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Lancaster County is drawing Latinos

Their numbers have surpassed those of the Amish. Newer businesses reflect the change.

LANCASTER, Pa. - Lancaster's rolling hills are steeped in the traditions of the Amish, whose plain dress and humility are as much a tourist lure as their quilts and pies.

But, as an iconic symbol, this Lancaster image could need a revision. Instead of Zerbe's potato chips, think chicharrones. Egg casserole? How about chilaquiles? Pulled pork? Did someone say lechón asado?

Increasingly, the flavors of this south-central Pennsylvania region - famous for its mud sales and outlets - bear a marked Latin accent that goes beyond language and cuisine.

Latinos have forged a foothold in Lancaster County. In recent years, their population numbers have quietly surpassed those of the Amish.

About 45,000 Latinos live in Lancaster County, according to the 2010 census. The census does not track the Amish or plain communities in Lancaster County. But in 2010, the Elizabethtown College center that studies the Amish estimated about 30,000 living in the county.

The Latino population in Lancaster County has grown by 68 percent in the last 10 years, the fifth-largest gain in Latinos statewide.

In the city of Lancaster, nearly two out of every five city residents trace their ethnicity to Mexico, Cuba, or elsewhere in Latin America.

About half of the county's Latinos live in the city. The city's Latino population grew to 23,329 in the last census, an increase of 35 percent.

But the growth goes beyond the city.

These days, small grocery stores catering to Latinos dot the farm roads that wind through sprawling Amish farm country. Route 322 just east of Ephrata is horse-and-buggy domain, but La Borimex offers an outpost for tamales and other Mexican foods. A new restaurant, Aromas Del Sur, offers Colombian fare just down the road from the Ephrata Cloister, the landmark site preserving the religious community established by German settlers in the 1700s.

The county boasts two Spanish-language radio stations and a newspaper.

Latinos have established businesses and cultural networks, securing positions on City Council and leadership of the school district. The Lancaster General Hospital website offers Spanish translation, and the city is home to the only officially Latino-designated Catholic parish in the Harrisburg Diocese.

"Hispanics are becoming more and more engaged, invited, and more of a participant in the wider community," said the Rev. Allan Wolfe, pastor at San Juan Bautista Church, which offers 10 scheduled weekly Masses - all but one in Spanish. His parishioners come from all over the county.

"Gradually, more Hispanics are finding their place in roles throughout the community, in the police and fire department, hospitals," said Wolfe, who has been at San Juan Bautista since 1997. "It's a gradual growing into the various components of our society."

A wave of immigration has fueled the surging Latino population.

"For me - my cousins convinced me to come. Maybe the money wasn't great, but it was secure," said Javier Segura, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, who arrived in Mount Joy in 1991 to wash dishes at a local restaurant, joining only a few other Latino families living in the town at the time.

Segura scraped all of his earnings together and, in 2004, opened El Pueblito, a small grocery shop that initially floundered on word-of-mouth advertising. The shop has outgrown the growing clientele, and Segura, who lives in Lititz, is relocating to a larger site.

"Thank God it has provided a way of life," said Segura, who, along with wife Selena, became a U.S. citizen in 2001. Their four children were born in the United States. "We had not thought we would stay here, but now our kids are growing up and it's difficult [to leave]."

As much as Segura represents this thriving Latino community, a large sector of Lancaster Latinos can trace family back for generations.

"The Latino population is not only diverse, it runs the continuum of people who are very traditional and speak only Spanish to those more mainstream who speak only English," said Lillian Escobar-Haskins, a writer and researcher of the state's Latino population.

"In reality, Latinos are acculturating just like other populations that came before. We just happen to be new," she said.

Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, said the growth in Latinos in the county has coincided with the migration of Amish and other plain-dressing groups - Old Order Mennonite and Conservative Mennonite - to Kentucky, New York, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

"Since then, you have a dribble of families leaving each year, basically looking for cheaper land and more rural conditions where they might be more cloistered and sheltered," Kraybill said. "It's been sort of a steady dribble."