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How Foods From Other Lands Open America's Doors

New Latino residents could follow the Italian path to integration, through America's stomach.

On my blog, I've been posting excerpts from A History of Italian Immigration to the Easton Area by Richard D. Grifo and Anthony Noto. It was published in 1964 by the Northampton County Historical and Geneological Society, and you can buy a copy at the Sigal Museum. 

 The most fascinating thing about this history is thinking about Italians as an ethnic Other, since they're now widely considered to be "white." This was not always the case. Italians arrived later than other ethnic groups, mostly between 1900 and 1930:

In 1890 there were only 341 [Italians]; in 1900, 1582; in 1910, 3723; in 1920, 4427; in 1930, 4552; and in 1940, 4065... Keep in mind that these figures represent only Italian born residents. The number of residents of Italian extraction would be considerably higher.

Big population changes like this inevitably bring to mind the rapid growth of the Latino population in the Lehigh Valley over the past 10 years. 

 In 2000, 9.79% of Easton residents were of Hispanic origin. In 2010, it's 19.9%. 

 Bethlehem's Latino population went from 18.23% in 2000 to 24.4% in 2010. 

 Allentown saw the largest gains, from 24.4% in 2000 to a whopping 42.8% in 2010.

 Not only did Allentown's Latino population double, it also got much more diverse, with a broad range of Latin American nationalities moving in.

 The dizzying pace of growth (5.1% in 1980 to 43% in 2010) has undoubtedly brought political and ethnic tensions, and that was also the case during Italian integration in the early 20th century.

 Even though the first wave of Italian immigration started around 1900, Italians didn't get any political representation until 1936, when Justin Jirolanio was elected to the General Assembly. There were no Italian members of city council until Patrick Mazza in 1950. James Vitelli was the first Italian to win a School Board election in 1960.

 Predictably, school districts didn't provide for instruction in Italian, which delayed integration. Just like in all the other waves of immigration to the United States, the new immigrants lived in the areas of town no one else wanted to live, and took the service jobs no one else wanted to do, like working in the silk mills and on the railroad, and selling street food, along with much more disgusting jobs:

Italian immigrant laborers even played a part in the building of the present Easton Public Library. In 1901 the Easton School Board accepted Andrew Carnegie's gift of fifty thousand dollars to construct a free library building. The site selected, the old burying ground on North Fifth Street was donated by citizens. However, authorities had difficulty hiring local laborers willing to dig up the graves located on the site. Finally, a group of Italian immigrant laborers from the New York area were brought in to do the work. It is reported that these Italians not only did the excavating but also respected the sanctity of the dead and whatever possessions had been buried with the dead. Before opening a grave these Italians generally blessed themselves by making the sign of the cross

The lesson I take from this is that people from poorer countries come here because just by working in the United States they can triple or quadruple their productivity. That's good for the workers and their families, and that's great for our economy. If people want to come here to do work and create value in exchange for money, they should have the liberty to do so.

 City governments can certainly do more to create   for low-skill less-educated people, but cultural integration seems sure to take longer.

 Typically when we hear politicians talk about integration of new immigrant groups, we hear suggestions like English language education, increased diversity of cops, teachers and political officials, and similar ideas for assimilating the new residents into the dominant culture.

These are all good ideas, but we should also be thinking about how the new residents will make their mark on the region's culture. Once again, we can look to the Italians:

Today Italian food is popular all over the United States. Easton is no exception, and our Italian restaurants and pizzerieas attest to that fact. Yet, it was not always so. There are many who used to make fun of the Italians alleged affinity for garlic, onions and, of course for macaroni and spaghetti. Even the much maligned pasta fazzoole (fagiulo), that is macaroni with beans, is now offered in the better restaurants as somewhat of a delicacy. During the depression years Italians subsisted adequately, if not elegantly, on macaroni, which mixes well with peas, beans, lentils chick peas, broccoli, cauliflower, etc... As for other Italian specialties, there's pizza, ravioli, lasagna, etc. - now all standard culinary terms.

If the Lehigh Valley's new Latino residents have a similar impact on the region's culinary offerings, things are about to get delicious. Even a stone cold racist would probably admit that empanadas, platanos and arepas are among the world's greatest foods.

 The best integration strategy I can think of would be for cities to relax their food cart regulations, and offer financial incentives to street vendors or food trucks. Bethlehem's food cart regulations are much too restrictive and make it unnecessarily expensive to start a food cart business. 

 Allentown in particular, which has spent a lot of money to attract trendy restaurants downtown, might consider how many taco trucks they could get for every successful Sangria. If you got enough vendors, you could even organize a Latin American Food Festival sometime during the summer months. I could imagine an annual block party with street vendors cooking cuisines from all over Latin America becoming a big hit.

 These kinds of businesses cost a lot less in overhead than a traditional restaurant, and the profit margin is lower, so it's ideal for people who have cooking skills, but not much formal education or access to the normal credit channels. 

 City council members should be asking whether prevailing food cart regulations aren't crowding out legitimate business opportunities. If they are given the opportunity, I predict the new Latino residents will follow the Italian path to integration, through America's stomach.

Carrie Havranek June 07, 2011 at 02:58 PM
Food carts on campuses! Food carts in downtowns! Bring it on! Trying new foods means opening your mind and hopefully, hearts. It may sound silly but food is powerful stuff.
Pamela Porter June 07, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Isn't there some sort of unwritten nixing of food carts near Lafayette because of the Sodexo contract to provide food services? I may not be recalling things correctly, but it seems I've read things like that elsewhere. Some people seem to think Sodexo has a stranglehold on Lafayette food-wise. Personally, I love food carts, and Latin-American food is a favorite. I loved Cuban food when I lived in South Florida. Ropa vieja and tres leches cake is some amazing stuff.

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