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.

Slideshow: Hispanic Life in Allentown and Bethlehem

The concern among some Americans, of course, is that the 20 million Hispanic immigrants who arrived between 1965 and 2008 form more of a flood than a wave -- a flood that, by numbers alone, could overwhelm the mainstream. The 2010 Census backed up this story. Of the country's 308 million people, more than 50 million checked one of the "Hispanic or Latino" boxes on their census form. That's nearly twice the number of people that checked that box in 2000, a surprise to even the Census Bureau, which underestimated the Hispanic populations of at least 33 states.

In the Lehigh Valley, change also came quickly. On Seventh Street in Allentown, Caribbean restaurants and storefront churches crowded out other businesses. In Reading, a city 50 miles southwest, the Census revealed that Hispanics now make up more than half the population.

Ten or 15 years ago, residents of the Lehigh Valley would rarely, if ever, hear Spanish on the street. The suddenness of that change frightened some blue-blooded, long-time city residents, and it certainly explains some of the white flight in all three cities. But as Smith, the immigration researcher, cautions, Hispanic assimilation is only mid-cycle. The majority of Hispanic families have only lived here for two generations, and a Pew study found that the median age of second-generation Hispanic immigrants is only 14 years old. In other words, the Lehigh Valley and places like it still hang in limbo between first-generation immigrants and their second-generation children, who socialized in American schools, learned the English language, and grew up on Disney and MTV.

According to virtually every metric that sociologists use, this generation assimilates on the same schedule as past immigrants. Latino youths acquire full English proficiency in the second generation, a product of time spent in American schools. In a pair of long-term studies, Smith found that educational attainment increases by a full two years between the first and third generations, the largest jump among all ethnic groups. Perhaps most tellingly, a Pew Center report on young Latinos found that 89 percent of second-generation youth self-identify as American, a number that rises to 96 percent in their third-generation children.

Overwhelmingly, these young people have American tastes in TV, music, and media. Given the choice between a Spanish-language radio station and an English-language one, they overwhelmingly choose the latter, an Arbitron report found. That poses a considerable threat to the business interests of Matthew Braccili, the owner of the Lehigh Valley's FM Spanish-language station, WHOL 99.5. But Braccili, a third-generation Italian, watches the demographic for other reasons.

"People will believe what they want about immigration, but we were all immigrants at one point," he says. "In my family, I only have to go back two generations. My grandfather knew very little English, my father knew very little Italian, and I don't speak Italian at all." While Hispanic immigrants tend to preserve their language skills in a way that Italians and other immigrants did not, the acculturation aspect -- identification with American values and media -- still plays out in the span of 65 or 75 years.

By current estimates, the second generation of Hispanic immigrants will peak in 2025. By 2045, the third generation will outnumber the second. Many demographers hesitate to predict exactly what those changes will entail -- it's too early to guess at the preferences and values of young Hispanics.

But if the current patterns of assimilation hold, we can make a few decent guesses at the national level. English will remain America's primary language, for one, and Spanglish will fade out after the second generation as speakers lose the need to mix two tongues. Most Hispanics will retain spoken Spanish-language skills, becoming fully bilingual. This could give them an edge in the job market, perhaps pushing non-Hispanic Americans to learn Spanish as well.

Catholicism and conservative social values will remain a strong force in the moral and political lives of Hispanics, though their pull will wane over time. Four of ten first-generation immigrants attend weekly Mass -- their grandchildren will likely go sometimes or never. If this trend continues, it could theoretically leach into the political arena, where social issues often determine votes. Early polling already indicates that Hispanic youth lean more liberal on issues like abortion and gay marriage than their parents did.

As for cities, the most contested battlegrounds in immigration turf wars, current research suggests that the borders of ethnic neighborhoods blur over generations. Consider the case of Manhattan's much-diluted Little Italy, which the New York Times dubbed "Littler Italy" in a February story. Wealthier Hispanics tend to assimilate into Anglo neighborhoods, moving into the suburbs or nicer areas of the city. Poorer Hispanics tend to move into lower-class, largely African-American neighborhoods, where social immobility and lack of opportunity prevail. In these poor neighborhoods, where schools are worse and incoming immigration persists, assimilation might not occur at the rate it does elsewhere.

Regardless of the pace of assimilation, however, the effects will remain the same, say Smith and other forecasters: Two or three generations from now, Hispanics will look, speak, and act like the descendants of first- and second-wave immigrants. In other words, exactly like everyone else.

That promises huge gains for cities across the country -- no matter the region, a young, educated, English-speaking workforce clearly benefits its community. But it could prove especially promising for Rust Belt relics like the Lehigh Valley, where the median age is a full three years above the national average and neighborhoods have emptied steadily since the mid-1990s. From 1995 to 2000, more than 5,000 people left Lehigh County for jobs and homes elsewhere. But according to a 2008 report from Penn State's Data Center, the county will actually grow by 70,000 people, or 22.3 percent, in the next 30 years, thanks in large part to Hispanics.

Rust Belt cities across the Northeast would kill for that kind of growth. Buffalo, New York, which like Lehigh once housed a Bethlehem Steel plant, lost a tenth of its population in the last decade. Cleveland, Ohio, lost 17 percent. In Detroit, the outstanding tragedy of the 2010 Census, a resident fled every 22 minutes between 2000 and 2010 -- leaving the city with 237,500 fewer people and more than 90,000 vacant homes.

But in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Reading, Hispanic growth could actually reverse population loss and the economic downturn it entails. Hispanic entrepreneurs have already turned empty storefronts in the Lehigh Valley into bodegas, restaurants, shops, and salons. Hispanic companies now account for nearly a third of all businesses in downtown Allentown and Bethlehem, according to a 2008 report conducted by demographers from Penn State's Lehigh Valley campus. In both Allentown and Bethlehem, these businesses help "reverse the negative effects of urban blight," the report states.

There is too little local data to project exactly what the Lehigh Valley will look like in the future. But Pennsylvania demographers do expect Lehigh to become a majority-minority county by 2030, at least 10 years ahead of the country as a whole. Those sorts of numbers imply change as a matter of course: greater political influence for Hispanics, more buying power, a louder voice in civic activities, public policies, and cultural mores. Perhaps Hispanic business districts will exceed their present-day borders, and maybe soccer fields will outnumber baseball diamonds at Allentown's Fountain Park.

In either case, Hispanics will surely change the Valley. But at the same time, the Valley will also change them -- adding them, by degrees, to the innate, everyday narrative of America.

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