BY DAVID SINGLETON
Published: Friday, August 8, 2008 4:29 AM EDT
Colombia-born Isabel Balsamo couldn’t decide whether to take it as a compliment or an insult.
The remark came at a meeting Balsamo attended in Wilkes-Barre in 2006 at the height of the divisive frenzy over Hazleton’s proposed anti-illegal immigration ordinance — a law aimed squarely at that city’s burgeoning Hispanic population.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Isabel, you don’t have to worry. No one would be able to tell you were Hispanic if you didn’t open your mouth,’” said Balsamo, the Hispanic outreach coordinator at King’s College. “I think it shows we still have a long way to go.”
A long way to go — and apparently not much time to get there.
New census estimates released Thursday show northeast Pennsylvania’s Hispanic population grew dramatically in 2007, spurred by a 20.5 percent surge in Luzerne County, the fastest rate in the state.
Of the other four counties in Pennsylvania that experienced double-digit growth in the number of people of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, Lackawanna (12.5 percent), Schuylkill (10.5 percent) and Carbon (also 10.5 percent) border Luzerne. The other is Pike (10.4 percent).
Members of the region’s Hispanic community say the latest figures portend a demographic shift that is already sending ripples through the area’s social, cultural and economic fabric.
It’s also a trend that’s been accelerating throughout the decade. In Luzerne County, the Hispanic population has more than tripled since 2000, from 3,713 to an estimated 11,971 in July 2007; Lackawanna’s has more than doubled, from 2,958 to 6,002. Schuylkill County’s grew nearly 66 percent between 2000 and 2007, from 1,674 to 2,774 residents. All of these are greater than the statewide growth of 40 percent, from 397,257 to 556,132 Hispanic residents.
“It’s going to have a positive impact on the community, but people around here are going to see a lot of change,” said Alejandra Marroquin, a Catholic Social Services caseworker who is the Hispanic outreach coordinator for the Nativity of Our Lord parish in South Scranton. “They will have to be aware, they will have to be tolerant, and they will have to be understanding.”
Dr. Agapito Lopez, a retired Hazleton ophthalmologist who represents Luzerne and Lackawanna counties on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, said the growth is being driven by immigrants attracted by the availability of jobs and the region’s comparatively modest housing costs.
Most are not coming directly from their nation of origin but from other states, principally New Jersey and New York, he said. Contrary to popular belief, he said, few are here illegally.
“Most are documented or citizens who have just moved for the reasons that anybody moves,” Lopez said.
If northeast Pennsylvania is trying to turn itself around, it needs to welcome immigrants with open arms, said John Sumansky, Ph.D., chief planning officer at Misericordia University.
“Speaking as an economist, I couldn’t be happier. This region has been losing population, so it’s always good to see a population increasing rather than diminishing,” Sumansky said.
“We not only get more people, we get a more diverse population, and there is no one I know who would say that diversity is not good for the region.”
Pedro Gonzalez, executive director of the Scranton Latin Alliance, said the growth is not all migration. Some of it can be attributed to the birth of Hispanic children whose families have been here for one, two or even three generations.
“They are coming here. They are working here. They are staying here,” he said.
Another member of the governor’s advisory commission, Hazleton social worker Anna Arias, said the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant last month in Shenandoah — a crime with alleged ethnic underpinnings — is tragic evidence of the cultural gulf between the Hispanic community and some of its neighbors.
It is something both groups have to work on, she said.
“In my heart, I believe for you to assimilate you have to feel totally, totally welcome in that culture,” Arias said. “Until we feel like we belong and until we are treated as equals, I don’t think it will happen.”
Source: Standard Speaker