As industry and opportunity blossomed in the United States in the late 19th century and the early part of the last century, many immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe ventured to Washington and Greene counties after they cleared Ellis Island to work in the coal mines and factories where jobs were plentiful and the promise of a new life beckoned.
The newcomers were not always welcome in their adopted home and were sometimes subjected to discrimination or disdain – when 26 people were killed in a stampede at the Morgan Opera House in Canonsburg in 1911, to cite one example, the borough’s newspaper, The Canonsburg Daily Notes, remarked condescendingly that “the foreign people especially were emotional and with difficulty were restrained from rushing in where they supposed their friends to be lying dead.” But the byways and customs that the immigrants brought a century ago from their native lands undeniably added to the color and richness of the region’s fabric.
Over the last half-century or so, as manufacturing has declined, the flow of immigrants to this region has slowed to a barely detectable trickle. When we have heard about America becoming a more diverse place, it seemed to be something that was happening elsewhere.
That, however, is beginning to change.
As business writer Rick Shrum detailed in two stories that appeared in the Sunday edition of the Observer-Reporter, the Hispanic community in Washington and Greene counties is gaining in numbers and visibility. From 2000 to 2010, according to figures provided by the U.S. Census, the Hispanic population of Washington County increased by 102 percent, while Greene County saw a 30 percent uptick. Their presence is being felt in schools, churches and many other parts of the community. A Roman Catholic church in Muse delivers its Mass in Spanish to satisfy parishioners who speak the language, in the same way that Lutheran churches on these shores once offered services in German or Russian Orthodox churches imparted their homilies and lessons in the mother tongue. Canonsburg’s police force has added an officer who is fluent in Spanish in order to converse with a larger Hispanic population within the borough, and in nearby Cecil Township.
“When I came here, there were few Hispanic people,” resident Erenia Karamcheti told Shrum. “That number is growing.”
The growth of the Hispanic population in this region is in keeping with broader national trends. The United States as a whole saw the Hispanic population increase by 15 million people, or 43 percent, between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census, with Sun Belt cities like Phoenix, Atlanta and Houston seeing thousands of new residents from places like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and El Salvador. But even cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago, which have not seen the same levels of migration, are also feeling the effects of an increased Hispanic presence – flip around the radio dial in either of those cities and you’ll find Spanish-language radio stations. Grab a remote, and you’ll find Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univision given prominent slots in basic-cable lineups. The website of one Chicago suburban newspaper presents its news in both English and Spanish.
But those changes will eventually reach Pittsburgh and, by extension, Washington and Greene counties. And they should be embraced. As the poet Maya Angelou once wisely noted, “in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”