For Allentown Latinos, ending English as city’s official language would excise a hateful legacy

Latinos now make up 54 percent of the Lehigh Valley city’s population. A ballot question aims to get rid of the 1990s-era holdover

By: - October 28, 2021 10:55 am

A view of the skyline in Allentown, Pa. (Getty Images)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — In 1992, provoked by a state Department of Transportation bridge sign written in Spanish, then-Allentown City Councilmember Emma Tropiano introduced a resolution to make English the official language of the city.

The late Tropiano, the daughter of Italian immigrants, was a populist whose quality-of-life platform included banning sofas on porches.

But the Democrat directed most of her racist vitriol toward Hispanics, then roughly 12% of Allentown’s population, falsely blaming them for 99% of the city’s crime.

It would be two years before council would approve the resolution, which, though legally unenforceable, directed that city business be conducted in English. Voters would formally enshrine it in the original city charter in 1996.

Yamelisa Taveras, founder and director of non-profit Unidos Foundation, said eliminating Allentown’s English-only provision from Allentown’s charter is a human rights and accessibility issue (Photo via Yamelisa Taveras).

Twenty-five years later, the English-only provision still stands even as Hispanics now make up 54% of the city’s 121,252 residents, the police chief and fire chief are both Hispanic, and the two candidates for mayor are of Hispanic descent.

That’s why Allentown City Council voted to place a referendum on the November ballot to remove provision from the charter.

“I think this is the right time to do it. It sends a bad message to the diverse community we have, said council President Julio Guridy, a prime sponsor of the effort. “[The English-only provision] sends a bad message to the diverse community we have.”

Yamelisa Taveras, the 36-year-old founder and director of non-profit Unidos Foundation, agreed. 

“Her impact is still felt today as we, as Hispanics, living in a county that continues to dismiss our contributions and existence, despite making up the majority of the city of Allentown, and being the largest Latino county in the state of [Pennsylvania]  per capita,” she said.

Baffling Ballot Question

Allentown voters passed the English-only charter provision at a time when such laws were gaining popularity across the U.S.

Some 32 states have designated English as their official language, though some such as Hawaii and Alaska list native languages as other official languages.

The group U.S. English continues to promote national legislation and points to a Rasmussen poll in April that the pollster said showed 73% of adult Americans think English should be the official language of the U.S. 

Whether Allentown’s ballot question is approved could be more dependent on the language of the referendum than changing voter sentiment.

The ballot question itself simply asks, “Shall paragraph B of Section 101 of the City of Allentown Home Rule Charter be removed from the Charter?”

It is only with the accompanying plain language explanation that voters can find out what they would be saying “yes” or “no” to. The plain language, however, is not listed on the ballot but will appear on signs at polling places. 

“It’s just messed up,” said Erika M. Sutherland, a community activist and Spanish professor at Muhlenberg College who helps train interpreters for Lehigh County polling places.

She said it’s perplexing because a ballot question on whether to allow city fire personnel to live five miles outside the city contains the section of the Home Rule Charter as well as a clear explanation.

“Is it something that was a careless mistake?” Sutherland told the Capital-Star. . “I do wonder.”

Guridy said he isn’t sure how the ballot question came to be written without reference to the English-only provision.

Under state statute, the county board of elections is charged with framing the question to be placed on the ballot. 

Read More:
Allentown voters will decide whether to remove English as the city’s official language. They may not realize it’s based on the ballot question (The Morning Call)

But Timothy Benyo, chief clerk of Registration and Elections in Lehigh County, said Allentown sent his office a copy of the resolution, which specifically directs the county to place a referendum on the ballot using the exact words now on the ballot. The resolution also mentions the English-only provision twice.  

Benyo also said the city signed off on the wording.

What irks Guridy and others is that early mail-in ballots contained no plain-language wording, leaving absentee voters with no way of knowing what they were voting on.

To help correct  the matter, Benyo said mail-in ballots that went out after Oct. 18 contained a copy of the plain language explanation.

State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, , whose district includes parts of Allentown, said there is nothing that can be done about the current situation.

“I think it was just an error,” he told the Capital-Star, , adding that the question could be posed again next year if it’s voted down.

Schlossberg said he plans to introduce state legislation that would require plain language materials to be included in absentee ballots.

Based on phone calls to his office, Schlossberg feels there is strong support for the measure.

“I think it will pass despite the confusion,” he said.  

Excising Tropiano’s legacy

Sutherland said the English-only provision is largely symbolic and that the city has made great strides in translating information into Spanish and other languages.

Still, she said, the provision casts a pall over Hispanics and others who do not speak English as a first language.

Sutherland, who is white, said she felt it first-hand when she and her husband Jose Cooper, who is Black and from Panama, moved to Allentown in 1995. Tropiano’s name quickly came up and made them think twice about where to live. 

“Perception matters. It matters that you have it officially on the books,” she said.

Taveras, who also is CEO of Counseling Solutions of the  Lehigh Valley, said she learned of Tropiano’s “legacy of racism and divisive rhetoric” from the book “Hidden from History: The Latino Community of Allentown, Pennsylvania” by former Muhlenberg professor Anna Adams.

Adams, who could not  be reached for comment, devoted a full chapter to Tropiano. At her death, Adams told The Morning Call that Tropiano’s remarks “could be fairly interpreted as racist no matter what she thought she was saying.”

Taveras was shocked by what she learned. She called eliminating the provision from the charter a human rights and accessibility issue.

“The demographics of Allentown have never been English only. Therefore, this is a paragraph that should have never been in the Home Rule Charter,” she said.

For Guridy, the repeal would be a fitting end to his career on council. He is leaving office in December after choosing to run for mayor instead of council. 

He lost in the primary to Matt Tuerk, the grandson of a Cuban immigrant, who will square off against Republican Tim Ramos, whose parents are Puerto Rican. 

Back in Tropiano’s heyday, Guridy, who is from the Dominican Republic, was working in banking but also was a community activist.

He watched as Tropiano’s racist tirades caught the attention of The New York Times, which featured her in a 1994 Sunday magazine piece called “The Latinization of Allentown, Pa.” 

He decided to confront Tropiano after she boldly claimed that Hispanics preferred to sit on their porches and wait for welfare checks.

Standing up at a meeting, Guridy told Tropiano, “I take exception to that.”

“You know what she said? She said, ‘Mr. Guridy, if the shoe fits, wear it,’” recalled Guridy, who has a  bachelor’s degree in sociology from East Stroudsburg University and a master’s degree in sociology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The exchange spurred Guridy to educate himself on city matters and run for city council in 2001. He ended up winning a seat and seeing Tropiano ousted from office.

She died barely two months later on Jan. 9 at age 71 of what her family described as an intestinal blockage. 

“I hope we get it out of the city charter, Guridy said. “It was mean-spirited legislation back in the 90s. We should not act that way anymore.”

Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers the Lehigh Valley for the Capital-Star. 

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Katherine Reinhard
Katherine Reinhard

Katherine Reinhard, a veteran journalist, is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Lehigh Valley Correspondent and a co-editor of Armchair Lehigh Valley, a Substack newsletter focused on politics in the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton region.