Lawrence is the first Latino-majority city in Massachusetts. Puerto Rican factory workers and Dominican business owners began moving to the industrial town in the early 1970s.National Journal

Lowell

Robed Buddhist monks and Cambodian families often stroll through Roberto Clemente Park on the weekends. This is part of what is known unofficially as "Cambodiatown." Last year, the city dedicated a "healing garden" in the park in honor of the Cambodian refugees who fled genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge army.

These refugees began arriving in Lowell in the 1970s. Today, about a quarter of the city's residents are first- or second-generation Cambodians, according to Census data.

They represent the new era of Lowell, which was once the center of the American Industrial Revolution. Lowell produced most of the country's textiles in the early 20th century with cotton shipped in from Southern states.

Immigrants from Ireland and western Europe worked in many of those mills and eventually took leadership of city government.

Cambodians are still trying to gain a foothold in local politics. They have some sway with city officials, which helped get them several public monuments erected in honor of their cultural contributions. The city is considering establishing an official Cambodiatown near the city center, where Cambodian businesses sell everything from traditional wedding gowns to traditional foods, like frog legs and cow's feet.

However, despite decades in Lowell, Cambodians have made little progress in taking leadership roles in the city.

Rithy Uong was the first Cambodian resident elected to city council. It took a lot of work, he says, because Cambodians rarely voted.

Uong organized voter-registration drives and got support from Latino and Black civic leaders. Finally, in 1999, he won a seat on the city council.

"They never believed I would get elected," says Uong, an electrical engineer who works as a guidance counselor at Lowell High School. "I spoke broken English and was someone who looked different."

Lowell

Robed Buddhist monks and Cambodian families often stroll through Roberto Clemente Park on the weekends. This is part of what is known unofficially as "Cambodiatown." Last year, the city dedicated a "healing garden" in the park in honor of the Cambodian refugees who fled genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge army.

These refugees began arriving in Lowell in the 1970s. Today, about a quarter of the city's residents are first- or second-generation Cambodians, according to Census data.

They represent the new era of Lowell, which was once the center of the American Industrial Revolution. Lowell produced most of the country's textiles in the early 20th century with cotton shipped in from Southern states.

Immigrants from Ireland and western Europe worked in many of those mills and eventually took leadership of city government.

Cambodians are still trying to gain a foothold in local politics. They have some sway with city officials, which helped get them several public monuments erected in honor of their cultural contributions. The city is considering establishing an official Cambodiatown near the city center, where Cambodian businesses sell everything from traditional wedding gowns to traditional foods, like frog legs and cow's feet.

However, despite decades in Lowell, Cambodians have made little progress in taking leadership roles in the city.

Rithy Uong was the first Cambodian resident elected to city council. It took a lot of work, he says, because Cambodians rarely voted.

Uong organized voter-registration drives and got support from Latino and Black civic leaders. Finally, in 1999, he won a seat on the city council.

"They never believed I would get elected," says Uong, an electrical engineer who works as a guidance counselor at Lowell High School. "I spoke broken English and was someone who looked different."

Lawrence

Dominican children hit baseballs under nets that dangle from the ceilings of empty brick factories along the Merrimack River. These mills once produced wool and cotton fabric for the entire country and employed thousands of low-wage workers from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Lawrence is now the state's first majority-Latino city—and also its poorest. After decades of unrest, Latinos have gained some political power here.

Lawrence was the first U.S. city created to be an industrial factory town. Immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Portugal moved here to work the mills in the early 1900s. As factories began to relocate south for cheaper labor, the ones that stayed tried to compete by recruiting Puerto Ricans, who were willing to work for less.

Then came the Dominican small-business owners. They opened gyms, stores, and shops in the empty brick mills on the river. In the 1970s, a race riot erupted between White European immigrants and the Latino newcomers.

Though Lawrence has always been a city of immigrants, tension has existed between different groups, according to Jessica Andors, director of Lawrence Community Works.

"There's this horrendous pattern in Lawrence where the most recent immigrants are spat on by the older immigrant groups," says Andors.

By 2000, Latinos made up a majority of the city as Whites began moving away. But it wasn't until 2010 that they began to make inroads in the political sphere. The shift had a lot to do with the outcome of a 1998 Justice Department civil rights lawsuit against Lawrence. Federal prosecutors accused the city of violating the Voting Rights Act. In 2002, city officials agreed to change voting districts to include majority-Latino voting districts.

Today, about three-quarters of the city is Latino. So is the mayor and most of the city council. But Latinos still have a long way to go. They still hold most of the low-wage factory jobs and few of the middle-class professional jobs. Latino students make up the majority of students at the local community college, but few graduate, according to Jorge Santiago, a social-science professor at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence.

Between the fall semesters of 2012 and 2013, about 38 percent of Latino students at Northern Essex dropped out of school before graduating or transferring to a four-year college, according to the college's student-retention report. That's compared with 34 percent of White students who dropped out during the same time period.

Framingham

Storefronts with Brazilian flags and Portuguese signs have replaced the iconic J.C. Penney's and Woolworth's stores in downtown Framingham.

Though you'd never know it by looking around, some Brazilian immigrants say they had to overcome intimidation and harassment to build a life for themselves in this Boston suburb.

Vera Dias-Freitas, a jewelry-store owner in downtown Framingham, told the Southern Poverty Law Center that two local residents constantly attacked her on their local cable-television show.

"They said I was hiding illegal immigrants in the basement of my shop," she told the center's Intelligence Report in 2008.

Lloyd Kaye, a former Framingham human-relations commissioner, told the Intelligence Report that he remembers two residents yelling at and filming Brazilians during a voter-registration drive.

