El Nuevo Normal: Latinos Transform Pennsylvania Steel Country

In cities like Allentown and Bethlehem, Spanish-speaking immigrants are influencing the local culture. But America is changing them, too.

Video: The changing face of Eastern Pennsylvania (courtesy of Bob Miller and Andrew Hida)

My great aunt Mae learned English by reading the dictionary, a fact that haunted me from ages five to 11. Each year, Aunt Mae would send me a birthday card and a check for $25. And each year, my mother would take the check, buy a new age-appropriate dictionary, and remind me of the apocryphal family lore that brought me this wonderful gift: When my aunt came to the United States from Sicily in 1927, she knew no English, had no friends, and believed that the streets of Buffalo, New York, were literally paved with gold. Look where she got you, the story implied. You eat spaghetti sauce out of jars and live on a cul-de-sac.

This sort of story is hardly unusual in American popular mythology. It endures as the quintessential American narrative, despite the changes to both the country and its immigrants in the 85 years since my aunt passed through Ellis Island. Immigrants don't even come through Ellis Island anymore. Since 1965, when the third "great wave" of immigration began, 39.8 million immigrants, mostly from Latin America, flew into JFK, LAX, or Miami International, or drove or walked over the U.S.-Mexico border. 

They came in larger numbers than the Italians, Germans or Irish did, dwarfing past numbers of immigrants by a ratio of two to one. Swaths of the Southwest now look more like Mexico than the U.S. More people in Miami speak Spanish than English. And, in the past 10 years, Hispanic immigrants settled far beyond the obvious gateway states of California, Arizona, and Texas, posing vast existential questions of identity, demography, and acculturation for cities as far-flung as Portland, Oregon, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the Lehigh Valley, a post-industrial enclave in Eastern Pennsylvania. In just the past decade, the cities of Bethlehem and Allentown, as well as nearby Reading, saw their Hispanic populations explode. The new arrivals tend to keep to themselves, living among their own, speaking Spanish, and generally lending credence to the 2004 warning of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington: Hispanic immigration will "divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages," he wrote.

But in 60 or 70 or 85 years, few in the Lehigh Valley will remember fear-mongers like Huntington. Even the grandchildren of bodega-owners and Dominican hairdressers might forget, reminded only by family stories like my Aunt Mae's.

"Three generations," declares James Smith, an immigration researcher at the RAND Corporation. "By the time you get to the third generation, you can't distinguish between Americans and Hispanic immigrants. That's how long it takes to look like an American."

A bit of context proves useful here. In its 235-year history, the United States cycled through two distinct waves of immigration, and now stands in the midst of a third. The first, from 1840 to 1889, gave us things like Christmas trees and St. Patrick's Day parades. The second wave, which my aunt belonged to, ran from roughly 1890 to the start of the First World War. During that time, a whopping 3.7 million Italians, most of them poor, Catholic, and otherwise undesirable, washed up in East Coast ports. Huddled masses of Austria-Hungarians, Russians, and Poles followed in comparable numbers.

Because the population of the U.S. was markedly smaller at that time, each second- and third-wave immigrant had a proportionally larger impact on mainstream culture than each immigrant does today. At the height of the second wave, there were 8.8 incoming immigrants for every 1,000 Americans. Now the rate looks more like 4.6 per every 1,000.

The sudden influx of foreigners startled settled Americans, says Garrett Epps, a professor of constitutional law who has studied historical immigration. In the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Americans felt the same sense of suspicion toward Irish, German, and Italian immigrants that some feel toward Hispanics today. All three groups deviated from what Huntington identifies as the core "American creed," the set of values that defined traditional American culture. Among them: Christian religious commitment, individualism, and the "duty to try to create a heaven on earth," carried over by the pilgrims and their black-smocked ilk.

If those values sound foreign or antiquated to us now, we have first- and second-wave immigrants to thank. They drank beer, practiced other religions, and started their own schools and newspapers, often to the aggravation of their American-born neighbors. "Immigration was very much on people's minds in the late 19th century," Epps says. "All of the concerns about immigration that we have now were also present then."

A century later, those concerns look unfounded. From generation to generation, early immigrants achieved higher standards of living, educational attainment, and English-language proficiency. They moved to the suburbs; their children went to college. But it's not as if these people vanished, dissolving into a population that pre-existed them. After all, you can eat souvlaki, spaghetti, or sushi virtually anywhere in the country. In Bethlehem, more than 250 years after the first Scottish and Irish immigrants arrived, the continent's largest Celtic cultural festival still takes over Main Street each September. To put it in oft-quoted sociological terms, neither the Lehigh Valley nor the United States in general is a "melting pot." Traces of each immigration wave seep into the mainstream, and their foods, festivals, and ethnic neighborhoods remain.

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Caitlin Dewey is a Carnegie-Knight News21.com fellow from Syracuse University. Read more stories from this project.

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