May 21, 2011 | The Morning Call | Original Article

Latino growth diverse

It was one of those coincidences you just can't shake.

As Julio Guridy walked through the Dominican Republic's capital city of Santa Domingo, a girl selling T-shirts heard the foreign lilt in his Spanish and asked him where he lived.

Allentown, the city councilman replied. You've probably never heard of it. But 1,500 miles away, in a foreign country, she said she had.

"She said, 'My aunt lives there. I actually lived there,'" Guridy recalled.

Small world? And getting smaller.

New Census numbers show a local Hispanic population once dominated by people of Puerto Rican ancestry has added many more Caribbean, Central American and South American natives in the last decade. Many hail from the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Ecuador.

In Allentown, these groups topped the charts in growth, swelling 152 percent to nearly 18,000 in the past decade. The Puerto Rican population, while still the dominant minority in the city, grew 67 percent to 29,640.

Meanwhile, the Lehigh Valley's burgeoning Mexican community has doubled in size. Even Cubans, by far the Valley's smallest Latino population, have seen modest gains.

But Dominicans? Off the charts.

"Once you get a foothold in a community, you just have everyone come in," said Erika Sutherland, a professor at Muhlenberg College who is active in the immigrant community. "It's really easy to be Dominican in Allentown. You can almost live in a small Santo Domingo here."

As its Latino population grows, Allentown has almost become a household name outside the U.S., said Guridy, who is Dominican. While many of the immigrants coming to Allentown still arrive via New York and New Jersey, more are coming directly from their homelands, he said.

Puerto Ricans remain the largest Latino group in the Lehigh Valley, accounting for nearly 59 percent of the region's Hispanic population. Residents hailing from Central America, South America and the Caribbean are now 33 percent of the whole, with Mexicans and Cubans pulling in at 7 percent and 1 percent respectively.

It's a shift from when Puerto Ricans ruled the roost. In 1990, nearly eight out of 10 Latinos in Allentown were from the small island commonwealth. Now, other celebrations -- including Colombian and Chilean independence days -- have joined traditions like the annual Allentown Puerto Rican parade.

"When I first moved here, there were Puerto Rican flags everywhere," Sutherland said. "Even that, you see less of now."

Indeed, many of the new shops popping up on Hamilton and Seventh Streets -- the bodegas, the barber shops, the restaurants -- are owned by the newer immigrants.

Abel Gonzalez is a Dominican who opened a convenience store at 1015 E. Hamilton St. three months ago. As he bustled around his shop Friday -- "What are you looking for, mami?" he called to a customer, pointing her toward the cashier -- he said he came to Allentown from New York for the cheap rent and safer neighborhoods.

"You have more opportunities," he said, shrugging. "It's not too difficult to start a business."

The lure was similar for Allentown's Amanda Fernandez, who traces her ancestry to Colombia. She said the city has earned a reputation in the Latino community as an inviting urban place where the cost of living is low.

She arrived in Allentown with her daughter in 2001 hoping to start a new life after a divorce. With much lower rent and insurance costs, she was able to launch her own small business, a shuttle van service taking commuters to and from New York. It's since grown from two shuttles a day to six.

Guridy, who has lived in the Lehigh Valley for decades, said he has seen the dramatic changes in Allentown.

"I knew every Dominican that lived in Allentown before," Guridy said. "There were only about six or seven families. I knew them all. Now there are six or seven baseball teams of Dominicans, and dozens of barbershops. And they are spreading. There is a Dominican barber shop in Emmaus."

Easton's Latino population is among the Valley's most balanced, at 23 percent Mexican, 37 percent Puerto Rican and 39 percent other, including Central and South America.

Hispanic cultures tend to gravitate toward one another, said Monica Samayao-Brown, who runs Al Puente, a group that offers free advice and counseling to immigrants seeking to adapt to American culture. She thinks that helps explain why Easton has a high concentration of Mexican immigrants.

"People assumed I was Puerto Rican," Samayao-Brown said. "I'm from Guatemala. As the culture changed, I found people from Puerto Rico started going toward Bethlehem and Allentown."

The shifts have brought their share of new tensions. Much as some older Allentonians bristle at the rising populations of Latinos moving into the city, some Puerto Ricans grumble about the newest immigrants, complaining that the rush of newcomers has made police more suspicious.

But for the average Allentown Latino, life goes on. Gonzalez, who moved to New York in the '80s and picked up stakes for Allentown nine years ago, says life in the city hasn't changed much, even with the new faces on the block and restaurants down the street. They're all customers, after all.

"It's still the same," he said.