These Brazilian newcomers, who are mostly from the city of Governador Valadares, started arriving in Framingham in the 1980s, following an economic downturn back home. They found well-paid work as housekeepers and housepainters for wealthy Bostonians.

By 2010, about 6,500 Brazilians were living in Framingham, according to U.S. Census data. That's just 10 percent of the overall population.

Two former Framingham town-meeting members, Joe and Jim Rizoli, were the town's most vocal critics of Brazilian immigration to Framingham. They organized protests and launched a group called Concerned Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement. Complaints about the organization's activities reached the Southern Poverty Law Center, which in 2008 labeled it a hate group.

Tension between the newcomers and old-timers had reached a tipping point as Brazilians began opening shops in empty downtown storefronts. The big department stores had moved away after shopping malls started to spring up outside of town and after the General Motors factory in Framingham closed down in 1989.

At first, the Brazilian flags and conversations in Portuguese didn't please everyone.

Brazilians complained that they were harassed and threatened by people and that the city turned a blind eye. It took years for town officials to accept their new residents, they say.

Town Manager Robert Halpin says that people are starting to see how Brazilians have helped revitalize downtown. Since taking over as town manager in 2012, Halpin has hired several Portuguese-speaking staff and police officers.

"I think we've embraced our diversity," said Halpin.

He acknowledges that some people still disagree with the town's policy to issue business licenses and offer English classes to immigrants, regardless of their immigration status.

"If someone gets a flu shot, we don't ask them their status. If someone is in the school-lunch program, we don't ask, either," he said. "It would take us down a very bad road."

Lawrence

Dominican children hit baseballs under nets that dangle from the ceilings of empty brick factories along the Merrimack River. These mills once produced wool and cotton fabric for the entire country and employed thousands of low-wage workers from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Lawrence is now the state's first majority-Latino city—and also its poorest. After decades of unrest, Latinos have gained some political power here.

Lawrence was the first U.S. city created to be an industrial factory town. Immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Portugal moved here to work the mills in the early 1900s. As factories began to relocate south for cheaper labor, the ones that stayed tried to compete by recruiting Puerto Ricans, who were willing to work for less.

Then came the Dominican small-business owners. They opened gyms, stores, and shops in the empty brick mills on the river. In the 1970s, a race riot erupted between White European immigrants and the Latino newcomers.

Though Lawrence has always been a city of immigrants, tension has existed between different groups, according to Jessica Andors, director of Lawrence Community Works.

"There's this horrendous pattern in Lawrence where the most recent immigrants are spat on by the older immigrant groups," says Andors.

By 2000, Latinos made up a majority of the city as Whites began moving away. But it wasn't until 2010 that they began to make inroads in the political sphere. The shift had a lot to do with the outcome of a 1998 Justice Department civil rights lawsuit against Lawrence. Federal prosecutors accused the city of violating the Voting Rights Act. In 2002, city officials agreed to change voting districts to include majority-Latino voting districts.

Today, about three-quarters of the city is Latino. So is the mayor and most of the city council. But Latinos still have a long way to go. They still hold most of the low-wage factory jobs and few of the middle-class professional jobs. Latino students make up the majority of students at the local community college, but few graduate, according to Jorge Santiago, a social-science professor at Northern Essex Community College in Lawrence.

Between the fall semesters of 2012 and 2013, about 38 percent of Latino students at Northern Essex dropped out of school before graduating or transferring to a four-year college, according to the college's student-retention report. That's compared with 34 percent of White students who dropped out during the same time period.

Framingham

Storefronts with Brazilian flags and Portuguese signs have replaced the iconic J.C. Penney's and Woolworth's stores in downtown Framingham.

Though you'd never know it by looking around, some Brazilian immigrants say they had to overcome intimidation and harassment to build a life for themselves in this Boston suburb.

Vera Dias-Freitas, a jewelry-store owner in downtown Framingham, told the Southern Poverty Law Center that two local residents constantly attacked her on their local cable-television show.

"They said I was hiding illegal immigrants in the basement of my shop," she told the center's Intelligence Report in 2008.

Lloyd Kaye, a former Framingham human-relations commissioner, told the Intelligence Report that he remembers two residents yelling at and filming Brazilians during a voter-registration drive.

These Brazilian newcomers, who are mostly from the city of Governador Valadares, started arriving in Framingham in the 1980s, following an economic downturn back home. They found well-paid work as housekeepers and housepainters for wealthy Bostonians.

By 2010, about 6,500 Brazilians were living in Framingham, according to U.S. Census data. That's just 10 percent of the overall population.

Two former Framingham town-meeting members, Joe and Jim Rizoli, were the town's most vocal critics of Brazilian immigration to Framingham. They organized protests and launched a group called Concerned Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement. Complaints about the organization's activities reached the Southern Poverty Law Center, which in 2008 labeled it a hate group.

Tension between the newcomers and old-timers had reached a tipping point as Brazilians began opening shops in empty downtown storefronts. The big department stores had moved away after shopping malls started to spring up outside of town and after the General Motors factory in Framingham closed down in 1989.

At first, the Brazilian flags and conversations in Portuguese didn't please everyone.

Brazilians complained that they were harassed and threatened by people and that the city turned a blind eye. It took years for town officials to accept their new residents, they say.

Town Manager Robert Halpin says that people are starting to see how Brazilians have helped revitalize downtown. Since taking over as town manager in 2012, Halpin has hired several Portuguese-speaking staff and police officers.

"I think we've embraced our diversity," said Halpin.

He acknowledges that some people still disagree with the town's policy to issue business licenses and offer English classes to immigrants, regardless of their immigration status.

"If someone gets a flu shot, we don't ask them their status. If someone is in the school-lunch program, we don't ask, either," he said. "It would take us down a very bad road."


Libby Isenstein contributed to this article

This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.

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