Special thanks to Dr. Ivette Guzmán Zavala for granting permission to use her photographs.
For the last several years, the research of two professors at Lebanon Valley College has been instrumental in drawing attention to the remarkable social and cultural influence of the Latin American diaspora in Central Pennsylvania, which can be traced as far back as the American Revolution.
Dr. Ivette Guzmán Zavala and Dr. John Hinshaw met at the college in 2008 when they were pursuing similar but initially unrelated research on Latinx communities in Lebanon County. Both of their projects were centered around interviews and the personal experiences of migrants and individuals living within the Latin American diaspora, and their combined research project has retained this strong focus on individual experience, attempting to retrieve marginalized and forgotten stories and make them more accessible to a general audience.
For years, Guzmán Zavala, as a Puerto Rican professor of Spanish, had been interested in strengthening connections between the college and Spanish-speaking communities in Lebanon. Prior to collaborating with Hinshaw, she had been working to provide opportunities for Spanish students at Lebanon Valley to engage with native Spanish speakers off-campus, often during interviews at local churches.
“It was just to practice language — that was the idea,” she said. “As I started listening to students’ conversations, I was like, this is really interesting. We started collecting some of those interviews in English and Spanish.”
At the same time, Hinshaw, as a professor of history, was pursuing research that was also focused on the Latinx diaspora in Central Pennsylvania, which he sensed could somehow connect with his predominant interest in industrialization. As part of this project, Hinshaw had also been conducting interviews in the community with his history students.
Both Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw instantly recognized the importance of the stories that they were gathering with their classes and began thinking about how to make them relevant and accessible to a larger audience. When they began working together, the project really started to take off.
Since the start of their collaboration, Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw have given numerous talks about their research and published several articles on the Latinx communities of Central Pennsylvania. Additionally, they have created the exhibition “Dutchirican: A Latinx History of Central Pennsylvania,” which has previously been on display at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lebanon Valley College Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery, and Street Road Artists’ Space in Chester County.
Their work has continued to focus on the history of migration of Latinx communities to Lebanon County, and throughout much of their research, they have given specific attention to the relationship between the Puerto Rican diaspora and the Mennonites of Central Pennsylvania, which has been much more significant than many people might initially realize.
Migration to Lebanon County
While there have been Spanish speakers in Central Pennsylvania as early as the American Revolution, the population greatly increased during the 1940s, when many Puerto Ricans came to Pennsylvania as temporary farm laborers. Colloquially, they were known as tomateros — tomato pickers.
“Canning tomatoes became an important source of revenue for small-scale farmers in the Lancaster area,” Hinshaw said. “This was a cash crop that they could make good money for, and their big shortcoming was that they could raise one to five acres just with family labor, but if they wanted to get any bigger than that and make more money, they had to hire seasonal workers.”
As Hinshaw notes, this labor was both physically demanding and highly skilled. These seasonal workers had to be familiar with the agricultural industry and willing to perform hard labor. It was this kind of familiar work in the fields that brought many Puerto Rican migrants to rural areas like Lebanon County.
“[These farms] were pivotal because that is an early way that a lot of Puerto Ricans came to rural Central Pennsylvania,” Hinshaw said. “They came to pick tomatoes as a seasonal crop. It actually fit nicely with the downtime in the sugar industry in Puerto Rico, which was dominant in the 1940s.”
At this time in Puerto Rico, the sugar industry only required intensive labor for several months, which meant that many workers were left unemployed for a significant part of the year. Many Puerto Ricans soon began venturing to Central Pennsylvania during the offseason of sugar production, where they found work on the farms. The temporary nature of this work often resulted in cyclical migration patterns between the United States and Puerto Rico, which allowed them to work year-round.
In addition to Puerto Rican migrants, there were many other groups of Latin Americans venturing to the United States during this timeframe. In 1942, the Bracero Program was established, allowing for Mexican workers to legally enter the United States for temporary agricultural work, although it would be terminated later in 1964, due in large part to the frequent exploitation of Mexican laborers.
