Erenia Karamcheti has a keen perspective on Latin life. She was born and raised in Nicaragua, and when civil war was in full roar, she went to college in Honduras, earning bachelor’s and law degrees.
She returned to her home country, where she met Adi Karamcheti on New Year’s Eve 1998. He was in the Peace Corps, a Washington kid whose parents also originated in a foreign land, India. Erenia and Adi married in August 2000 and moved in with his parents that November.
The young bride was happy but in a quandary. She spoke only Spanish in a land where English was predominant, and in a region where longtime locals infamously slaughter their native tongue. And there were few people with Hispanic origins in Washington or Greene counties with whom she could associate or relate.
Erenia Karamcheti may have seemed lost initially in Washington County, but found herself. She learned English from her father-in-law, a urologist, and her mother-in-law, a librarian, and by reading the Observer-Reporter diligently, Over time, Karamcheti refined her speech to a point of fluency that she serves effectively as a Spanish-English translator and a substitute teacher’s aide for Community Action Southwest in Washington.
Twelve years after arriving here, she is driven to help others, on the job and elsewhere. Karamcheti remembers her early struggles in a new country, the alienation she sometimes felt, and wants to help people experience a better life – especially if they are in a new situation.
“I have an opportunity to help people,” she said.
She couldn’t be in a better spot at a more ideal time for the local Hispanic community.
Washington and Greene counties are experiencing a boom in Hispanic immigration, thanks largely to burgeoning Marcellus Shale job opportunities and partly to other vocational openings. The collective Hispanic population of the two counties increased 85 percent from the 2000 to 2010 Census, and the percentage is likely going up.
“When I came here, there were few Hispanic people,” Erenia Karamcheti said. “That number is growing.”
“If you look at census figures from Pennsylvania and Western Pennsylvania, the Hispanic population is behind the rest of the country,” said Adi Karamcheti. “But they have been coming to work on farms and now in gas. They come because a lot of people already living here don’t have experience in those types of work.
“One thing I’m seeing is a lot of license plates from other states.”
Not all of those out-of-state plates belong to cars of Hispanic people, of course. And a certain number of gas well employees will not be included in any census numbers because they move around every few months, to other states where their skills are needed at a new site.
So, as any sports fan can attest, statistics can be deceptive. Yet they can be interesting.
U.S. Census Bureau data show that from 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population of Washington County increased an amazing 102 percent, from from 1,170 to 2,366. Greene rose 30 percent (357 to 465).
Estimated Census numbers for 2011 show that Washington gained 462 people overall from 2010, while Greene lost 63. It cannot be determined how many of those gained or lost are Hispanic, but the estimated Hispanic population for each county was 1.2 percent – well below Pennsylvania’s 5.9 percent and the nation’s 8.3 percent.
It is believed that many Hispanic citizens who have relocated to Washington County have done so in the city of Washington, Canonsburg and Cecil Township. Data at datacenter.kidscount.org – which breaks down ethnic populations of public school districts nationwide – bear that out to a degree.
According to the site, Washington School District has the highest Hispanic population among 14 county districts with 1.6 percent, followed by Peters (1.4), Canon-McMillan (1.2), Chartiers-Houston (1.2), Charleroi (0.9), Ringgold (0.8), Bentworth (0.8) and Trinity (0.6).
Carmichaels, with a Hispanic population of 1.0 percent, was the only district of the five in Greene County to have a number significant enough to be listed.
The superintendents at Trinity and Canon-McMillan reported little, if any, change in the Hispanic makeup of their districts.
Michael Daniels said there are 56 Hispanic students in Canon-McMillan, down from 57 each of the two previous school years, “I see people movijng here from Texas, but not necessarily permanently,” he said. “We have to make sure they are residing in our district. They are in hotels and motels.”
Paul Kasunich said about 50 students “predominantly from Texas” moved into the district after the last school year, but did not impact the Hispanic makeup of his district, which has 16 Hispanic students.
That isn’t the case in the city.
Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo is in her 16th year in the Washington district, and from 1999 through the 2010-11 school year, she had witnessed an annual decline in kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment. Then the figure rose to 1,515 last school year and is at 1,515 now.
A dramatic rise in Hispanic enrollment the past three years has helped fuel that increase. DiLorenzo said the district had 35 Hispanic students in 2010-11, then 66 in 2011-12 – an 89 percent spike. There are 77 this year.
“We’re looking at it as a renewal of our community,” DiLorenzo said. “There are people looking to be employed and this strengthens the diversity of the area. We hope all families who move in stay in the area.”
Michele Radachy, an English as a Second Language instructor for the Washington schools, said there are currently 12 students in her class and all are Hispanic and speak Spanish.
