A Hardscrabble Life For Area's Hispanics

Posted: October 26, 1986

Virginia Flores has asthma, a third-grade education and five children. She receives $466 a month in welfare and pays $350 a month in rent. Her husband, Jose, is unemployed and living in Puerto Rico.

Life, she says, could be worse.

"Some of the people - they are paying $550 for rent," Flores says with a thin smile. "It is terrible. I don't know how they do it."

West Chester's Hispanic population has grown steadily since the 1950s, when the first Puerto Ricans arrived in Chester County to work in the mushroom houses. From the start, it has been a hardscrabble existence marked by high unemployment, low income and poor education.

Today, an estimated 25 percent of the town's 18,500 residents are

Hispanic, according to borough Councilwoman Ann Aerie and Noe Lugo, who runs Centro Guayacan, the town's only Hispanic community center. Of that number, about 98 percent are Puerto Rican, they said.

Despite its size, West Chester's Puerto Rican community wields little political power. For reasons both cultural and complex, they have been slow to assimilate.

Many Puerto Ricans, particularly adults, are reluctant to learn English, Lugo said. Their children, while born in Chester County, often reach school age with little understanding of the language, he added.

There are no Puerto Ricans serving on the major boards and councils of the local government. Many do not register to vote and those who do are reluctant to exercise that right.

Puerto Ricans in West Chester tend to ignore the possibility that - politically organized - they could become a major force in the town, said Juan Sanchez, who once headed Casa Nueva Dida, a social service agency in the borough.

In the absence of an outcry over their living conditions and economic hardships, the plight of West Chester's Hispanic community has gone nearly unnoticed, Sanchez said.

"I don't put the blame on the government," he said. "You have to speak to be heard. As a community, we would like to say that the government ignores us. But we're ignoring ourselves, really.

"We have to realize that we can change things, and one option is to become politically vigilant," said Sanchez, who is a lawyer with the Chester County public defender's office.

Lugo said, "There is such indifference. I don't understand it. The need is there but it is the indifference that has truly hurt them."

*

The number of Puerto Ricans arriving in West Chester has increased significantly in the last decade, Lugo said during a recent interview.

Some come believing that life on the mainland means overnight prosperity. Others arrive because they think that life outside Puerto Rico - with its high rate of unemployment, high prices and low wages - simply has to be better.

But the emotional ties that bind Puerto Ricans to the island are strong.

Puerto Rico's geographic proximity to the East Coast makes travel between the continental United States and the island relatively inexpensive. The result is a transient population that moves from one society to another in a cultural limbo, Lugo said.

Virginia Flores, 48, readily agrees that political activism might improve her family's quality of life here. She admits - less willingly - that she and other Puerto Ricans she knows are unlikely to take part in the political process.

When pressed, she will admit that in her heart she would like to go back home - to the small town of Cidra she left 13 years ago. For now, though, she says it is not possible.

"The doctor says that the weather here is better for me," she said. "My sons want to finish studying here. In Puerto Rico, they could not do that."

For now, Flores and three of her children live in a small, dilapidated rowhouse in the northwest corner of West Chester. The two eldest children live elsewhere in Chester County.

The Flores family is typical, Lugo said.

"Puerto Ricans always have in their minds that they are going back to Puerto Rico - that they belong to Puerto Rico," he said.

"It might not be tomorrow or the next day or in 20 years, but we feel we are going to go back. And of course many do not." he said. "I myself feel that way. But it is a trap. A terrible, mental trap."

Statistics that have emerged from research by the borough and Centro Guayacan sketch a portrait of a community on the bottom rung of West Chester's socioeconomic ladder:

* The average annual income for Puerto Ricans in West Chester is $7,000 to $8,000. For blacks, the second-largest minority group with roughly 30 percent of the borough population, the average income is about $10,000.

* The average level of education for Puerto Ricans is the sixth grade. For blacks, it is the 12th grade. The dropout rate among Puerto Ricans is about 30 percent, Lugo said. For blacks it is an estimated 12 percent.

* The unemployment rate for Puerto Ricans ranges between 25 percent and 30 percent. For blacks, it is about 16 percent.

* An estimated 55 percent to 60 percent of Puerto Rican households in West Chester are headed by single women, about the same as the percentage for blacks.

Although figures on the number of Puerto Ricans in West Chester who receive state aid were not immediately available, Lugo said that the vast majority get welfare money and food stamps.

Puerto Ricans are facing critical problems in several areas. The most pressing is housing, Lugo and other officials said.

"There is not enough available and what there is is too expensive," Lugo said. The results are predictable.

"The poorer the population, the more they have to overcrowd," said Michael Perrone, the borough's director of building and housing. "It shouldn't be a fact of life but unfortunately, it is."

