"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 4, 2016

Are Hispanics The New Italians? There Are Some Things In Common…

I have begun a series of posts on ethnic change in America, as viewed through my eight subject cities on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  Last month I wrote about the unpleasant national reaction to immigrants—primarily Italians—after the First World War, when our government attempted to structure the racial and ethnic makeup of the nation to favor the descendants of northern and western European immigrants.  My point was how immigrants judged too far from the mainstream—primarily, but by no means exclusively, Italians—generated a regressive and nativist reaction that swept through Congress.  

Today, a similar pattern is discernable, and there is support for an even more sweeping resolution of “the immigration problem” than was contained in the Acts of the 1920s.   This time the xenophobia is directed against Hispanics, with Italians not missing from those who feel this way.  This is the overarching story, and we are still in the middle of the second part, but there are other interesting parallels.  This time I pick up the national thread, and then compare the two periods of increased immigration in the lower Schuylkill valley, looking for what is different, and for what is much the same.

After almost closing the door to immigrants, America spent the next few decades learning to celebrate not so much its immigrant past but the concept of “assimilation,” i.e., the melding together of disparate ethnic strains into something called “an American.”  This took place largely during the mid-20th century, that period to which we look back with so much longing (I’m talking about after WWII, of course).  This was “The American Half-Century,” when we dominated the world’s economy.  We prospered by making things and selling them to other countries, recording the greatest period of economic progress in our nation’s history. 

What is underappreciated is that this period was actually an outlier in American history.  There were no waves of immigrants arriving on our shores.  They came, certainly, but not in anywhere like the numbers of before, and they tended to be better off, both in education and wealth.  But by the last decades of the century, things had changed again.  A new immigrant wave began to draw notice, this time not by people who arrived by ship, but those who walked.  As the half-century began to draw to a close, one of the signs of its closure was renewed concern about immigration.  This concern was manifest among “white America.”  Fortunately, “white” by that time largely included Italians.  Seizing the opportunity, these descendants of immigrants joined in turning the weapons and the phrases once used against themselves towards the new arrivals, Hispanics.

That’s pretty much where we are today.  It’s a limbo of sorts, as the ultimate question of “legality” remains to be settled.  Whether Congress produces the 21st century version of its previous regressive and racist policy, or pursues a different course, remains to be seen.  In the meanwhile, what can we, while in the midst of this new wave of immigrants, learn from the previous wave?  So much has changed; can the two really be compared?  Hispanics have settled in the lower Schuylkill valley; data about how many and where they settled provide some interesting comparisons of this current wave to the previous one.

We are trying to read numbers, but which ones to use, and from what source?  We are slightly more than halfway between national Censuses, which makes our official numbers—as of 2010—somewhat out of date.  Websites offer more recent data, but its veracity should remain suspect, at all times.  Keeping that in mind, I did some online research on the racial and ethnic makeup of the river towns.  I employed city-data.com for this.  It is one of several companies that market information to prospective home buyers.  I chose it largely because it offers structurally identical sites on each of the river towns.  It is thus likely that these different sites employ the same methodology in acquiring and presenting their data.  This eliminates any conscious (or unconscious) effort on my part to manipulate the data by comparing different methodologies.  I can thus use this data for comparison purposes.  I otherwise make no claims as to its accuracy.

The data is offered in both raw numbers and percentages.  This is important, because we are analyzing population change among towns of greatly varying population.  Norristown’s 2013 population of 35,407 was more than twice as large as Phoenixville, and almost twenty-eight times as large as West Conshohocken.  Its African-American population is almost twice the size of that of the other seven river towns combined.  In such cases, percentages work better than totals for the larger picture, although the totals must be periodically inserted to keep things in perspective.   

