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Latinos move into Southwest Pa.

| Monday, July 16, 2012, 9:51 a.m.

With a store to be full of rainbow-hued piñatas, chorizo and Jarritos, the Berumen brothers are bringing a little Latin flavor to little Washington County.

The Brookline-based grocers are expanding this summer, opening what's expected to be Washington County's first Latino supermarket. The county is experiencing increased migration from the Southwest and from Latinos yearning for the cheeses, meats, soft drinks and spices they left behind, said Gabrel Berumen, one of four brothers who own the three-store Las Palmas chain.

“They say it's hard to find the meats they're used to in Texas. ... I say, ‘We need a store,'” Berumen, 34, said, explaining plans to open in about three weeks. “Right now when you go (to Washington County), you see vroom, vroom — everybody going everywhere. I think Washington is going everywhere and doing really good business. It's good for everybody.”

For some there, it's a sign of a changing community. Barbecue and Mexican restaurants are on the rise. A Spanish Mass in the village of Muse in Cecil has grown to more than 100 regular attendees. A decade of economic growth boosted by the recent gas drilling boom is broadening the cultural fabric beyond coal and PONY baseball.

“People are coming from all over the place. It's changing the dynamic on even a social level,” said Betsy West, former president of the Washington-Greene County Association of Realtors. “I just think any time there's a blend, it's good for the children to understand that's part of being in America.”

Outside of the Mid-Atlantic region, the Southwest has become the biggest contributor of domestic migration to Washington County. Hundreds of people came from Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, according to census data from 2009-10, up from only a few dozen from Phoenix and San Diego 10 years before.

Not all of those people are Latinos, but that portion of the population is on the rise, too. The number of Latinos in Washington County more than doubled to 2,366 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Much of that growth probably is a result of the gas industry and its spinoffs, local experts said. Since fall, real estate agents have noted a surge in home buying from executives and middle managers who moved from Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, West said. The AAA on Murtland Avenue handled a spate of car title transfers early this year from Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, travel counselor Donna Kotchman said.

“I've been trying to tell people in Pittsburgh (these workers) are buying houses, they're going to our schools, they're bringing their families. It's not just a bunch of bachelors or husbands coming up here to work and then go home eventually,” said Milana Nick of South Strabane, director of research at PittsburghTODAY. “I think a lot of them would like more Mexican restaurants here, but ... a lot of them feel surprisingly at home here.”

The growth started before the gas drilling boom. The Spanish Mass at Holy Rosary parish in Muse began about eight years ago, said the Rev. George T. DeVille. Attendance started at about 25 people, and the growth seems most connected to how regularly the service has a Spanish-speaking priest, DeVille said.

Business has been booming throughout the county, and people are moving from all over, said Isaac Ruiz, 39, who works at a greenhouse in Cecil. Ruiz, who spoke in Spanish with Berumen translating, is one of 300 customers who regularly drive from Washington County homes to the Brookline Las Palmas, Berumen said.

Ruiz said it's good to have a nearby store where he can buy authentic tortillas and use the best wire service to send money to his family in Mexico.

Latinos still make up only 1.1 percent of Washington County's population, but not everyone is excited about their presence. Nick Martin, 33, a lifelong Washington County resident who lives on the block behind the planned Las Palmas location on West Chestnut Street, said he's concerned about drugs in the area. He added that he likes nearly everyone in the drilling industry, but he doesn't like immigrants taking some of those jobs.

“It's going to be a nuisance,” he said of the new store. “I'm down with the (new) jobs. But the Mexican restaurants, it's overwhelming. In my eyes, there's already too many.”

Not everyone was welcoming when the Berumens opened their store in Brookline in 2008, either, Gabrel Berumen said. Neighbors grew to trust them over time: About half the store's customers are not Latino or Hispanic, he said. He expects the Washington store to have a similarly broad appeal.

“We worked so hard ... you just have to keep working,” Berumen added. “That's what we're going to do. We're not going to take ... jobs from anybody. I make jobs.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or

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