Hispanic population rises in Washington County

Census shows more racial, ethnic diversity

March 05, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Gathered for their weekly "Girls Night In" and sharing a laugh while playing dominoes, are Hagerstown residents, from left, Natalie Polanco, Yajayra Perez, her daughter Jesenia Jaquez, and Diana C Reyes.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

When Diana Reyes was attending North Hagerstown and Williamsport high schools during the late 1990s, there were not many other Hispanic students to be found.

In the late 2000s, when her twin brothers attended Williamsport High and then entered Hagerstown Community College, the schools' populations were much more diverse, said Reyes, 29, of Hagerstown.

"Now I see how my brothers have a lot more friends, and the Hispanic population is growing," said Reyes, who is president of the Hispanic Association of Hagerstown.

Washington County became more diverse racially and ethnically during the 2000s, although it is still overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic, according to 2010 census data released in February.

The county had 147,430 residents in 2010, and of those, 5,104 people — or 3.5 percent of the county's population — were Hispanic, according to census figures. While the county's population grew by almost 12 percent, or 15,507 people in the last decade, the county's Hispanic population grew 225 percent, an increase of 3,534 people.

Racially, the census shows that 85 percent of the county's population was white in 2010, while 9.6 percent was black or African American. Asians accounted for 1.4 percent of the population, American Indians and Alaska natives for 0.2 percent, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders for 0.04 percent, and other races 1.1 percent.

Pastor Ed Poling of the Hagerstown Church of the Brethren is among those who believe diversity is good for a community.

"Diversity is important because that's the way the world is," he said.

"If we don't have diversity, we live in an ivory tower," said Poling, who is a member of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council and the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County.

The county's population figures include 6,125 inmates who were at the three state prisons south of Hagerstown on April 1, 2010, which was the census count day.

Racial and ethnic information about that prison population was not available for this story, but census data shows that the Hispanic population, as well as in the black and Asian populations, grew significantly in Hagerstown and unincorporated communities such as Halfway, Robinwood, and Fountainhead/Orchard Hills north of Hagerstown.

The melting pot

Some in the community said an advantage of diversity is that it exposes people to different experiences and perspectives.

"(Diversity) is America," said the Rev. Yo Han Chin, of the Hagerstown Korean Church.

Diversity "improves people's knowledge of other races and cultures, which is very good, especially for the kids I work with," said Deborah Phillips, director of the Hagerstown YMCA's achievers program for minority students.

"This is a diverse country and so to have the community become more diverse, it enlightens people," Phillips said.

"Knowing and understanding diversity, not only in the school system, but in the workplace, and in society-at-large are very important because this is the future of America," former Washington County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan wrote in an e-mail to The Herald-Mail.

"Unless someone is a native American, all of us have ancestors who came from 'someplace else.' This is the American way, and this multiculturalism is what makes America strong and very adaptable — I see it as a positive for our school system, our state, and our country," wrote Morgan, who was the child of an Eastern European father and a Mexican mother.

Getting settled

With Hispanic populations of 165,398 and 128,972, respectively, in 2010, Montgomery and Prince George's counties account for more than 60 percent of Maryland's 470,632 Hispanic residents, according to census data.

Washington County has the 10th largest Hispanic population among the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City.

Aldair Soriano, manager of the Hispanic grocery La Chiquita in downtown Hagerstown, said many Hispanic people came to Washington County because the rent is less expensive, and it's quieter than some other counties.

Census data shows significant growth in Hispanic populations in Hagerstown, Halfway, Robinwood, and Smithsburg, where the growth in that segment of the population far exceeded the overall population growth in those areas.

Soriano said he gets business from a lot of people who live in those areas. Soriano said he believes many of his Hispanic customers live in apartment complexes, although some who have been here longer have bought homes.

"We tend to live in a place where we're going to feel safe and secure with the people around us," Soriano said.

Just as his father, Jose Osorio, told The Herald-Mail back in 2003, many of the Hispanic customers at La Chiquita still work more than two jobs, often in construction, landscaping and food service, Soriano said.

"We have doctors, lawyers, everybody all the way to laborers," and not only among the Hispanic immigrants in the county, said local businessman Tony Dahbura, who was chairman of the local chamber of commerce's Immigrant Work Force Focus Group in 2003 and also was in touch with the Hispanic community as an employer.

Immigrant issues

The county's growing diversity includes immigrants, some of whom are not legal citizens.

There are illegal immigrants in the community who don't want to be on an official record such as a payroll, preferring to be paid in cash, because of anti-immigrant sentiment that has surfaced in the country in recent years, said Dahbura, corporate vice president of Hub Labels and a partner in the Hagerstown Suns.

"I think that immigrants, in general, are being much more cautious," Dahbura said.

Hispanic people, in general, are hard workers, he said.

"Unfortunately, some percentage of those people have gone into the underground economy. That really doesn't benefit anyone," Dahbura said.

"The reality is that we live in a larger world than Washington County or Maryland or even the United States," Dahbura said.

"Immigrants bring a piece of that world to us, and they help us understand other cultures, appreciate other cultures, and understand what is going on around the world," he said.

An Hispanic congregation has been using Hagerstown Church of the Brethren's building for about 18 months, Poling said.

"Our people wouldn't have been ready for that 10 years ago," Poling said.

 But the congregation has become more open to different people and cultures, he said.

"Our people are changing with the culture. I see it happening. I see a lot of resistance though, too," Poling said. "I see people breaking out of their ghettos. I see more intermarriage between people of different races and cultures. I see people moving into our neighborhoods that are no longer Caucasian."

Asian growth

In addition to the Hispanic population, Washington county has a growing Asian population, which went from 1,050 residents in 2000 to 2,056 in 2010.

The Rev. Chin has been with the Hagerstown Korean Church for eight years, after spending 20 years in California.

The church serves a small Korean-American group that initially was made up mostly of interracial families, Chin said.

Chin said he believes many of the church's original parishioners had come to the area because of Fort Ritchie in Cascade. That military base closed in 1998, but other family members and other Korean families have moved to the Hagerstown area.

Chin said that when he left South Korea in 1984 the country wasn't very accepting of interracial marriages. That attitude has improved, he said.

Getting along

The census data released in February gives a basic racial breakdown with more detailed information to be made available this summer. But the count is not an exact science.

How people's race or ethnicity was counted depends on how people filling out the forms saw themselves, Census Bureau spokesman Robert Bernstein said.

For instance, while some people see Russian as an ancestry, some Russian residents might have checked the Asian box on the census form.

Washington County has a Russian population, including 29 students in the county public school system's English Language Learners program, according to an e-mail from Will Roberts, ELL curriculum and instruction specialist.

Many of them arrived in Washington County through a refugee resettlement program and are Turkish Russians so they speak Turkish at home, were taught in Russian and are learning English, Roberts said.

South Hagerstown High has served many students of varying cultures in the past decade, some of whom came to the county through church-sponsored programs, Principal Rick Akers said.

South High's student body is a good reflection of American society, Akers said.

"You have to be able to communicate and get along with folks of every culture and people that have different experiences than you do. You have to be able to get along and communicate and work together, and you have that opportunity to do that every day in the classroom," Akers said.

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