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Slightly more Hispanics proud to call area home

| Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011

The number of Hispanic people living in the Alle-Kiski Valley has increased in almost every municipality over the past decade, Census 2010 figures show, but their numbers are still minuscule.

Of 60 municipalities studied, 36 showed an increase in Hispanics by 50 percent or more, but that still amounts to a relative handful of people.

In some of those, the overall population decreased over the decade, while the Hispanic population increased.

So, even with those increases, Hispanics only make up a tiny fraction of the area's overall population.

Sharpsburg has the highest "concentration" of Hispanics in the Alle-Kiski Valley -- 3.3 percent of its population, according to the census. Arnold and Verona were next highest, with 2.3 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively.

In actual numbers of people, Arnold and Indiana Township have the most Hispanic residents -- 119 -- and Sharpsburg 115, but that number dips to 54 in Verona.

On the other side of the spectrum, East Deer has the fewest Hispanics in the Valley, with 0.1 percent of its residents -- two people -- listed as Hispanic. It's followed by North Buffalo and Manorville, each with Hispanics making up 0.2 percent of their population -- seven and two residents, respectively.

Still the trend is an increase in Hispanic residents. The Hispanic population decreased in only eight local municipalities within the past decade. Six of those were in Armstrong County, plus Hyde Park, Westmoreland County and Saxonburg, Butler County.

The U.S. Census term "Hispanic or Latino" includes people specifically of Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican descent but also includes the vague and perhaps overly broad designation of "other Hispanic or Latino origins."

People follow jobs, connections

It's hard to say exactly what factors are attracting Hispanics to the area, but the slight local increase may be reflecting the nation's overall Hispanic growth.

"If you look at the areas of the country that's growing, a good part of that boost is Hispanics," said Michael Irwin, a Duquesne University professor who researches sociology and demographics. "It's been a movement of that group that initiated at the eastern seaboard."

Another important factor is called "chain migration," said Irwin, who is chairman of Duquesne's sociology department. When a group provides mutual support and mutual interest for new Hispanics coming to the area, it can make newcomers feel less alienated, he said.

"Once a core group gets established, it's easier to bring in ... friends and family in the area," he said. "There's this core that finally gets established -- pioneers for that group. And once they do, you see a real rapid increase."

That means that the next decade could see higher Hispanic population gains.

There are two main factors that will bring Hispanics here, according to Brent Rondon: Jobs and connections.

"Relationships are the key for these groups to move," said Rondon, who grew up in Peru and now works as manager for the Global Business Program at Duquesne's Small Business Development Center. "One guy finds a job here, and then they'll start telling their brothers and friends."

The Hispanic population, he said, thrives on connections, meaning that cities with high numbers of Hispanics are where newcomers gravitate.

"Nationwide, it's explosive," he said about the increasing Hispanic population. "Not in this region yet."

Hispanic life in the Valley

Cesareo Sanchez, who was born in Spain and grew up in Venezuela until he attended Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, moved with his family to Harmar about 2 1/2 years ago.

He speaks both Spanish and English at home with his family but outside of the home rarely encounters Spanish speakers in his daily life. Sanchez works as director of maintenance operations at Presbyterian SeniorCare in Oakmont. He also coaches the Springdale boys soccer team.

"To say that I see Spanish speaking people every day, no I don't," he said. "Maybe one person in a month."

Sanchez has three children, two who are grown and one who's a senior at Springdale High School. She's the only student there with a Hispanic background, he said.

He attributes the small Hispanic population to a lack of jobs and simple geography.

"From what I see, the population that comes from South America, Central America, Mexico, they are immigrants who come for jobs and different things," he said. "This area I think is farther away from those countries, but ... if a family comes here, and then another one, it's word of mouth."

There are not as many job opportunities here as in big cities, nor are there many farming opportunities, he said.

Sanchez is the only person from his family to make the move to western Pennsylvania. Everyone else still lives in Spain or Venezuela.

He first came to America in 1978 for college, where he met his wife, Debra, who is a western Pennsylania native. The Sanchezes moved back to Venezuela in 1980, where Cesareo played semi-pro soccer. They returned to Pennsylvania in 1990, wanting to return to his wife's roots and leave Venezuela for political reasons.

They lived in New Wilmington, Pa. for about 20 years until moving to Harmar.

Sanchez said he's not sure why the region's Hispanic population has increased, but he attributes it to changing demographics: more people moving north from the south.

Ed Garibay, a third-generation Mexican-American, who has lived in West Texas and Seattle, expected a small population of Hispanics when researching a move to Oakmont four years ago.

"We're very rare up here," he said. "Back in West Texas, the Hispanic population is pretty large."

Garibay and his family moved to Oakmont when he was offered a job at a software company. He now works as an automotive service advisor for Day Chevrolet in Plum.

His 17-year-old daughter is a student at Riverview High School, and Garibay says there might be one other Hispanic student at school.

Garibay agrees with Sanchez that the lack of Hispanics in the area is likely a reflection of the its geographic location.

"When you talk about a Hispanic population, more likely than not you're talking about a migrant-type situation where they follow where the jobs are, the lower paying jobs. They try to populate the southern states," he said. "They don't come to the north or the northeast unless there's migrant work to be done."

Maria Franco de Gomez, a Penn State New Kensington instructor who teaches Spanish and Hispanic culture, moved with her family to Plum from Mexico more than 25 years ago when the Upper Burrell college offered her husband a teaching job.

"In this suburban area, I don't see a lot of new Hispanics living here," she said. "In this area, I don't see any cultural activities.

"But if you go to the University of Pittsburgh, they have ... a lot of cultural events."

In the beginning, living in western Pennsylvania was different, but now she says its her second home.

"I really like this area. I really like Pittsburgh," Franco de Gomez said. "I feel proud to live here."

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