'We can give the whole nation a lesson if they want.' How Latinos revived a once-dying Pennsylvania city
HAZLETON, Pa. — Bob Curry is a man in constant motion, not unlike this fast-changing community he’s always championing. Passing a colorful mural in the community center he runs, its rainbow letters spelling out a Maya Angelou quote about the strength and beauty of diversity, he paused for effect.
“You see our mural, if you don’t like it, get back on the elevator, you’re free to leave,” Curry proclaimed.
He’s kidding — sort of. The Hazleton One Community Center is in a small city all too familiar with the kind of incendiary anti-immigrant proposals and political dog whistles that have been championed by President Trump. Back in 2006, the City Council voted to make English the official language and proposed fines for landlords and employers who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants, all in an attempt to preserve, as one official said back then, “Small Town USA.” The resulting headlines spread from coast to coast.
Curry and most others don’t feel a need to talk about that anymore. Time has marched on, and Hazleton has changed with it. Curry is particularly frustrated by all the out-of-state reporters who trek to his community to write what he calls the same, tired story. It usually includes the phrase “former coal town” and an infamous man by the name of Lou Barletta.
“I can tell you how to save yourself a lot of trouble,” Curry told yet another of the visiting reporters, the one you’re reading now. “Go down to Jimmy’s luncheonette on Broad Street and there will be 16 people in there with MAGA hats and then just interview two or three of them. . . . And then you can say the people of Hazleton are hardscrabble, blah blah blah, and there’s your story.”
It would be a fine story, but the problem, as Curry well knows, is that it would be nowhere near complete. To understand the man, his community center, and the city they both serve, it helps to zoom out.
“We always talk about how one candle lights another. This ain’t one candle lighting another, this is lots of candles and really helping to try to illuminate the city.”Bob Curry
Like the rest of this swath of northeast Pennsylvania, Hazleton flourished more than three-quarters of a century ago during the mining of the anthracite coal buried deep below the region’s green hills. But that industry, and that generation, began to fade in the 1950s. For a while Hazleton was practically a ghost town. Then starting in the early 2000s, something strange happened. A new industry took root, and with it, a new population of mostly Latino families arrived from New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.
Hazleton is located near a confluence of major highways that connect it to much of the Eastern Seaboard. The proliferation of online shopping gave birth to a booming sector of distribution warehouses, long low-slung buildings tucked into the rolling hills that surround the city. And with those warehouses came salaries that would cover the cost of a perfectly nice home. Families arrived in pursuit of a middle-class life.
So the reporter saw that Jimmy’s is, indeed, on East Broad Street, selling its signature hot dogs that made the luncheonette a local landmark. But on the way there it’s impossible not to see something else: young Latina mothers pushing strollers along the sidewalks, steaming plates of pollo guisado at Sazón Latino restaurant, and just down the street from Jimmy’s, a sign for El Mensajero, Hazleton’s Spanish-language newspaper.
It is along this vibrant stretch that the past meets the future to create a sometimes unsettling present. And it is here that there are more than a few hints about what might happen when swing-state voters with outsized influence decide in 2020 whether Donald Trump should be president for four more years.
“Everything has changed here,” Curry said.
Sometimes numbers tell a starker story than words, and in Hazleton, that may well be the case.
The city of Hazleton voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The county that surrounds it, Luzerne, a trade union stronghold that twice voted for Barack Obama, flipped to Trump in 2016 by a 26,000-vote margin. That represented nearly 60 percent of his narrow victory margin in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania.
At its peak, in the 1940s, when coal was still being mined from the nearby hills, this was a city of some 50,000 residents, and life was booming. By the year 2000, the population had shrunk to less than half that, and the community felt like it was living in the past tense.
The 2000 US Census reported 1,000 Latinos in Hazleton. A decade later, that number soared to 10,000. Many in the city believe that will double in the 2020 census to 20,000 Latinos — the vast bulk of Hazleton’s population. The overwhelming majority are legal residents or US citizens.
Amilcar Arroyo is in many ways the personification of this change, as well as the chronicler of it. He is the publisher of El Mensajero, and from his first-floor office, he has seen the sleepy downtown street revived by Latino families who have flowed into town over the past two decades. There were few children when Arroyo arrived some 30 years ago from Peru; now they are everywhere.
Amid the surge in Latino residents, Arroyo has taken it upon himself to show the town the many contributions of the Latino community. There always seems to be a need for more justification.
