News Column

Hispanics Gain Political Power in Local NJ City

Jan. 21, 2013

Thomas Barlas

Ruben Bermudez's ceremonial swearing-in Jan. 5 as the city's first Hispanic mayor was unlike any of the others that have marked the beginning of a new Vineland municipal government administration.

For sure, there was its length: At almost three hours, local officials said, it was likely the longest change-of-government event in the city's history.

And then there was the audience: The majority of the faces in the Landis Intermediate School's auditorium belonged to people who were not white, nor were they witnessing the inauguration of another in a long line of Italian-American mayors with names such as Romano, Fiorelli, Campanella and Gittone.

Most of those in attendance were Hispanic. They were cheering not only for Bermudez but for what he represented: The potential coming of power by the largest minority group in the city.

But whether that happens depends on the Hispanic community doing something it has never done before -- unite. History and the city's changing demographics in the Hispanic community show that may not be easily accomplished.

U.S. Census figures for 2010 show that Hispanics make up 38 percent of the city's 60,724 residents. Puerto Ricans remain, as they have for decades, the largest Hispanic block, at almost 27 percent.

But the census figures show something else.

The city's Mexican population is growing, increasing from a little more than 2 percent from the 2000 census to more than 7 percent in the 2010 census.

And while the percentage of other Hispanic groups remained about the same, at less than 4 percent, its makeup is changing. Officials in the Hispanic community say those other groups are becoming more diverse as people from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and various other Latin American and South American countries are arriving.

Bermudez, whose family arrived in the 1940s from Utuado, Puerto Rico, acknowledges that the city's different Hispanic groups never seemed to be able to unite over the years and thus gain more political or economic power. The changing makeup of the city's Hispanic population presents more people with differing cultures and traditions, something that seems to impede unity, he said.

"They don't want to give that up," Bermudez said.

Ezequiel Nicolas, 31, and Elizabeth Garcia, 30, are members of that changing Hispanic community.

Both are from Mexico, Nicolas having arrived in 2000 and Garcia arriving a year later. They are business partners running Mex-Express, a variety store and restaurant at Seventh and Cherry streets. Their customers come from a variety of different Hispanic backgrounds.

But Nicolas said it has been difficult to get those people to work together. Members of those different Hispanic groups prefer to work within the boundaries of their own communities, he said.

Nicolas said it has even been difficult for fellow Mexican merchants to organize. That includes something as simple as asking city government for more street lights and more police, which could attract more customers to Mexican-run businesses on Seventh Street, he said.

"I think if we work together, we can do more," Nicolas said. "We talk."

If it is any consolation to Vineland's Hispanics, it is that lack of unity is not unique to the city. The 2010 census figures show that Hispanics, at more than 18 percent, are New Jersey's largest minority group. An inability to unify those Hispanics resulted in the first Hispanic Leadership Summit at Rowan University in Glassboro in September.

"There is not really cohesion," the event's organizer, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, D-Gloucester, Camden, said of New Jersey's Hispanics.

Blaming a big part of the problem on getting together Hispanics with different cultures and traditions is "fair," he said.

"We really talked deeply about the divisions among us," Fuentes said. "We are trying to engage at the grass-roots level to really come together as a team with a good vision ... for the entire community."

Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, said his organization was created in 1999 to specifically deal with the state's Hispanic groups.

"It's a very complex group of people," Perez said, noting the change in New Jersey's Hispanic population mirrors what is happening in Vineland.

Hispanic unity really depends on the emergence of civic leaders "to have the foresight and find common ground," he said.

"It's a challenge, but it's not impossible," Perez said.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 The Press of Atlantic City (Pleasantville, N.J.)


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