City-data.com’s structure allows only comparison between 2000 and 2013.  It would be nice to have more recent data than 2013, but using 2000 gives us thirteen years of perspective, so we’ll work with what has happened to the Hispanic presence in the river towns between 2000 and 2013.  How does this new wave reflect previous waves of immigrants?  How is it different?  It’s much too early for a historian to draw conclusions to those questions, but not too early to offer some initial theses, points that deserve further study.  I’m going to focus both on what has changed and what hasn’t.

In the broadest sense, that of time, the comparison between Italians and Hispanics holds up.  The great wave of Italians came during the last century of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.  The great wave of Hispanics has—so far—spanned much the same transition period between the 20th and 21st centuries. During the 1970s, the illegal immigrant population of the U.S. was estimated to be 1.1 million.  Illegal immigration during the 1980s more than doubled, rising to 1.3 million.  That number jumped even further during the 1990s to almost 6 million, and during that decade Mexico became the largest national source.  The numbers continued to rise during the 2000s, and Hispanics solidified their primary place among them after the post-9/11 reaction that tightened security of our air and sea borders. 

These are significant parallels in timing, but they are also quite likely coincidental.  We should also not forget that Italians were but the latest major arrivals in a long period of substantial immigration while Hispanics largely stand alone in our current comparative period.  History does not repeat itself; patterns do.

The movement of Hispanics into the lower Schuylkill Valley is also demonstrating another characteristic in common with the Italians: the smaller towns are receiving not just fewer people, but fewer by percentage.  When we are talking about immigrants who settled in towns, rather than those in agriculture, it is clear that the smallest towns offered the fewest opportunities to new immigrants, then and now.  Opportunity here is defined as both economic—jobs available—and social—less community opposition.  This means that along with fewer jobs, a town with a small population could offer more unified resistance to newcomers.  The three smallest towns on the lower Schuylkill—West Conshohocken, Spring City and Royersford—largely resisted the many ethnicities of the 19th/20th century migration wave, and appear to be doing the same thing today.

The 2013 population numbers online demonstrate that the smaller the town, the lower the percentage of Hispanics, but demonstrate something else also.  To appreciate this, we must remember that the river towns break into two groups by population; the lower five and the upper three.  In 2013, Conshohocken, with 7,780 people, was the most populous town of the lower five, but had less than half the population of the next most populous town, Phoenixville, which posted 16,440 in the same year.

The five smallest towns possessed the lowest percentages of Hispanics, but there was no break in the number of Hispanics proportionate to that of the overall populations of either Phoenixville or Pottstown, the next two most populous towns.  Here are the river towns, ranked by percentage of Hispanics, followed by their overall populations, in 2013:

Town                                          % of Hispanics                       Total Population
Spring City:                                   2.3%                                                3,359 
Conshohocken:                            3.5%                                               7,870
Royersford:                                  4.2%                                                4,784
West Conshohocken:                 4.5%                                                1,273
Bridgeport                                   4.7%                                                 4,580
Pottstown:                                   5.3%                                               22,665
Phoenixville:                               7.9%                                               16,440
Norristown:                               26.3%                                             35,407 

That’s a pretty slow percentage rise, until you get to Norristown.   

I will get get to Norristown in next month’s post.  I’m going to close this time by pointing out another way in which the current influx of Hispanics follows traditional patterns.  Conshohocken, despite having the largest population of the lower five, ranks second on the fewest-Hispanics scale.  This is a current demonstration of one of the most traditional truths about immigrants:  Throughout history, with very few exceptions, immigrants have arrived in their new lands with little money.  If you are looking for where they settled, you can pretty much bet it wasn’t the richer part of town.  Today’s version of that principle in the lower Schuylkill valley focuses on towns rather than neighborhoods, and no town among my subject eight is doing better than Conshohocken.  Property values—and rents—are sky high.  West Conshohocken comes close (particularly on a per-capita basis), adding to the reasons for its low percentage of Hispanics.

In discussing the similarities between the arrival of the Italians and the Hispanics, Norristown deserves a post all its own.  See you next month.