Adios Nueva York: Reading Railroad

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Angel Figueroa (above) is a politico, which is one reason he says his first name the way you hear the word on American TV at Christmas. Of course, he speaks Spanish when pressing flesh in places where Latinos predominate. One such place is Roberto Clemente Park, a hillocky spot near downtown Reading, Pennsylvania. Clemente lies in the heart of the barrio, and Figueroa, who’s only 29, represents the area on Reading’s City Council. He won the seat four years ago with 343 votes to his Italian-American opponent’s 340, becoming the first Latino councilperson in the town’s history.

When Figueroa ran, Reading–population 81,000–was already 37 percent Latino, and today is estimated to be more so. Like Allentown, 40 miles to the east, Reading is an ailing industrial city that has been settled by Puerto Ricans from the New York City area.

Figueroa is one of them. “I was brought up in Jersey City,” he reminisced recently while puttering around the gut-rehabbed living room of a Reading row house (“It was a crack house!”) that he and his wife bought five years ago for $15,000. “I came from a typical poor Hispanic household. My dad worked in the garment industry in New York. He’s still there, on 34th and Seventh.”

Figueroa remembers “running the streets of the Lower East Side and Harlem as a teenager. Out of the four guys I ran with, two are dead now. In 1992 my mom gave me an ultimatum. She sent me to my uncle in Kutztown,” a rural Pennsylvania burg where Pennsylvania Dutch predominated. The uncle lived in a trailer park, and to Figueroa that was heaven. “A tree in my front window, fresh air–it was the best! My life changed completely.”

He did a stint in the Army and some college, then ended up working for a bank in Reading. He did so well that in 2000, a local activist group, the Hispanic Center, asked him to run for City Council. Today he’s still there. In addition, he runs I-LEAD, a leadership-skills school connected with the U.S. Justice Department’s Weed and Seed program.

Reading needs the help. Forty-three percent of Reading Latinos were living below the poverty level in 2000, the unemployment rate was almost 10 percent, and the murder rate in 2002 was four times the national average. For Latinos, Reading is also the second most segregated city in the country [see “Worlds Apart,” page 21].

Figueroa is optimistic that he and others will be able to turn things around. “Pennsylvania is the place where I was reborn,” he says. “And this city–five years from now it’s going to be the place to live. We Latinos are the future of Reading.” –DN