LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Lancaster's rolling hills are steeped in the traditions of the Amish — their plain dress and humility as much a tourist lure as their quilts and pies.
But, as an iconic symbol, this Lancaster image could need a revision. Instead of Zerbe's potato chips, think chicharrones. Egg casserole? How about chilaquiles. Pulled pork? Did someone say lechón asado?
Increasingly, the flavors of this south-central Pennsylvania region — famous for its mud sales and outlets — bear a marked Latin accent that goes beyond language and cuisine.
Latinos have forged a foothold in Lancaster County. In recent years, their population numbers have quietly surpassed that of the Amish.
About 45,000 Latinos live in Lancaster County, according to the 2010 census. The census does not track the Amish or plain communities in Lancaster County. But in 2010, the Elizabethtown College center that studies the Amish estimated about 30,000 living in Lancaster County.
The Latino population in Lancaster County has grown by 68 percent in the last 10 years, the fifth-largest gain in Latinos statewide.
In the city of Lancaster, nearly two out of every five city residents identify their ethnicity to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Latin American countries.
About half of the county's Latinos live in the city. The city's Latino population grew to 23,329 in the last census, an increase of 35 percent.
The growth goes beyond the city.
These days, small grocery stores catering to Latinos dot the farm roads that wind through sprawling Amish farm country. Route 322 just east of Ephrata is horse-and-buggy domain, but "La Borimex" offers an outpost for tamales and other Mexican foods. A new restaurant, "Aromas Del Sur," offers Colombian fare just down the road from the Ephrata Cloister, the landmark site preserving the religious community established by German settlers in the 1700s.
The county boasts two Spanish-language radio stations and a newspaper. Stop at a nearby fast-food joint, and the staff that waits on you is bound to be completely Latino.
Latinos have established businesses and cultural networks, securing positions on City Council and leadership of the school district. The Lancaster General Hospital website offers Spanish translation, and the city is home to the only officially Latino-designated Catholic parish in the Harrisburg Diocese.
"Hispanics are becoming more and more engaged, invited and more of a participant in the wider community," said the Rev. Allan Wolfe, pastor at San Juan Bautista Church, which offers 10 scheduled weekly Masses — all but one in Spanish. His parishioners come from all over the county.
"Gradually, more Hispanics are finding their place in roles throughout the community, in the police and fire department, hospitals," said Wolfe, who has been at San Juan Bautista since 1997. "It's a gradual growing into the various components of our society."
A wave of immigration has fueled the surging Latino population.
"For me — my cousins convinced me to come. Maybe the money wasn't great, but it was secure," said Javier Segura, an Oaxaca, Mexico, native who arrived in Mount Joy in 1991 to wash dishes at a local restaurant, joining only a few other Latino families living in the town at the time.
Segura scraped all of his earnings together and, in 2004, opened "El Pueblito," a small grocery shop that initially floundered on word-of-mouth advertising. The shop has outgrown the growing clientele, and Segura, who lives in Lititz, is relocating to a larger location.
"Thank God it has provided a way of life," said Segura, who, along with wife Selena, became a U.S. citizen in 2001. Their four children were born in the U.S. "We had not thought we would stay here, but now our kids are growing up and it's difficult (to leave)."
As much as Segura represents this thriving Latino community, a large sector of Lancaster Latinos traces family back for generations.
"The Latino population is not only diverse, it runs the continuum of people who are very traditional and speak only Spanish to those more mainstream who speak only English," said Lillian Escobar-Haskins, a writer and researcher of the state's Latino population.
In a recent study, Escobar-Haskins, director for policy for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, found Latinos have been coming to Lancaster for decades since the mid-20th century. A third of Latinos, she found, were English-only speakers, and only 20 percent needed bilingual services.
"In reality, Latinos are acculturating just like other populations that came before. We just happen to be new," she said.
Escobar-Haskins, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents and moved to Lancaster in 1977, said Latinos in Lancaster County account for a large part of the working poor, largely concentrated in the city, where public services are available. Yet as families gain financial stability and means, they have moved out to the suburbs.
"You have a lot of successful Latinos, but they are the invisible population," Escobar-Haskins said. "People who don't know Latinos just see this population — the visible one — and form opinions based on that. And it tends to be a stereotype."
In fact, the economic vitality of the Latino community is increasingly grounded in start-up business ventures, professional services and construction.
"I definitely think people come here to work, particularly the immigrant population," said Daniel Betancourt, president and CEO of Community First Fund, a nonprofit bank that works primarily with minority communities in central Pennsylvania. "There is no expectation that they are coming here for anything other than to find work. In many cases, they find they are better off starting their own business."
One-third of the bank's clientele is Latino, he said.
Betancourt, a Lancaster Latino of Puerto Rican heritage, said the dramatic growth in Latino-owned businesses — from restaurants, small groceries, to retail, services and construction — along the Route 222 corridor from Lancaster to Reading and the Lehigh Valley creates a multiplier effect.
"I think a lot of times people may not give Hispanics the credit for the economic opportunity they provide," he said. "They are spending money in their community and providing jobs in their community, and it's only benefiting central Pennsylvania."