So he keeps a tall whiteboard in his office where he has scribbled a long list: barbers, beauty shops, car garages, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, discotheques, furniture stores, pawn shops, transportation companies, media companies, cleaning businesses, photographers, DJs, nail artists. One afternoon, he remembered he needed to add something else — food trucks.
“I want to present how many businesses we have in Hazleton,” he said. “And say: This is what we have brought to Hazleton.”
This is a far cry from 2006, when Lou Barletta was mayor.
Little Hazleton landed in the national news when the City Council passed the English language ordinance, which Barletta said was designed to preserve the city’s fading way of life. But it made for tense times in Hazleton. The measure never went into effect and a court found it unconstitutional, but the city developed an anti-immigrant reputation nevertheless. Nearly 15 years later, the city is still evolving and the political tensions have eased.
“What’s been happening in the US happened in Hazleton in 2006,” Arroyo said.
After the controversy, Barletta took his ambition further. In 2010, he won a seat in Congress and later found a hero in Trump. When Barletta ran as the Republican nominee for Senate last year, Trump came to Luzerne County to stump for him. But Barletta lost handily to Democratic incumbent Bob Casey. It’s been more than eight years since Barletta was mayor. During that time, the Latinos kept coming to Hazleton.
Up the hill from Broad Street, the gridded neighborhoods are filling up again with young families. Flowers sprout through cracks in the sidewalks. Sloping awnings cool front porches. Tucked between the modest homes is the community center that Curry runs with his wife, Elaine.
It is housed in a two-story brick building, a former Catholic school that was dying. A local celebrity, Major League Baseball manager Joe Maddon, bought it and his friends the Currys run its programs. Elaine is related to Maddon and they grew up next door to each other on 11th Street in the 1960s. Their fathers owned a plumbing business.
Curry left a corporate job to run the center full time when it opened six years ago. He and Elaine don’t take salaries so this is not a luxurious retirement, but their house is paid for and their daughters graduated from college.
“Why not take this opportunity and do something terrific on a grand scale?” Curry said. “We always talk about how one candle lights another. This ain’t one candle lighting another, this is lots of candles and really helping to try to illuminate the city.”
When they opened the center, the Currys hoped they might see 300 children in the first month of their afterschool program. Instead, families flooded through their doors, and they’ve never served fewer than 1,000 people — children and adults — each week.
The center draws most of its kids from two nearby schools, and, like them, its population is about 80 percent Latino. Many of the younger ones are still mastering English. So after the center opened, the Currys quickly added English language courses for adults, citizenship classes, bilingual pre-kindergarten, and summer camps that cost $25 per week.
This summer, the project was murals. The basement walls are now splashed with color. The hallway smells of paint.
The children started the summer painting a daytime mural, but soon added a nighttime scene because someone drew fireflies and they needed the dark.
On the daytime mural, one boy painted a eucalyptus tree, whose leaves are poisonous, which makes them a safe place for butterflies to lay eggs. Another boy painted a treehouse in the eucalyptus tree and inside is a man labeled the “bug inspector.” He speaks his own language, Bug. There is a slide for the inspector to descend from his tall perch.
Earlier in the summer, when Trump announced that there would be massive immigration raids across the country, the kids only wanted to paint in the dark mural. Someone drew an alien spacecraft that captured the fireflies, and many of the children painted rocket ships hurtling away through the darkness.
“There is an undercurrent of nervousness and trepidation that flows through the city,” Curry said. “People haven’t felt that in their day-to-day lives yet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Across from the colorful Maya Angelou mural, an 18-year-old girl in a pink T-shirt is balanced on a ladder, listening to the new “Spider-Man’’ movie soundtrack and the Notorious B.I.G. in her earbuds while she paints another mural.
“It was just weird being different at first, but after a while it didn’t matter, you’re just part of the community.”Mariluz Rodriguez
Mariluz Rodriguez represents the new Hazleton. Her family moved here from Queens, N.Y., when she was 8. Now she is a mentor at the center and preparing to leave for college on a full scholarship.
“It was just weird being different at first, but after a while it didn’t matter, you’re just part of the community,” she said as she paused to have a snack.
Like many families, the Rodriguezes came for the jobs. For years the family, who are all legal residents, had bounced among apartments and relatives’ homes in New York City and grew weary of the hustle that was necessary to afford the high cost of living.
Mariluz Rodriguez’s father, David, came to Hazleton first, following his brother to a job working nights doing heavy labor in the Walmart distribution center. Soon her mother, Penelope, followed with Rodriguez and her younger sister.
Competition among the online shopping distribution centers has driven wages up to around $15 an hour plus benefits. It’s not a lot, but enough, if both parents work, to afford a mortgage.