In contrast to other Latin Americans, Puerto Ricans have occupied a much different position in the context of foreign labor. Given their United States citizenship, they were not considered foreign workers, but neither were they considered domestic workers. As Hinshaw has put it, legally, they were citizens of the United States but, culturally, they were never considered Americans.
Their liminal status has been the focus of many researchers within the field of Latin American and migration studies, and Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw have contributed to these discussions with their work. Although their findings reflect the relationships that flourished between Puerto Rican migrants and the Pennsylvania Dutch, they have also gone into more depth regarding the inequities intrinsic to these labor structures, specific to the Puerto Ricans in Lebanon and Lancaster.
According to Hinshaw, the relationship was a fair trade in the sense that farmers provided work and housing for tomateros, but ultimately unequal insofar as these migrants worked long, hard hours in the fields, and their living arrangements often amounted to little more than sheds or converted chicken houses. Retaining dignity and composure despite the demeaning nature of this work has provided a strong theme for Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw’s informational exhibition, which represents years of their research.
The Dutchirican Exhibition
Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw first debuted “Dutchirican: A Latinx History of Central Pennsylvania” in 2017. The primarily visual exhibition blends art and photography with historical information to tell the story of Latin American migrant workers in Central Pennsylvania.
“’Dutchirican,’ the word came from one of the interviews,” Guzmán Zavala said. “Pedro Cruz, he is Puerto Rican. When we were interviewing him, he said, ‘I am . . .’ He was struggling to find a word, and he said, ‘I am a Dutchirican.’ We were like, that’s the title.”
Cruz, like many Puerto Ricans who have spent a significant part of their lives in Central Pennsylvania, identified strongly with both the community of Lebanon and the Puerto Rican diaspora. The word has been a fitting title for the exhibition.
One of the exhibit’s most prominent visual displays is a replica of a chicken house, which Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw recreated themselves. It was inspired by the real chicken houses where migrant workers would have lived in Central Pennsylvania, and they took painstaking measures to ensure its authenticity and resemblance to these original structures.
The inscription painted on the interior wall is of particular significance. It was inspired by the remains of a chicken house where Puerto Rican migrants lived during the 1950s, which were salvaged by Ramona Rivera Santiago, the daughter of one of the men who lived there. She saved an entire wall, on which were painted two messages that Guzmán Zavala carefully repainted on the replica in the exhibit to appear exactly as they did in the original shed. Both Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw have found these messages compelling, and in many ways, they have become symbolic of the significance and the purpose of their overarching project.
“There’s a story there that needs to be heard, that needs to be shared,” Guzmán Zavala said. “I tried to paint it as close as I could to the way that he wrote it. Even if there were things he crossed out, I crossed them out again because we wanted to honor that voice.”
“It’s this kind of cry, that as a historian, I find very compelling,” Hinshaw said. “He’s saying ‘remember us.’ It says literally ‘remember of Pedro Ventura 1955,’ but basically, it’s a cry to say, ‘we were here, we contributed, we were voiceless.’ A lot of what Ivette and I are trying to do in this exhibit is give voice to [that experience].”
In addition to the recreated chicken house, the exhibit also focuses on religion, which Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw see as an important dimension to migrant experiences in Central Pennsylvania. The strong ties between the Puerto Ricans and the Mennonites are represented in the exhibition with photographs that have been made available by local families and organizations like the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. In several lectures, Hinshaw has explained the origin of these connections between the Puerto Ricans and the Mennonites.
“Early on, at least in Lancaster, you start to see a lot of the Mennonite farmers wanted to evangelize the Puerto Ricans who were there,” Hinshaw said. “So the idea that they promoted was essentially the idea that friends in the field became brothers in the church.”
The relationship between these communities was arguably solidified as early as the 1940s, when many American Mennonites, as conscientious objectors to World War II, performed alternative military service in La Plata, Puerto Rico. In the following years, Mennonites and Puerto Ricans would travel more frequently between Aibonito and Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rican Mennonite communities eventually began to emerge in both areas.
The establishment of these communities in Puerto Rico meant the creation of Mennonite churches on the island in addition to the Mennonite General Hospital of Aibonito in 1947. As part of their research, Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw have visited Aibonito and interviewed local Puerto Ricans, many of whom were directly affected by the hospital. As one of them put it, the Mennonites woke up the whole island.