“Most are Mexican,” she said. “Some are from Puerto Rico and some are from El Salvador.
“The nice thing about my job is I have all good kids. The parents are as involved as they can be because this is an opportunity for their children.
“If I have to tell the kids, “Don’t make me call your mother,’ they straighten up and are angels.”
The Karamchetis live in Washington and have two sons, Ram, 7, and Annan, 6, who attend John F. Kennedy parochial school in the city. The boys speak three languages: English, Spanish and Telegu. The third is an Indian language courtesy of their grandfather.
“We tell the boys they’re half-Nicaraguan, half-Indian and 100 percent American,” said Adi Karamcheti, a sales representative for FedEx in Moon.
From experience, his wife can relate and understand challenges facing Hispanic people in this region. And some challenges are daunting, to be sure.
“One problem with the Spanish community is they don’t have insurance, they don’t speak the language and they don’t see a doctor,” she said.
In an effort to enhance the physical well-being of Hispanic women, Erenia Karamcheti is involved with a research project, “Sisters in Health,” which strives to prevent cervical cancer. Participants don’t have to pay.
Finding a home and fending off poverty are other issues.
“It’s hard to find a house to rent because so many people are coming here,” said Karamcheti, who did just that. A friend was hoping to rent her house, and Karamcheti linked her up with Agustin Berumen, who needed a home for himself, his wife and four children. Berumen owns the recently opened Las Palmas Mexican grocery in Washington with his four brothers, and the new digs enabled him to be close to work, not 25 miles away in the Carrick section of Pittsburgh.
Karamcheti has been working for two years at Community Action Southwest, 150 W. Beau St., Washington, which has a goal of wiping out poverty. She works with a number of Hispanic children there.
Then there is the language gap, which is a struggle for too many in the Hispanic community. “It’s hard to learn English here because it’s hard to find teachers.”
Erenia Karamcheti does a lot of teaching at her church, Holy Rosary in the Muse section of Cecil Township. She leads the children’s catechism class and provides instruction for First Holy Communion and confirmation.
Hispanic people work hard to get ahead in the region. Literally.
A number of gas well jobs pay well, but they can dangerous, the labor is grueling and 14-hour days are common.
Farming in Washington County is a tradition for some Mexican families. The work isn’t easy, especially in the summer, but it’s steady.
Simmons Farm in Peters Township is one of the farms in the county that hires Hispanic people. Owner Scott Simmons said his farm has employed Mexican workers for 20 years. Some spend the winter back home, but three families with permanent residence status live on the farm property year-round.
“About 80 or 90 percent come from the same town, Vieja Jimenez,” Simmons said. “All of the ones we hire come back repeatedly.”
Jose and Mariana Munoz, spouses from Canonsburg, came to America in 1980 to be landscapers. He now works at an orchard in Hickory, she at two jobs: at a fabric store in Bridgeville and as a cleaning person at Rolling Hills Country Club. Catalino Mejia of Canonsburg is a bricklayer for Ryan Homes.
The hospitality industry, growing thanks to Marcellus Shale, appeals to some. More intrepid ones try to start businesses, against the odds. It’s a tough economy.
Hispanic-owned companies are rare in these two counties: only 0.8 percent in Washington and fewer than 100 in Greene. But two have become fairly well-known.
Berumen, 33, opened Las Palmas about two months ago. It’s the first Mexican grocery store in Washington County, and he is pleased with how it has fared.
“We were doing good when we started,” he said. “Business has been a little less since school started, but it’s been good.”
Spouses Dora and Fidel Valdovinos have an established business, Old Mexico, a Mexican restaurant on Oak Spring Road in South Strabane Township. They have moved to a roomier site nearby on Murtland Avenue, and will open for lunch at 11 a.m. Monday.
They appear to be doing well, growing the business they launched in 2001 along with their partner, Santiago Solorio, who lives in Alabama. The three owners opened a second local restaurant in Belle Vernon, and Dora said they are considering a third.
“I never thought it would be like this,” Dora said. “When we opened, it was very, very slow. It took about five years.”
Increased advertising and word of mouth helped, she acknowledged.
More growth seen
With Marcellus expected to continue to be bountiful, hotels being built, farms always needing laborers and other businesses developing, people will likely continue to relocate to this region. The growth in the Hispanic community may continue.
Erenia and Adi Karamcheti are gratified by the possibilities, about the revitalization that could occur. A latter-day melting pot could result.
But the concept of a melting pot raises a concern.
“We wonder how the community handles this,” Adi said. “My wife says people have been very welcoming and friendly. What we worry about is as (the Hispanic influence) increases, will they feel the same way?”