The New Face of Small Town America: Latinos in Allentown, PA

Edgar Sandoval

Journalist Edgar Sandoval

Edgar Sandoval’s new book, The New Face of Small-Town America, is a collection of finely crafted portraits of immigrant life in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In what sometimes seems like an update to Norman Rockwell’s vision of America, he describes a family who bands together to create a magical quinceañera for a baby-faced girl, and a group of immigrants who harvest Christmas trees.

Sandoval, a journalist who writes for the New York Daily News, was born in California but grew up in Mexico and Texas with his Mexican parents. After completing a fellowship at the Los Angeles Times in 1999, he found himself in Allentown, working for the Allentown Morning Call (circulation 100,000). His editors asked him to write about the exploding Latino population there, a job that consumed him from 2000 to 2003.  He spoke recently with Fi2W.

Annie Correal: What did you find when you got to Allentown?

ES: The population in Allentown had changed because in the ‘80s and ‘90s a lot of immigrants decided to move from New York. I guess the decision was whether to be poor in New York or poor in Allentown […]Around half the population is from Puerto Rico. The other half comes from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Peru […] My editors were really gracious. They gave me the space and time. Sometimes I had to follow people around in the most intimate settings.

AC: Can you describe some of those settings?

ES: The first story is about a quinceañera. People know there’s a party, a dress, a tiara. They forget that this is a ritual to turn a little girl into a woman. I focused on what it’s like for this little girl to accept a new mantle […] I met a little girl – she had a round face and childlike qualities. I knew it was going to be hard for her to accept this role. It was out of my realm, but I really wanted to tell her story […] I was surprised in a good way how close-knit the family the family was. I was surprised in a way that they could make so much for so little. Everything was done with heart; there wasn’t a whole lot of money there.

AC: Can you describe some of your other characters?

ES: There are two Hispanic women who cross the border and one of them dies. They’re an aunt and a niece. The niece comes first and then her aunt. One of them dies in a car accident, and the other starts questioning, ‘Is it worth coming here?’ […] [In another chapter] there’s a man who always promised he’d go back to Puerto Rico. This is a story about what it means to keep your word, but leave everything behind. He’s happy to go back […] It’s like the old immigrant dilemma, because everyone who comes here, usually doesn’t go back. But it’s a high price to pay, because sometimes, you leave your soul behind.

AC: How did you try and make this accessible to your non-Latino readers?

ES: Immigration from Latin America has been happening since I was born. In reality other groups came here the same way. That’s [the subject of] one of the first chapters, ‘Home Away from Home.’ In a small town near Allentown, a group of Mexican men go to harvest Christmas trees. There are eight men in one apartment building, and I went with them to work. I showed that in the old days, the Irish, German and Italians and Polish were doing the same work, and they didn’t like each other, either.

AC: Was there a positive or negative response to your reporting?

ES: The Latino community wasn’t happy when I got there because whenever the Latinos were in the paper it was bad news. And the mainstream was like, ‘Why are you writing about them?’ So I had to win people over little by little. When I started covering them as people, they started to change their minds… I think that hopefully they realized they had more in common than they thought, that [the new immigrants] just came to work and support their families. Over time I started getting less and less hate mail, so I think it worked a little bit.

AC: Do you take a position on immigration in this book?

ES: When I wanted to get this book published my idea was to give this issue a human face. The news sometimes just shows people running in a field. They look brown and they look scared. The mainstream doesn’t see them as real people, with homes and hopes and dreams. I wanted to humanize them. This book was written a few years ago, but the stories are the same. There will be girls doing quinceañera, eight men living by themselves, and women crossing the borders.

AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante ( scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.