The Daily Item
By Amber Phillips (formerly Parcher)
Published March 25, 2013
LYNN —Bernie’s Place on Central Avenue is usually buzzing at lunchtime in downtown Lynn. On a recent afternoon, an amiable Bernie Quintanilla yells out orders in a mix of Spanish and English to his staff behind the counter. A burrito with carne asada here. A turkey club sandwich with mayo — oh, wait, no mayo — there.
Then he swings out from behind the counter to deliver a pupusa to Sandy Rabkin, a longtime Lynn lawyer with an office down the street.
“Puh-pu-suh. Is that how you say it?” asks Rabkin as Quintanilla plops down the traditional El Salvadoran dish made of thick corn tortilla.
Nearby, Sigfredo Castellanos digs into a taco salad. He laughs as Rabkin tries to pronounce his home country’s dish. But sometimes Catellanos says he orders a cheeseburger and fries from Bernie’s, just to be adventurous.
“It’s good to understand that all the people are the same, so that no one sees me as different,” he said of different cultures eating each other’s foods at Bernie’s.
The brightly lit restaurant with a diverse menu is one of several places in Lynn where the city’s two largest minority populations are exchanging ideas and culture — a movement that has grown in recent years through food, music and civic engagement, say activists, business owners and residents from both sides of the border.
A majority-minority city
At 32 percent of the population, Lynn has about three times as many Hispanics as the statewide average, according to 2010 US Census data. And for the first time, non-Hispanic whites are also a minority in the city. They make up 47.6 percent of Lynn’s population, according to the same data. (In 2000, non-Hispanic whites represented 62.5 percent of Lynn’s population.)
As demographics shift, Lynn’s Latinos and whites are beginning to integrate in daily life more, said Ward 5 City Councilor Brendan Crighton, whose jurisdiction covers a high population of Latino residents in downtown Lynn.
“I think we’re all starting to come together, and it’s pretty amazing,” he said.
Crighton points to a relatively recent influx of white residents to downtown, who come to eat, work, play and live.
On Union Street, people from all ethnic backgrounds stop into a tiny red shop called Paaastelitos to get their fix of $1 fried pastry stuffed with every food combination imaginable, from traditional Latino fillings of chicken and cheese to more modern fillings of peanut butter and jelly or chocolate and peanut butter.
The new restaurant started drawing crowds after local New England food show “Phantom Gourmet” featured it in January, and sales haven’t slowed down since, said co-owner Welby Pena, who is Dominican.
He runs the shop with Ashley Marshall, who is of Italian-American ancestry and said that, like Bernie’s, his clientele is reflected in his diverse food offerings.
“It feels good to see ‘em come in here trying to eat different types of food,” he said. “It’s unifying: Everybody has $1. And it’s in a perfect area in Lynn.”
There’s also crossover closer to city hall at Lynn Auditorium, where Community Development Director James Marsh is drawing in acts from Latino singer-songwriter Julio Iglesias to British rock band Supertramp and American singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers.
Marsh said that as the acts rotate among cultures, something remarkable has happened: Spanish speakers are starting to buy tickets for shows like Kenny Rogers and English-speakers are beginning to attend shows like Iglesias’.
“I think it’s great that there’s just not that divide between your traditional American show and your traditional Latino show,” he said.
The integration also extends to downtown businesses show attendees frequent, Marsh said.
“It’s good for Lynn; everybody’s not just going to The Blue Ox,” Marsh said, referencing the popular upscale downtown restaurant that typically draws American crowds before a show.
Local businesses aren’t the only ones benefiting from increased interaction among Latinos and whites.
At a recent City Council meeting, members of a Latino soccer league attended to lend their support for an agenda item requesting funding for McManus field, where they play soccer, said their city councilor, Pete Capano.
“They’re interested just like anyone else would be in making their park a little more appealing so they’re not playing soccer in mowed weeds,” he said.
Their attendance, though, represented more than the soccer field for Capano, who said it’s encouraging to see more Latino constituents get involved in civic issues.
“The decisions we make are based on our constituents, and if people feel like they have a chance, they’ll show up for something like that. Hopefully, once in awhile, you win and it makes you feel good about the civic process,” he said.
Struggles to adapt
Lynn’s Latino population, many of whom don’t speak English well, also appreciate the increased opportunities to interact with residents of their adopted homeland. But it can take them a while to feel comfortable, said Defini Cabrera, a Guatemalan immigrant who has lived in Lynn for eight years.
“We adapt here out of necessity, because we don’t have work, don’t have jobs in our home country,” she said. “But once we’re here, we adapt to America.”
As she spoke, Cabrera flipped through a bilingual monthly magazine started in September by members of Lynn’s Guatemalan community.
In its inaugural October issue, “Without Borders” profiled community leaders like Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger in a Spanish-language article titled “7 Preguntas a Kevin Coppinger.”
Cabrera said she didn’t know who Coppinger was until she read the article; she and her neighbors don’t call the police when there’s a problem, she said.
With basic information like this still lost in translation, Lynn’s two largest minority communities have a way to go before they fully understand each other, said the magazine’s founder, Juan Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said part of that falls on Latino immigrants, who don’t make an effort to learn English or people and rules in their own city.
“They’re still thinking in their country and their traditions and their people and their families, and they forget where they are right now,” Gonzalez said. “I think it’s a really big mistake for us.”
He also blames cultural barriers among Lynn’s wide spectrum of Latino immigrants, who haven’t yet banded together into one cohesive voice.
Dominicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Mexicans: “They only thing that brings us together is the language,” Gonzalez said. “But after that, nothing else connects us to each other.”
But he countered the argument that Latinos who immigrate to Lynn illegally are less likely to participate in civic and cultural life because of their immigration status.
“I know people who after many years have invested without papers in a house, in business, they pay taxes, and they contribute to society and also integrate into American society,” he said.
He did acknowledge that Latinos can be hesitant to embed themselves in American life for fear of losing their own traditions and culture, and there are some illegal immigrants who don’t participate in public life for fear of being caught or deported.
Despite the challenges, understanding will continue to grow among Latinos and whites as Lynn continues to recognize its demographic shift and accept it, said School Committee Member Maria Carrasco, who is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
And that, she said, seems to be happening.
“I think Lynn is realizing that, yes, we’re here, and that it needs to support us,” she said of the city’s Latino residents. “It’s a process, it’s going to take time. But I believe we’re going to get there.”