The exhibition also contains information on the Fresh Air Fund, a program that contributed to the connections between Puerto Ricans and Central Pennsylvania Mennonite communities. It began in 1877 with the goal of allowing children living in New York City’s disadvantaged communities to spend time in the countryside during the summer. In the 1950s, Puerto Rican children were provided opportunities to visit Central Pennsylvania. Throughout their stay, these children had a lasting influence on the community.
“It’s an interesting symbiotic process,” Hinshaw said. “For many of these Mennonite families, this was their first contact with Puerto Ricans or people of color.”
Throughout their research, Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw have followed the story of Vicky Martinez, one of the children who participated in the Fresh Air Fund, and traced the strong impact that she left upon the Central Pennsylvania community.
During interviews, Elaine Showalter, the daughter of a Mennonite farmer who hosted children, reflected nostalgically on her first encounter with Vicky. Showalter specifically recalled how her brightly colored clothing stood out and how it smelled unfamiliar and exotic. She described Vicky as a breath of fresh air that brought new life to her home.
The exhibition also displays photographs taken by the Puerto Rican photojournalist Frank Espada, who is perhaps best known for his collection “The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People.” His several photographs included in the exhibit portray members of the Puerto Rican diaspora living in Central Pennsylvania.
In addition, the exhibit includes photographs which were taken by Rolfe Ross, a photographer and visual artist based in Northeastern Pennsylvania, whose more contemporary images also highlight the people that are central to the construction of these communities and the creation of a Dutchirican identity.
“We are very pleased he allowed us to use them,” said Hinshaw. “Rolfe Ross’ images show both the poignancy and the centrality of family and that that’s why people are doing this incredibly hard work.”
Along with the work of Espada and Ross, Guzmán Zavala also displays her own photographs from Caras de Lebanon, which portray members of the Latinx community. This collection captures the spirit of this community with photographs from St. Benedict the Abbot Church’s celebration of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a Catholic feast day celebrated in Mexico that has been adopted in Lebanon by other members of the Latinx community. For Guzmán Zavala, this epitomizes the exchange of culture here in Central Pennsylvania.
“It’s a transnational practice — the music, the food after the event, the dance also,” she said. “The dresses, some of them are brought directly from Mexico. It’s this pride to show off your own culture.”
The other work in her collection portrays many local businesses of Lebanon, including bodegas, establishments originally made popular in New York by Puerto Rican and other Latin American entrepreneurs. Talking about her photography, Guzmán Zavala has commented upon the willingness to participate among members of the Latinx community.
“I think there is still sort of that desire to say we’re here, this is who we are, don’t get the wrong idea about us, we’re here, we work, and like I said, we want to be portrayed with dignity,” she said.
Much of Guzmán Zavala’s photography within the community was facilitated by Guadalupe Barba and Juntos de Lebanon, a cultural and educational organization officially founded in 2013.
The Dutchirican exhibition also includes a display on Hispanic figures who have been central to the creation of the United States, among them Francisco de Miranda, who was a major figure in the American Revolutionary War; John Ortega, who, as a resident of Pennsylvania, became the first Hispanic sailor to be awarded the United States Congressional Medal of Honor; and Henry Pleasants, an Argentinian, who served as a Union lieutenant commander in the American Civil War.
“I think it is important to remember that while there weren’t large numbers of Latinx people at that time, there were some, and they were contributing to the creation of the American Republic, defending it in times of extreme danger, and were part and parcel of making Pennsylvania what it is today,” Hinshaw said.
This research has ultimately allowed Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw to help reinforce the connection between Lebanon Valley College and the Latin American communities of Central Pennsylvania, which was one of the central goals of the project from the start. While on display at the college, the Dutchirican exhibition was highly successful, with an impressive turnout among community members.
In addition, the activities that Guzmán Zavala plans for the annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration at the college are open to the public.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, these activities have been limited, and the Dutchirican exhibit is not currently on display, although Guzmán Zavala and Hinshaw are hoping to make it available to the public once again sometime during the upcoming 2022-23 academic year.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the project is welcome to contact Hinshaw at [email protected].
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