Hispanics of all backgrounds have contributed to the fabric of the Erie region. We’re taking a look at how Hidden History is impacting the present.
From Argentina to Venezuela, Hispanics can identify with any race or combination of races and those diverse cultures are found across Erie.
Salvador Velez says, “You have Cubans in here. Puerto Ricans. I mean… you pretty much name any one of them and there’s at least some population presence here.”
These countries and territories were recently celebrated at Erie’s 3rd Annual Hispanic Heritage Festival in September, hosted by the Erie Latino Leadership Association.
Norma Upperman says, “I wanted to start giving back to the community as well, and I thought the Hispanic community needed more representation. And so, that’s what we want to do.”
Representation like Erie Police Officer Salvador Velez, one of four on the force who identify as Hispanic. Velez’s father moved from the island to New York in the 1960’s and to Erie by the 70’s. It was here where Velez was born.
He tells us, “Nowadays, it’s probably a little different with internet and everything else. Everything from cable tv and everything else compared to when my father came. It was limited. My father tells that me he remembers getting the paper in New York and using that to help him learn English.”
The patrolman, who’s been with the department for over 16 years, says his background helps during encounters with Latinos and other residents. “Just a general interaction is going to be–you’re paying respect to how things might work. And it kind of also makes me aware, even outside of my own to be aware of those from different customs and races and nationalities.”
According to the 2017 US Census, Hispanics represent over 7% of the city’s population or more than 7,000 residents. They include Erieites like David Gonzalez, who became the city’s first Hispanic council member in 2006. He was appointed to fill the remaining two years vacated by then-newly elected mayor, Joe Sinnott.
He says, “It’s amazing how many opportunities have come up with just a phone call. So, I don’t want to take the credit for that position on city council. I certainly did the best that I could with what I had. I’m proud of my record, but I tell you I don’t know if it’s anything that I did to deserve to be there. I really think it was a God thing very much so.”
Born to Puerto Rican parents in Mexico, Gonzalez has had US citizenship since birth, but the transition to the mainland during his freshman year of high school did not come without challenges. “It is a different world and people sort have a different expectation of what you should look like and what you should be.”
Today, he’s the CEO at the Saint Martin Center, a Catholic Services Agency that helps families with financial literacy, counseling and more. “Not everybody has to follow the same path that I did, which has always been the nonprofit sector. There could be many other ways, but the reality is that Latinos are needed in every sector, which is ultimately going to help us to move Erie forward.”
So, Erie, let’s continue to move forward.