Within a year, the Rodriguez family owned a yellow brick duplex that felt like a castle. For the first time, Mariluz Rodriguez had her own bedroom, and she found a forgotten closet in the attic full of toys. Soon she had a new baby brother. Her father was promoted at the Walmart center and is now a shipping router.
After a while, some of her relatives in Hazleton moved back to New York because they missed the city.
“We stayed because it’s working for us,” Penelope Rodriguez said. “We are seeing our kids flourish here.”
Mariluz Rodriguez played basketball and softball and earned a purple belt in tae kwon do. She enrolled at the arts academy pilot program, where she recently finished a hallway mural, and she is working on another one she was hired to paint downtown.
Her younger siblings started going to the community center and soon Rodriguez became a mentor there, and a painting instructor. This year, Elaine Curry gave her a wall to paint her own mural. She designed a glowing bouquet of flowers that surrounds the doors to the elevator.
These are the things Rodriguez thinks about, not demographic shifts, presidential politics, or a sense of belonging. She’s gotten a few looks over the years, but she said she has never felt like a target of racism.
“Here, even though there are always the little things that you get from people, we still have it off really well, and we make it work. But for other parts of the country it’s not working at all,” she said. “It’s hard to understand that people could do that.”
Perhaps nowhere are the cultural changes in Hazleton more on display than at St. Gabriel Church, an Irish-Catholic parish down the street from the offices of El Mensajero newspaper.
The church, built almost 100 years ago, thrived when coal mining brought European immigrants. Like this recent wave of newcomers, they came seeking jobs and brought with them their families and their culture.
The end of coal mining, and later manufacturing, swept away many of the parishioners at St. Gabriel, but now the pews are filling again. On a Saturday afternoon in late summer, the church’s old rose window cast colored bits of light onto those pews. The congregation, now mostly Latino, is raising money to repair cracks and leaks in the old building.
Outside the church, whose pointy spires rise up like a mini French cathedral, speakers pumped lively music and a dance troupe of young girls performed as parents filmed with their smartphones. Food tents served chicharron de pollo, platano frito, and pastelitos de carne.
At one booth you could still find a taste of the past: fried dough and pierogies. Three longtime friends, who remember a different Hazleton, stood in front of the fryer.
“It’s not that I’m a racist, it’s just that you notice it. You don’t see very many white people,” said Andy Martz, 69, her wispy hair tucked under a cap as she cooked.
“When our grandparents came here they assimilated into the community,” she said as she flipped bits of dough into the sizzling oil.
“They were all immigrants, but they all learned to live together. But here we find the Latino community doesn’t want to assimilate.”
As Martz spoke, a young Latina walked by, introducing herself to people at the festival. Nicarol Soto is the first Latino to win a Democratic primary for Hazleton City Council. Juggling a full-time job and a young family, she is now focused on the November general election, when she hopes to become the first Latino on the council — the same one that almost 14 years ago passed Barletta’s ordinance.
Soto, whose kind voice softens her firm resolve, said Hazleton is becoming more open, even among older residents.
“We are past that,” she said of the earlier controversy. “We can give the whole nation a lesson if they want.”
As the end of August approached, Rodriguez prepared to move out of that yellow brick duplex that once felt like a castle. She packed her things for Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, a school about an hour south where she has a six-year scholarship to study applied digital arts. She got a mini-fridge for her dorm when she helped her tae kwon do instructor, who is retiring, clean out his dojo.
Rodriguez would like to move back after she graduates, but she wants to be an animator for Pixar and those jobs aren’t in Hazleton.
On one of their last Sundays together as a family, she relaxed at home. Her mother cut up oranges in the kitchen for a snack as ground beef simmered on the stove. Propped on a shelf in the dining room was a chalk drawing Rodriguez made of a sea turtle with colorful coral on its back.
Conversation drifted from the murals to current events. Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. And Trump.
Penelope Rodriguez said she has never felt the kind of racism you hear about on television in Hazleton. Her co-workers and parents in the PTA have been kind and welcoming. The neighbors on their street know each other.
Sometimes she sees outrageous things posted on Facebook, but these days that almost seems normal.
“I never really had that influence us personally,” she said.
Which is exactly why Curry said he is running the community center. And he is sure it’s part of the reason why Hazleton didn’t vote for Trump. Because whites and Latinos have come to know each other here.
“The unknown, which is the great fear, becomes the familiar. And when it’s the familiar, your biases start to dissipate,” Curry said.
His words hung there for a moment in the warm summer air, echoing those in the center’s colorful new mural.
. . . in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.