In the swing state of Pennsylvania, a Latino-majority city is seizing the opportunity to influence the 2024 elections

By LUIS ANDRES HENAO – Associated Press

READING, Pennsylvania (AP) — In Reading, an old industrial town in one of the most crucial swing states in this year’s presidential election, religion and politics often intersect.

Pennsylvania has an early precedent for such occurrences. The state was originally a refuge for Quakers and other European religious minorities fleeing persecution. Among them were the parents of Daniel Boone, the national folk hero who was born just a few miles from Reading, a city where the Latino population is now the majority.

Today, the Catholic mayor is also an immigrant – and the first Latino to hold the office in Reading’s 276-year history. Mayor Eddie Moran is aware of the crucial role Pennsylvania could play in this election campaign, when a few thousand votes in communities like his could decide the future of the United States.

“With the growing Latino population and the influx of Latinos into cities like Reading, there is definitely an opportunity for the Latino electorate to change the outcome of an election,” Moran says. “That’s no longer a secret.”

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A community of spirituality – and Latinos

In Reading, the sky is dotted with crosses on church towers, one after another. The pews of the Catholic church fill up on Sundays and many stand during the service. Elsewhere, often in nondescript buildings, Protestant and Pentecostal congregations gather to sing, pray and sometimes speak in tongues.

Outside, salsa, merengue and reggaeton music (often sung in Spanglish) blares from cars and houses along streets first laid out by William Penn’s sons—and which now serve a thriving downtown area with numerous restaurants proudly owned by Latinos.

If you tell the mayor here that his city is 65% Latino, he proudly replies, “It’s more like 70%.”

They believe in their political influence. A 2022 Pew Research Center poll found that eight in 10 registered Latino voters say their vote can influence the direction of the country at least “somewhat.”

On a recent Sunday, 65-year-old Puerto Rican-born Luis Hernandez knelt to pray at the altar of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church. Later, as he left the church after Mass, Hernandez said he would vote for Trump – even on the day the former president was convicted of paying hush money to a porn star.

“Biden is old,” Hernandez says, then reflects that Trump is only a few years younger. “Yes, but when you look at Trump, you see the difference. … Biden is a good man. He is decent. But he is too old.”

In the weeks following his speech, many more Americans joined calls for Biden to drop out of the race after his debate debacle, which highlighted growing concerns that, at 81, he is too old.

Immigration is a central issue on everyone’s lips

It’s not just about Biden’s age or his performance in the debate. It’s also about the crisis at the border, Hernandez says. He says there are too many immigrants coming to the U.S., including some he believes are criminals. And, he adds, so much has changed since his Dominican-born father came to America in the 1960s – when, he says, it was easier to enter and stay in the U.S.

For some there are other problems as well.

“It’s about the economy, immigration and abortion,” says German Vega, 41, a Dominican American who became a U.S. citizen in 2015. Vega, who describes himself as “pro-life,” voted for Trump in 2020 and plans to do so again in November.

“Biden doesn’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and we have a divided country,” says Vega. Trump is “a man of character. … He seems confident. He never gives up; he always fights for what he believes in.”

Of course, there are some here who simply don’t want to take sides – except when it comes to Jesus. Listen to Pastor Alex Lopez, a Puerto Rican who cuts hair in a barbershop on the ground floor of his house on Saturdays and preaches on the first floor on Sundays.

“We are neutral,” he says. “We simply believe in God.”

A city with deep industrial roots is experiencing a boom

Reading was once synonymous with iron and steel, industries that helped create the Reading Railroad (an early stop on the Monopoly board), which fueled the Industrial Revolution and became one of the country’s largest companies in the late 19th century.

Today, the city of about 95,000 residents, 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is experiencing rapid population growth. However, it is one of the poorest cities in the state, with a median household income of about $44,000, compared to about $72,000 in Pennsylvania.

According to U.S. Census figures, Reading is 67% Latino and is home to a high percentage of people of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent – as well as Colombians and Mexicans who own restaurants and other businesses in the city.

Political candidates are taking advantage of Reading’s political and economic power. The 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania was decided by about 82,000 votes, and there are more than 600,000 Latino voters in the state, according to the Pew Research Center.

It’s true that Reading is still overwhelmingly Democratic—Biden beat Trump in the city by about 46 percentage points in 2020. But in that election, voter turnout in the city (about 35%) was significantly lower than in the rest of the state (about 67%).

But the Trump campaign is not about to miss the opportunity to turn things around. It recently teamed up with the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania to open an office for the Latino Americans for Trump movement in a red brick building near the Democratic mayor’s office downtown.

Moran has asked Biden and other Democrats to pay attention and visit Reading before the election. That is crucial, he says.

“I think the Democrats are still overwhelmingly the majority,” he says. “But the candidates really have to explain themselves to the public.”

One development, says Moran, is that religious leaders today are less afraid to get involved in politics.

“Things are changing, even for churches,” he says. Clergy “are recognizing their importance as faith and religious leaders and are calling their congregations to action.”

The message: Go vote

A few blocks from St. Peter’s, a crowd gathers at the First Baptist Church, which dates back to the late 19th century.

In a sign of Reading’s changing demographics, the aging and shrinking white Protestant congregation donated the building to the Iglesia Jesucristo es el Rey (Church of Jesus Christ is King), a thriving Latino congregation of about 100 believers who have shared the building with the First Baptist Church for nearly a decade.

Pastors Carol Pagan and her husband Jose, both from Puerto Rico, recently led the prayer. At the end of the service, microphones in hand, the pastors encouraged congregants to participate in the election – regardless of who they choose for president.

“The right to vote,” says Carol Pagan, before her husband intervenes, “is a civic responsibility.”

After the service, the congregation goes to the basement where they eat a traditional meal of chicken with rice and beans.

“I think the principle of human rights applies to both parties – or any party that runs,” says Carol Pagan. “I always think about the elderly, the health care system, health insurance, and how it shouldn’t be so much about capitalism, but about all of us having more rights so that we can be well.”

Both Pagans make it clear that they will not vote for Trump. Like others, they are waiting for circumstances that could cause Biden to withdraw so that they can support another Democratic candidate.

“It is our duty to protect that person with prayers – it doesn’t matter if that person is a Democrat or a Republican,” says Carol Pagan. “We owe it to them.”

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US and a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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