Health and safety code violations are commonplace in housing available to the poor, Perrone added. But the language barrier and the Puerto Rican community's general reluctance to participate in West Chester's governmental or political systems make the situation even more tenuous, he said.

"If they need help or assistance, they should try to get a hold of the borough officials," Perrone said. "That's what we're here for. If you can get that message to them, that would be good."

In recent years, the West Chester Area School District has updated its curriculum as the district's Puerto Rican population has grown. Currently, four of the district's 14 schools have English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.

In September, 356 of the district's 9,190 students were Hispanic.

The ESL programs include tutoring and small-group instruction as well as ''multimedia language laboratories," according to district literature.

Students participating in the programs generally receive one to three hours of instruction daily along with schooling in traditional classes.

Despite those programs, Puerto Rican students tend to lag behind other students, school officials say. Most often, the problems begin at home and can be traced to parents' low level of education and inability to speak or read English and in some cases, read Spanish.

"They can't help their kids with school work so eventually the children fall behind - it's that simple," Lugo said.

The frequent trips made by many Puerto Ricans between the island and the mainland is one of the most disruptive factors, said Nancy Gillespie, an ESL teacher at Henderson High School.

"We get students who speak no English," she said. "They might stay for two, three months and if their parents can't find a place to rent or jobs . . . the parents decide that they want to go back to Puerto Rico.

"So they pack up and they go home again and come back when the weather is warm," said Gillespie.

Chester County's evolving economic base also has taken its toll on the Puerto Rican community.

Over the last decade, Puerto Ricans have virtually been replaced by Mexicans - many of them illegal aliens - as the principal labor force in the mushroom houses, Lugo said. Puerto Ricans then sought employment in industry.

But many factories in the area have either moved or closed, and the influx of high-technology firms holds little promise for unskilled workers, including Puerto Ricans.

"We just are not qualified for that kind of work right now," Lugo said.

"Many times, when these families are having so many problems, I wonder why they don't leave," Lugo said. "I guess it's that they feel good here. Many came from small towns in Puerto Rico where everyone knew everyone else. It's a kind of isolation that they like."

Juan Sanchez arrived in West Chester in 1981 with a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a postgraduate fellowship that got him a job with the Chester County Legal Aid Society.

He saw immediately that the borough's Hispanic community was in disarray. He had dreams of reform and the energy to implement them. The Puerto Rican community apparently was unimpressed, he said.

"There is resistance to organization," Sanchez said. "There is distrust of young professionals who come in and have thoughts of organizing."

Sanchez persisted and eventually he became chairman of the board of directors at Casa Nueva Vida, the forerunner of Centro Guayacan.

Since the early 1970s - and in reaction to sporadic racial unrest in the town involving Puerto Ricans and blacks - five nonprofit social service agencies were begun in West Chester at various times to assist the Hispanic community. All but Centro Guayacan have closed.

"There had been attempts for social and political organization in the late 1970s," Sanchez said. "There have been instances where groups have organized over a specific issue. But in the last few years there has been a sense of futility."

As recently as 1982, when Grocery Store Products Inc., a mushroom canning plant near West Chester, closed and put 500 Hispanics out of work, a community group was formed with an eye toward improving the quality of Puerto Rican life in the town. But in time, the effort "died out as people got jobs or moved when the company closed," Sanchez said. "It can't just be one issue that comes by and then leaves," he said. "They have to be vigilant."

And that is what Centro Guayacan is all about, Noe Lugo says with pride.

Centro Guayacan was founded in 1975 as Casa Nueva Vida and was meant to be a drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation center for Hispanics. The focus of the program was shifted in 1981, when agency officials decided to concentrate on adult education with its primary goal being to teach English to Spanish- speaking adults.

The theory was that proficiency in English would lead to jobs for Hispanics and ultimately improve living conditions. But because of low participation, the program was not successful, Lugo said. Also burdened by funding problems, the center faced an uncertain future.

As recently as last month, people who worked with the center at 1 N. Matlack St. thought the facility would be closed for lack of funds. Lugo said new contracts with the county's Office of Human Services and the Office of Economic Development have assured that it will stay open at least for the next year.

The contracts include $75,000 earmarked for the center by the Office of Human Services, said James D. Bruce, director of the office.

That means that Centro Guayacan can continue its newest program - Avance, or Advance.

Avance, started last year, is geared to children and offers tutoring, vocational training, career counseling and college preparatory advice. This year, 25 children ranging in age from 6 to 16 are participating.

Many go to the center after school seeking help with homework and advice on other school-related matters from the volunteers who constitute the bulk of the center's staff.

Lugo takes a large measure of satisfaction from the early success he says Avance has achieved. It could well be a new beginning for West Chester's Puerto Rican community.

"That's why we decided to work with the kids," he said. "There is always hope in the young."

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