Sunday March 27, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Seven years ago, Miguel and Liliana Gomez saw the influx of people from Latino nations as a business opportunity and opened their restaurant, La Fogata, on Tyler Street.

The 2010 census put numbers to the Gomez's observations -- the Latino population in Berkshire County has more than doubled in 10 years, to 4,530 people, or 3.5 percent of the county's population.

Some maintain that figure is significantly lower than the reality, but either way, signs of the cultural and economic effects on the county can easily be seen.

"We estimate the census data is low," said Hilary Greene, director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield. "We estimate the total immigrant population is 10,000 to 12,000. About 65 percent of those we serve are Hispanic -- that's between 6,000 and 7,000 people."

"That's why we opened the restaurant, because we saw the rise [in Latino residents] and we saw the need," said Liliana Gomez, co-owner of La Fogata. "So we decided to take advantage of that."

At a time when census figures are showing that the percentage of white residents has declined by about 0.4 percent, Greene noted, Latinos coming into the county are filling the gap in terms of labor and consumerism.

Latinos drawn to county

In a county increasingly geared to the service industry, young whites are finding it difficult to find work in their fields that would allow them to reside in their native Berkshire County surroundings.


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So while they are leaving to find careers, young Latinos are being drawn here to find work.

"It is important that we have this influx of population to fill the jobs that might go unfilled," Greene said. "And the great thing about Latinos is that they're coming here at a young age and starting families at a time when much of the population is aging and we have this out-migration of young adults happening."

Recently released census figures show that the county has 131,219 residents, with 105,595 of them over 18 years old.

"Immigration is highly driven by economics," said Eleanore Velez, the multicultural coordinator at Berkshire Community College. "And the void being created [by out-migration of the young] is being filled by younger immigrants who are willing to do the work."

The influx of Latinos has also resulted in a variety of economic trends, including an increase in Hispanic offerings in restaurants and food stores like La Fogata.

Bilingual summer camp

In Great Barrington, the Berkshire South Regional Community Center has been offering a bilingual summer day camp for four years which has attracted not only Latinos, but children from white families as well. It is the only summer day camp offered at the center, and in it the children are taught both Spanish and English.

"That program was created to reflect the increasing need and the visible influx of Hispanics in the community," said Jenise Lucey, executive director at the center. "It allows parents to continue to work by bringing their children here for the day. And it's very beneficial for anyone to be exposed to new cultures and enhanced language skills."

The nature of he Latino population landing in Berkshire County is quite different than has been depicted by anti-immigration advocates.

In fact, many of them have high levels of education in their native lands. Left behind were careers as attorneys, doctors, and accountants. Here they are moving into other fields in areas like hospitality and landscaping.

Underemployed, unemployed

The Migration Policy Institute estimated that 1.2 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. are underemployed, with about 350,000 of them unemployed, out of a total of 6.7 million immigrants.

"Here we have accountants and lawyers washing dishes," Velez noted. "To come to a place when you can be something else can be scary. It takes courage and it takes time."

She added that "slackers" aren't the type to engage in such a laborious undertaking. And it takes a long time to see social and professional growth. For many of them, it takes a generation or two to see their family members beginning to advance in terms of income and education.

And they arrive with some of the same qualities that were so important in the early years of growth for Berkshire County.

"They have to have hope, and a thirst for making a better life for themselves and their families," Velez said. "So I do respect the tenacity and hard work that most immigrants demonstrate."

The Associated Press contributed data to this report.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6241.