READING, Pa. (AP) - When Nicolas Romero moved to Berks County, he faced the challenges of missing his family and friends back in Colombia, navigating a new school and making new friends with those who had grown up here and already had established social circles.
It was all made more difficult for him because when he arrived here a little more than two years ago he did not speak English.
Nicolas, 17, a junior at Wilson High School, said English as a second language, or ESL, classes at Wilson were helpful.
Learning the language was difficult at first, Nicolas said.
“But then I picked it up really quickly,” he said. “I’m still learning though.”
Speaking with his American friends bolsters his knowledge.
“My friends are always correcting me,” he said. “They improve my vocabulary and grammar a lot.”
Romero is one of almost 20,000 Latinos who make Berks County’s suburban and rural communities their home.
They face choices about how to fit in while retaining their own culture and whether they want to keep up their Spanish-language skills and, if so, how to do that.
Romero lives with his father, Helman, in West Lawn, which in 1990 had one Latino resident, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
By 2010, 165 Latinos made up about 10 percent of West Lawn’s population.
In 1990, 2,688 Latinos lived in suburban Berks while 14,486 lived in the city.
By 2012, 27 percent of the Latino population in Berks, or 19,475, lived outside the city and 52,783 resided in Reading, according to the latest annual American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Antietam, Gov. Mifflin, Muhlenberg, Tulpehocken, Wilson and Wyomissing are suburban school districts each with about 10 percent or more of their students identifying themselves as Latino, according to the state Department of Education. About a third of Muhlenberg students are Latino.
ESL classes are offered in each of the county’s 18 public school districts, said Teresa Schutt, a program administrator at the Berks County Intermediate Unit.
The classes are for those whose first language is anything other than English. There are more than two-dozen languages represented by students around Berks, though the vast majority of those taking ESL classes are Spanish speakers.
The Reading School District has the most ESL students, followed by Wilson and Muhlenberg.
Gov. Mifflin, Tulpehocken and Wyomissing also have substantial numbers of ESL students.
“The districts with the smallest amounts would be Brandywine (Heights), Oley and Kutztown,” Schutt said.
For those not in school, free ESL classes are offered by the Literacy Council of Reading-Berks and Reading Area Community College.
In 2012, 65,909 people age 5 and over, or about 17 percent of Berks residents, spoke a language other than English at home.
The language at home for 50,032 of those was Spanish.
Of those, 23,647, or almost half, spoke English less than “very well.”
But language is only one of many challenges for Latinos adapting to life in the suburbs.
Joel Cintron was preparing to bake cookies in his South Heidelberg Township home when he realized he didn’t have enough sugar.
He walked to a Latino neighbor’s home and asked to borrow some.
The man laughed.
“People don’t actually do that here,” he told Cintron.
Cintron recalled: “He said it had been a long time since that had happened to him. We laughed about it, but in some places that’s common.”
It was common in Puerto Rico, where Cintron, 41, was born.
Neighbors felt free to walk into each other’s homes and open each other’s refrigerators, he said.
He and his wife, Gloria, who has Puerto Rican heritage but was born and raised in Reading, moved to the suburbs almost a decade ago.
Joel said it took time for him to get used to the customs of Berks County, many of which are shared by Latinos who grew up here as his wife did.
“My wife said it was weird that I had the nerve to go ask the neighbor for sugar,” Joel said. “I didn’t know that you just get in your car and drive to the store. I also had to learn to be more formal, such as calling first before coming over.”
In Puerto Rico, it was common for co-workers to hug and kiss as a greeting.
Here, that can easily be misinterpreted, Joel said.
Joel also had to get used to the way appointments and events are scheduled here as opposed to the way people show up when they feel like it in Puerto Rico.
“When we’re invited somewhere at 5, he’d say we should show up at 7 and I’d tell him, ‘Then I’ll meet you there because I want to get there to eat,’” Gloria said with a laugh.
When Gloria, 40, an office manager, visits her husband’s family in Puerto Rico, she feels free to yell out to neighbors and interact with them in a manner she’d normally reserve for close friends or family.
