Hispanics find barriers in Pennsylvania

June 30, 1997


Staff Writer, Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Antonio Velasquez moved his family from Mexico to Chambersburg eight years ago, joining his brother's family, who had settled here two years before in search of opportunities and a better life.

He's since made a living as the owner of Mexican Video on South Main Street, a small video store and grocery where he rents mostly Spanish-language movies and sells a variety of food imported from his native country.

"This is a nice, quiet town. I came here for the opportunities and to have a better life. That's what everybody wants. Nobody wants to suffer," Velasquez said in Spanish as his nephew, Sergio, interpreted.


The Velasquezes are one of many Hispanic families who've moved to Chambersburg in the last 10 years, making up a culturally diverse Hispanic population in the borough which residents and local officials say is growing by leaps and bounds.

According to 1990 population statistics for Franklin County published by the Pennsylvania State Data Center, Hispanics made up 1.8 percent of Chambersburg's population of 16,647, a figure most say continues to increase.

"The (Hispanic) population appears to be growing, though we have no numbers," said Julio Lecuona, former borough manager.

Employment opportunities, available housing, and good social services are the primary factors that attract people to the area and keep them here, said Paul Cullinane Jr., executive director of Downtown Chambersburg Inc.

"The quality of life is good here," he said.

But the enlargement of the Hispanic community is causing growing pains for the borough, largely stemming from the language barrier and cultural differences.

"The language is something we have to address," said Cullinane, who's leading an effort to solve some of the problems. "We as a county and a borough have to look at what we have and start translating."

Chambersburg's police department is one organization that's struggling with communication.

"We have no Spanish-speaking officers. Some are trained to say enough phrases to get by ... . Anything beyond basic communications and we're in trouble," said Chambersburg Police Chief Michael DeFrank.

The police department depends on volunteers from the community and college students to work as interpreters when needed.

But until the department hires a Spanish-speaking officer, DeFrank said, "We'll continue to struggle along and do the best we can."

The language barrier is a problem throughout the county's legal system. There are few interpreters at the Franklin County Courthouse.

"Most will just plead guilty and pay the fine to avoid problems," said Sergio Velasquez, who's accompanied some Hispanic residents to the courthouse to serve as a translator.

Though the borough and county provide a number of services, most agencies don't have Spanish-speaking employees or translated documents, Cullinane said.

The language barrier extends to the local Catholic church, which doesn't provide any Spanish-speaking services.

"Even though we don't speak Spanish at Corpus Christi, we still invite you to come and we'll try our best to communicate with you," Monsignor Thomas Brenner told a group from the Hispanic community gathered at a recent meeting at Clarke Community Center.

The closest parish that conducts a weekly Mass in Spanish is in Gettysburg, Pa., at St. Francis Xavier.

The issues surrounding the borough's Hispanic community aren't going unnoticed.

Cullinane, along with borough and county officials, have held two meetings with members of the Hispanic community and plan to hold a third in the fall as a forum for open discussion and to ease co-existence, Cullinane said.

"No doubt we have to get started on solving our problems and helping these people," he said.

But before the big issues can be tackled, leaders of Chambersburg's Hispanic community want to work out some problems themselves.

"The Hispanic community must organize itself," Lecuona said.

"The solution is to come together," said Antonio Velasquez, who wants to form a committee within the Hispanic community made up of leaders representing each culture, including Mexico, Puerto Rico and countries in Central and South America.

"What we want to do is solve the problems that affect the whole community. If we form a committee, it will be to help the Hispanic cultures as well as the American culture," he said.

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