York City Latino population is growing, but government representation remains absent

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

York City's Latino population continues to grow exponentially, but representation in city government fails to reflect the uptick.

Currently, 30.9 percent — roughly 13,600 — of the city's 44,132 residents are Latino, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. This doesn't include those who moved here after being displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.

That is nearly double the number documented in the 2000 Census, when the population was 40,863 and 17.9 percent of residents were of Latino origin. 

Despite the rapid growth in the number of Latino residents in the city, the local government fails to adequately reflect the  population.

In fact, the number of Latinos serving in leadership positions under the city government is zero.

Leadership positions include the mayor, city council, chairs of authorities, boards and commissions and heads of departments.

The Latino representation issue isn't unique to York, wrote Norman Bristol Colón, director of special projects for the Pennsylvania Department of State, in a June 23 Facebook post.

Colón listed several other cities near York where Latino representation in government is nearly nonexistent: Bethlehem, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, Lebanon and Harrisburg.

In front from left, Cindy Riess, of Newberry Township, leads Keila Vazquez, 11, of York City, and Melissa Eby, of Dover, during a Pound Fit demonstration with Body Rhythms Life Fitness during First Friday Latino at York County Economic Alliance in York City, Friday, July 6, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

Only Reading had a Latino individual involved in the top levels of local government, the chief of police. There are more than 500,000 Latinos in the seven cities combined, he added.

Colón couldn't be reached for further comment.

Local Latinos: Louis Rivera, founder of Latinos Unidos, a Latino advocacy organization in York City, has noticed the disparity since moving to the city nearly three years ago.

"If Latinos make up 33 percent of the city population, then why aren't they making up 33 percent of our city government?" Rivera said. "We should be 33 percent of all things York, not only city government. We should be involved in boards, nonprofits and businesses as well."

However, not just one entity is at fault, he said. Both sides, the Latino community and city officials, could step up their game.

"I don't think we've been asked to participate as much as we should, but I also don't think we've been advocating enough until recently," he said. "We've failed to engage each other."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich holds a tank top given to hem by Latino leader Lou Rivera during an oath of office ceremony outside City Hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

An underlying issue Rivera has seen regarding outreach is people talking about Latino engagement without Latinos in the audience, which "shouldn't be happening," he said.

Still, Rivera said he has noticed improvements in representation recently, especially with increased advocacy efforts such as those done by Latinos Unidos.

"I've seen improvements over the last year, and that's going to continue to be our fight," he said. "However, it shouldn't have to be a long, thought-out process."

'A shame': The lack of representation is "a shame," said Lloyd Fernandez, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in York.

"It's not so much that I need to see someone that looks like me, but it's more about having somebody that has experience living with or around the people that are affected by their decisions," he said.

Fernandez is surprised to see that with the growing Latino population, there aren't any individuals of Hispanic origin on the city's boards or council, he said.

"If it's a diverse city, the boards and council seats should be diverse, too," he said. "When you're having a conversation about a community but don't have that community present, how do you know what they really need?"

Latino survey to be released : United Way of York County, where Rivera serves on the board of directors, is hosting an event specifically detailing Latinos' opinions of living in York County from a 2017 countywide survey. 

The "2017 Hispanic & Latinx Community Assessment" will be presented by Vinny Cannizzaro, public policy fellow at the Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy In York.

Attendees will discuss current initiatives and programming around the Hispanic and Latino community within York County. 

The results will be released at 8:30 a.m. July 11 at the York Jewish Community Center, located at 2000 Hollywood Drive.

Not just Latinos: Rivera  noted that Latinos aren't the only ones being underrepresented in the community. African-American representation also is thin, a point echoed by United Way Executive Director Robert Woods.

United Way Executive Director Bob Woods is shown in his office at his home in Spring Garden Township, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. Woods will be retiring after 26 years with the York County United Way in June. He has been with the United Way organization for 38 years in total. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"I really do think that the city needs to be moving forward with not only Latino representation but also African-American representation," he said. "Not only with its administrative positions, but also with City Council positions."

The United Way  has two Latinos on its board of directors, among a variety of other minority group members. However, Woods said he'd "like to have even more."

United Way is "not only talking the talk when it comes to representation but also walking the walk," Rivera said.

African-Americans' footprint on the city — 27 percent of the total population —  has remained fairly steady over the past 18 years, increasing roughly 2 percent since the 2000 census. 

A majority of the city council is African-American, with three black women holding seats, and several black individuals are employed throughout York City Hall.

However, to bring more Latinos and African-Americans into leadership positions, training is needed, Woods said.

Training future minority candidates: One local organization is helping with  that.

Wilda Alessi, executive director of Leadership York, runs the organization with the goal of training and connecting individuals in the community to run for leadership positions.

Wilda Alessi, future executive director of Leadership York

"Our organization is about  educating individuals and giving them the tools and knowledge they need to serve in the community," she said. "We look at how  we as an organization can help prepare, educate and inspire people and spark that position to make them want to make a difference in their community."

Alessi said the "community as a whole has noticed a lack of representation," and educating members of the minority community is an initiative the organization is currently undertaking.

"Our population is changing, and the community itself is changing, so we have to make sure the community is represented," she said. "In the last six months, we've really been involved in a lot of different conversations and figuring out how we can help people in the minority community to make those connections."

Alessi added she can't speak to why minority communities aren't represented well or what specifically should be done, but she emphasized the importance of communication. 

"It starts with one having to start the conversation and to making that conscious effort to search and seek out qualified individuals from those communities," she said.

Mayor demographic study: York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said he conducted a demographic study earlier this year to analyze the presence — or lack thereof — of minorities in positions of leadership.

"The study showed that African-Americans are underrepresented relative to their city population, and Latinos are extremely underrepresented," Helfrich said.

The largest area lacking minority representation is within the city's public safety services, which makes up one-third of all city employees.

However, with the newest recruits to the police department, progress is evident. Four of 12 new recruits are from minority groups: two Latinos, one African-American and one Asian, plus there is one woman.

Latinos, however, are the most prominent issue, Helfrich added.

"There are no Latinos in positions of leadership," he said. "There are also very few Latinos in positions where they would be directly assisting the improvement of community and economic conditions."

Helfrich said his goal is to "look for the best candidates and keep an eye on the racial and ethnic representation," but he can't fire or hire employees solely based on their ethnicity.

In a scenario where two equally qualified individuals are being considered for a position of power, though, he said the minority individual would "have an advantage."

Helfrich reiterated Rivera's attention to the increasing presence of interaction between the Latino community and city officials, and he said he is optimistic for the future.

"I'm very excited about the increased cooperation and organization within the Latino community, and I certainly hope that that leads to more political representation," he said. "But this is going to be a process over time to try and find qualified candidates in positions that become vacant or are created."