Top stories of 2020: Latinos increase visibility, influence across Pennsylvania

  • Anthony Orozco

For Pennsylvania Latinos, more than anything 2020 was about visibility.

In a year of simultaneous crises, a turbulent census effort and a historic presidential election, Pennsylvania’s nearly one million Latinos did not go unnoticed.

Norman Bristol Colon, with the state’s 2020 Census Complete Count commission, says the ethnic group can no longer be ignored.

“We have a new emerging one million strong Latino community that we can not forget, especially when we are drafting, political, educational, economic agenda in the commonwealth,” he said.

Pennsylvania 2020 Census leaders

Smart Talk

David Brinton and Norman Bristol Colon join Smart Talk, August 29, 2019

But census participation lagged in urban areas, notably where many Latinos and immigrants live. Cities like Reading, York, Allentown and Lebanon had self completion rates under 70 percent.

The pandemic, economic insecurity and long-standing mistrust of the government made many Latinos — especially immigrants — hesitant to fill out their census.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to rule on the Trump Administration’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants, which could ultimately affect congressional apportionment.

The Trump Administration doesn’t even know how many undocumented immigrants it wants to exclude or where they live. Texas, Florida and California each could potentially lose one congressional seat, according to the Pew Research Center. Pennsylvania is expected to lose a seat, but due to this effort.

This year’s effort to count Latinos was paired with the push to have them participate in the democratic process.

Colon is also the founder of the PA Latino Convention. The event was held mostly virtually this year in Reading and focused on the importance of voting.

Jose Rosado, the state’s first Latino mayor and founder of the Latino-focused political action group Alianza, joined others in pushing for engagement.

“Latino voters are loaded with the untapped potential to influence — even determine — local, state and federal elections,” Rosado said at the event held days before the presidential election.

An analysis of voter turnout by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative showed Black and Latino voters were integral to Joe Biden’s victories in Philadelphia and Lehigh counties, which helped him win the state and the presidency.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

After closely losing her primary election to incumbent Peter Schweyer, Enid Santiago is continuing as a write-in candidate for State Representative of the 22nd District.

Latino candidates vied for state legislator seats in each of three counties in the Route 222 Corridor.

Democrat and Lancaster City Councilwoman Janet Diaz aimed to boot incumbent and Republican State Sen. Scott Martin out of office. In Allentown, Enid Santiago had a close and controversial primary and then a write-in campaign against incumbent State Rep. Peter Schweyer. And in Reading, Democrat State Representative-elect Manuel Guzman Jr. ran against Republican Vincent Gagliardo Jr.

Guzman Jr. of Reading made history in the Route 222 corridor, becoming the first ever Latino from Berks to win a contest for state legislator.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

State Rep. Manuel Guzman in his downtown Reading office.

Berks stands out from other counties with similar demographics such as Lehigh and Lancaster — mostly caucasian areas with largely Latino or even Latino-majority urban hubs.

Two Latinas fill seats in Reading City Council, Mayor Eddie Moran is the city’s first ever Latino mayor, and Michael Rivera is the county’s first-ever Latino commissioner.

But Guzman said Latino voters want more than just someone with a Spanish name.

“I think we’re past the point where just base representation is enough. I think people in general are looking for more from their politicians, from the legislators, from their influencers,” Guzman said.

Latinos overwhelmingly supported Biden, and Pennsylvania put him over the top in the electoral college. President Donald Trump also made some inroads with Latinos, though he received only a sliver of support from the electorate.

Tim Ramos Vice Chair

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Tim Ramos, the vice chair of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, is greeted to GOP headquarters the by staff and volunteers.

Activists like Maegan Llerena, with the Latino advocacy group Make The Road PA, said organizations like hers will work to keep those in power accountable.

“We can’t just be complacent in what we have, we need to ask for more, we need to demand more,” she said.

One of the most pressing issues is helping the public survive the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Latinos and Black people.

They are nearly five times more likely than white people to be hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mary Kelleher, with the Berks Community Health Center, said the pandemic has revealed pre-existing gaps that Latinos often fall through.

“The disparity and some of the mortality is the disparity in our healthcare system in general,” Kelleher said. “And that’s the bigger picture that we have to answer.”

Latinos and activists are now watching to see if Biden will deliver for their community or if they will have to battle the same person they campaigned for.

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