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The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (PA)
Hispanics: New Group, Old Obstacles
By MARK GUYDISH
April 26, 2003
They sit on the cusp of the great migration cycle that has defined our region for centuries: A class of newcomers too numerous to be ignored, yet too few to be readily accepted.
By almost any measure Luzerne County is experiencing an Hispanic boom - the U.S. Census shows the percentage of Hispanics doubled here between 1990 and 2000. And Hazleton is the epicenter of this mini-explosion.
"People ask, why are they all moving to Pine Street?" said Sandra Medina Lopez, who helps Hispanic children adjust to new schools in the Hazleton area. "It's because, when we move, we bring our support system.
"We come from warm weather. We are not used to being isolated indoors."
Talk to Latinos who have been here a while and they will tell you the mixed blessings that come with being a burgeoning minority.
There are enough of them that churches celebrate Sunday Mass in Spanish. Markets now carry most of their favored ethnic foods. Schools and social-service agencies hire staff and tailor programs for them.
There are also enough to draw suspicion and disdain.
"There is a lot of prejudice," said Anna Arias, who works with minorities through the Commission on Economic Opportunity. "People are always afraid of changes and challenges."
Most of the time, the fear is groundless - as groundless as it was when Germans came or Irish or Slovaks or Italians. Each, Arias points out, clashed with the earlier settlers.
"I don't think there is any difference for Hispanics than for any other group," Arias said. "Every other group has gone through the same thing when coming here: acceptance."
Hispanics are migrating here for many of the reasons others came in the past. Arias story is typical. Her family, originally from the Dominican Republic, had moved to New York. Then a brother visited a friend in Hazleton.
"He said he liked it, so he rented an apartment and told my family at home how beautiful it was and how wonderful the people were and how quiet and clean it was," she said.
Her mother came to visit in 1987 and "she left a deposit on a house," Arias said with a laugh. "She decided this is the kind of place she would like to finish raising" two younger children. After her mother moved, Arias visited on weekends and decided to settle in the area as well.
Lopez and Arias both said that's the most common sequence for newcomers. One family member arrives - often to take a job, as Lopez's husband did - falls in love with the area and entices others to join.
Language, not surprisingly, is the biggest barrier - and one frequently misunderstood by longtime residents who seem to think there is a single Hispanic monolith.
"We are 21 nations, each with our own culture, our own language. Sometimes you can ask for the name of something and get 21 different answers," Lopez said. "In Mexico alone there are 160 different dialects."
Lopez coordinates after-school programs for migration workers who come to the area for part of the year - many of those workers, she said, often decide to settle here.
How hard it is to learn English depends on how literate students are in their native language, and how much they are exposed to both languages. Being taught English, she stressed, is not the same as learning to speak it.
"In Puerto Rico we study English for 12 years, but we speak all Spanish," Lopez said of her native land. "We could not speak English well because we were not immersed in it."
Climate can be another shock. Most Hispanics arriving from overseas come from very warm countries, free of winter. Penn State Professor Alfredo Jimenez, who migrated from Mexico in the early 1980s, said winter was "quite an experience, especially the first few years, I ended up driving off the roads a couple times."
In fact, driving itself can be a new experience. Jimenez said few people drove in Mexico when he lived there, and it was even rarer for women to drive. When his wife moved here from Bolivia seven years ago, she not only had to adjust to winter, she had to learn to drive.
There are cultural adjustments, too. Jimenez found a different attitude among American students than he had faced in Mexico.
"Students here expect a lot of attention from the instructor. They assume the instructor has to do many things for them," Jimenez said. "My sense is the students here, if they are not doing well, think the instructor is not doing his job. Normally in Mexico or South America you don't hear that much."
While many of the after-school students he works with adapt well, "some find the transition from their high school to a new high school here has not been completely smooth, I think that they may have been placed in courses they probably shouldn't be in."
Still, Lopez, Jimenez and Arias agree life today in Hazleton, and Luzerne County, is as enticing for Hispanics as it was decades ago for earlier immigrants. It is a clean area compared to large cities, a safe place to raise children and a good place to work.
And the prejudice? It's an unfortunate example of history repeating itself, something every immigrant minority endured.
Arias recounted going to an office to help translate for a client in need of some social services. The client could speak a little English, and overheard two elderly women pointing at her and saying, in English, that she was "Hispanic, and they are bad people."
"I would like to tell people not to be afraid of changes," Arias said with compassion in her voice. "Changes could be whatever you make of them. They could be bad, they could be good. Be open-minded. If you don't like someone, try to be friendly to that person.
"I'm sure instead of a bad look you will get a smile, and you win a lot of hearts with a smile."