Landisville resident James A. Colino, a second-generation Latino and Millersville University alum who is head of social media for The Hershey Co., said Latinos continue to negotiate widely held preconceived notions that often portray them as uneducated, unskilled laborers — and not a professional and upwardly-mobile sector.
"We're not seamless yet," said Colino, whose father is Argentinean and whose mother is second-generation Mexican-American. "I think there's still a negative connotation, and I think that's just going to come with time."
As part of his duties as social media strategist for Hershey, Colino leads the company's Global Talent Acquisition Center of Excellence, which builds cutting-edge recruitment strategies to attract and acquire top-notch talent to Hershey.
"I know there's a very vibrant and educated Latino community out there," said Colino.
Lancaster City Mayor Rick Gray said the Latino community has unwittingly contributed to the discourse on tolerance.
"I once had a guy say, 'Why do these people come here and dress their own way and speak their own language and don't mix in with the rest of us?'" Gray said. "I said, 'Hey, take it easy on the Pennsylvania Dutch. They've been here a long time.'"
Wolfe said that unlike the cloistered Amish, Latinos are actively engaged in the community and can at times buck up against biases and prejudices.
"When I first got here, I would hear people say you have to live here 25 years before anyone recognizes you as a native. And I was an Anglo coming into the county and was seen as a newcomer," he said.
Still, Lancaster's heritage has, for the most part, set a tone of tolerance for newcomers, Gray said.
"I think the fact that we have a group of people in Lancaster who are obviously different, who obviously speak a different language, has created a certain type of conservatism that is, 'Don't bother me and I won't bother you,'" he said. "I think it develops a certain tolerance for people who are different. Not that Latinos are going to be that different for long."
Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, said the growth in Latinos in the county has coincided with the outmigration of Amish and other plain-dressing groups — Old Order Mennonite and Conservative Mennonite — to Kentucky, New York, Indiana and Wisconsin.
"Since then, you have a dribble of families leaving each year basically looking for cheaper land and more rural conditions where they might be more cloistered and sheltered," Kraybill said. "It's been sort of a steady dribble, but even with that it hasn't hurt the rise of the Amish population."
Kraybill said plain communities such as the Amish generate about $10 million in tourism trade each year.
"I would say that over the last 30 years, Lancaster County has become more diverse," he said. "You have Asians, a lot of ethnic groups. It's not a homogenous area, even though the Amish get a lot of media attention."
Escobar-Haskins said the Latino community continues to emerge as a force in the community, meeting once a month, for instance, in Latino First Thursday forums to discuss business but mostly network.
Latinos still have large gains to make in education, where Latino students persistently lag behind white counterparts, and politics, she said.
"But I would like to see more successes in getting Latinos in elected positions. We haven't achieved that level of political power yet," Escobar-Haskins said.
Latinos experience the same obstacles faced by immigrant groups before them, although some also deal with racism, she said. Latinos can be of any race — and sometimes within one family, Escobar-Haskins said.
"I consider Latinos to be the bridge people," she said. "We are multicultural just by nature, because our families are multicultural, the countries we come from have that multiculturalism. Today, a lot of that line is blurring — even in the United States."
Much as they have done in other third-class tier cities across the country, Latinos in Lancaster will inevitably stake a claim to the mayor's office and more sweeping presence in leadership roles, said G. Terry Madonna, the political analyst and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
"I think that's coming," he said. "It's just a question of experience, of getting people into the city council, school board, places that are building blocks. You just don't go from no political activity, even modest political activity, to mayor. It's happened in other places. It will happen here."
Culturally, Latinos lean conservative, with high value placed on family and religion, but have historically voted Democratic in the region.
Still, as a voting bloc in this solidly conservative region where there are nearly twice as many Republicans as Democrats, the Latino factor will eventually play a pivotal role in future electoral contests.
Just 20 years ago, the city of Lancaster, much like the surrounding county, was a Republican enclave. The city's political flavor has changed decidedly during the past two decades to Democrat. The Latino vote stands to eventually sway county results.
"Certainly in presidential elections, even the next election, Republicans will have to find a way to tap into that Latino vote," Madonna said. "Maybe that's an appeal to culture. As Latinos open up businesses, they get a sense of entrepreneurship, Republicans might find a message there. But it's a major voting bloc that both parties will have to court and take seriously."
For Javier Segura, on a recent day, the midday crowd trickling into his shop for burritos, quesadillas and tacos dorado affirmed the sense that this once all-white enclave has become a thriving community of diversity.
Segura once had a lock on products used in Latin American cuisine, but these days he has a lot of competition. He works long days but hasn't given up the idea that an even bigger venture might be in store for him.
"One never knows," he said. "I think that with this it's good. You have to dedicate a lot of time ... it requires me to be here all the time. Maybe that's enough. But one never knows ... maybe there are other opportunities. We could do something else."
Segura said he feels very much a part of the Lancaster community.
"This is where we set roots," he said. "They treat us well. I can't complain. It's like with anything, some people see us with not good eyes, but the rest ... all is good."
Information from: The Patriot-News, http://www.pennlive.com/patriotnews
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.