "vaina" means the wooden handle of a machete or rifle.

"I noticed people's expression as if they were saying, "What are you talking about?' and I could not believe it because we were speaking the same language," Barriga said.

Omar Garcia, a 34-year-old native of Colombia, can identify with Barriga. He remembered meeting an older woman from Guatemala at his workplace. It is customary to use special names such as "Don" and "Doa" as a sign of respect for elders in Colombia and other Latin America countries.

So, he greeted her with "Doa."

Her face showed disbelief.

Later he learned that "Doa" in Guatemala is commonly used to describe a woman who manages prostitutes.

"I had no idea that a word that I always saw as a nice way to relate to elders meant something so bad," Garcia said.

Many of the word differences Sutherland has encountered tend to have a common meaning in one country and a derogatory one in another.

Sutherland had been using the word "chulo" to describe her male friends as "good looking."

When her boyfriend Jose Cooper, a Panama native, brought his son, dressed in a suit, to one of the Grupo Apoyo meetings, she called him "chulo."

The boy turned to his father and said, "Daddy, I don't want to be a chulo."

Sutherland felt embarrassed when she learned Panamanians use the word "chulo," to describe vandals.

Sometimes words in one country have no meaning at all in another country.

Graciela More Polanco, 40, a native of the Dominican Republic, likes to watch Spanish-language soap operas, many of which originate in Mexico. But she has trouble understanding some of the lingo.

She often hears the word "chamba," which is slang for "job," in Mexico.

"That word does not exist in my country," Polanco said. "I was confused. I wanted to watch a TV show in Spanish that is supposed to be for people of my culture, and I was lost."

Talking to people from different Spanish-speaking countries has made Sonia Bernal, a native of Colombia, more savvy. Now, she can prevent misunderstandings or avoid angering someone by knowing how differentLatinos use the same words.

"Now, at least I know why they are laughing," said Bernal, 40. "Or, we can just laugh together. After all, we may all be Latinos, but we are not all the same."

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