“I feel comfortable doing it there but not here,” she said. “We’re both Puerto Rican, but our cultures are so different.”
So are their languages.
“We speak slang in Reading,” Gloria said. “When I first met him (Joel), I said, ‘What is he speaking?’”
Joel said he hasn’t encountered much prejudice in Berks but has experienced some.
One time, he offered to press an elevator button for an older woman who reacted by stridently, urging him to speak English.
“But I was speaking English,” Joel recalled with a chuckle.
When Nick Camacho and Carmen Quinones moved from Reading to Marion Township more than two decades ago, the pastor and his wife vowed they would keep their culture and language alive in their daughter, Rose Marie Camacho, now 31.
“We carry our culture in our souls, in our flesh, in our blood,” Nick said.
They made sure Rose Marie, a 2001 Conrad Weiser graduate, kept up with her Spanish at home, and she now speaks both English and Spanish fluently.
Her parents speak English well but have noticeable accents.
Camacho and Quinones said English classes have been mandatory in Puerto Rican schools since they were growing up, but students at that time did not practice the language at home with their Spanish-speaking parents. For many, the ability to speak English fluently remained elusive.
But the younger generation uses English much more, Rose Marie said.
For instance, her cousins who live in Puerto Rico use English when posting to social media.
Rose Marie regularly visited relatives in Puerto Rico and spent summers with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
An administrative assistant to city police, Rose Marie said being bilingual has helped her get several jobs.
But some Latinos born and raised in the area haven’t retained their parents’ language.
“It’s our fault,” lamented Nellie Rodriguez of Muhlenberg Township. “We tried. We’d have ‘Spanish hour’ where no one can speak English, but it didn’t really work.”
“The language does begin to disappear,” agreed her husband, Tom.
They said they could have emphasized Spanish more to their two children, who are now grown.
“We would try to talk to them in Spanish and they’d answer in English,” Tom said. “They go to school and learn in English all day and speak English all day, so that’s what happens.”
Still, when Tom and Nellie left the city for the suburbs, they took with them their other Puerto Rican traditions to pass on.
“They love Spanish food,” Nellie said of her children. “They come home for that. The kids’ friends would ask, ‘Is your mom cooking because, if she is, I’m coming over.’”
A small Dominican Republic flag waves from Edwin Olivo’s front porch in West Reading.
Rather than seek out fast food or American staples, his children prefer the taste of traditional Dominican cuisine.
His daughter Angelina, 10, says that she is one of the very few Dominican kids in the Wyomissing School District.
“I’m different,” Angelina said, smiling. “Not in a bad way, in a good way; unique.”
The family is part of a wave of Latinos who have called West Reading home in recent decades.
The borough’s 769 Latino residents make up about 18 percent of its population.
Last year the community became the first Berks municipality to elect a Latino mayor.
After his win, Valentin Rodriguez Jr. said his election was a natural progression as the borough has become more diverse since his pioneering father, Valentin Sr., moved there in 1952.
Olivo explores and shares current events and entertainment for Latinos on 100% TVO, an independent Spanish-language television show that appears online as well as on local Comcast channel 190.
Elsie Maduro, Olivo’s co-host on the show, lives just outside Reading in Muhlenberg Township.
Born in Allentown and raised in Puerto Rico, she moved to Reading in 1996 and in 2004 to Muhlenberg, a municipality that is now 14 percent Latino.
Olivo moved to Berks County from New York City three years ago.
Olivo said West Reading appealed to him because it is in the respected Wyomissing School District and yet has an affordable cost of living.
“It’s better for my kids,” Olivo said. “They can go outside and play and I don’t have to worry about them so much.”
Olivo said he has never felt anything less than welcomed in his neighborhood, where white non-Latinos make up 70 percent of the population.
While they fit in well with the community, Olivo said he and his wife, Carmen, try to instill a sense of pride in their children.
“In my house, we speak Spanish and it has been worth it, let me tell you,” Olivo said. “I want them to know where they come from.”
Information from: Reading Eagle, https://www.readingeagle.com/
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