The Changing Face of Westchester
Westchester is more Hispanic, more Asisan, and less Republican than 20 years ago. But is it all that different?
Conor McCarthy, workforce development administrator at Neighbors Link Northern Westchester, greets families at the Hispanic Heritage Festival.
Fox Lane High School graduate Kevin Tejada is a pretty typical Westchester kid. A 19-year-old with black glasses and wide smile, he volunteered with a community nonprofit during his time at Fox Lane in Mount Kisco. He’s incredibly optimistic—“In life you have to be able to overcome obstacles by using them as a tool to open the door to success,” he says—and he earned the description “courageous, passionate, unwavering, tenacious, positive, unstoppable!” from his guidance counselor. He speaks highly of his community and, this past summer, he headed to a prestigious liberal arts school, Bates College in Maine.
But Tejada is also typical of a Westchester that might have seemed unlikely when the County was synonymous with WASPs. Tejada is a Latino whose family moved from Guatemala to Mount Kisco, never stopping in New York City. He is the child of immigrants, a native Spanish speaker, and the first in his family to go to college.
Indeed, Westchester has seen some huge demographic changes in recent years. And while changes are inevitable from time to time in the US, Westchester’s makeup has shifted with remarkable speed. It is significantly more Hispanic than it was 25 years ago, more Asian, and less white. It is also more Democratic and less Republican. In short, the County has a new face. But what exactly that means—and whether it changes what the County is—is a question facing everyone here.
There is a simple reality: The County is changing fast.
In 1990, Westchester looked something like this: It had about 875,000 people. Approximately 14 percent of those were African American, and 3.7 percent were Asian. Another 10 percent were what the Census calls Hispanic, defined as an ethnicity, not a race. (In 1990, the term included people from Mexico and Spanish-speaking countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The term “Latino” would be added as an interchangeable designation in the 2000 Census.) In addition, in 1996 (the earliest year for which data is available), 39 percent of voters were registered as Democrats, 31 percent as Republicans.
Today, the County looks different. Some changes were the kinds of gradual drifts you might expect in any community. As of the 2010 Census, we had nearly 950,000 people, a 9-percent increase from 20 years prior, and, according to the American Community Survey's (ACS) estimate, 25 percent of residents were born outside the US. The County was only 13 percent African American and the Asian American population had nudged just north of 5 percent. As of April 2013, 47 percent of Westchester’s enrolled voters were Democrats, and just 24 percent Republican. The County’s Republican Committee Chairman, Douglas A. Colety, says that it’s mostly just a slow shift of Republicans retiring elsewhere and young Democrats moving up from the City. Besides, he says, “when you look at the Republican numbers in the County, we do pick up a lot of seats.” County Executive Robert Astorino, a Republican, would no doubt agree.
The same seems to be true of age and the number of residents living in the cities. The under-20 population spiked in the decade before 2000, but then it was the turn of the aging-in-place Boomers, whose population grew by 9 percent between 2000 and 2010. The population in Westchester cities (Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, White Plains, etc.) surged a bit from 1990 to 2000, and growth continued, but at a slower rate in the ensuing 10 years.
Perhaps much more significant, though, is the County’s Hispanic population. It’s reached almost 22 percent, with concentrations in areas like Mount Kisco, Ossining, Tarrytown, Port Chester, and White Plains. And these numbers are, in fact, probably low. That’s because, according to the 2010 ACS estimate, about 132,000 of the County’s 207,000 Hispanic residents are immigrants, and (for a variety of reasons ranging from language barriers to suspicion of the authorities’ motives), immigrants don’t tend to answer Census forms at the same rates as native-born residents.
In addition, we’re on track to be one-third Hispanic by 2030 if current rates hold. So we’re a lot more Hispanic now than we were. How did Westchester’s population shift so much? How did its ethnic makeup change so quickly that it bypassed even the US as a whole, which was nearly 17 percent Hispanic in 2012?
One answer—and the beginning of the story of Westchester’s shifts—is that people immigrate to the States for different reasons than they did in the past.
“This current wave of immigrants works more in the suburbs,” says Carola Otero Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link Northern Westchester, a prominent group working with immigrants and longer-term residents in Mount Kisco, an area many consider the center of immigration in Westchester and a town that is about a little more than 30 percent immigrants. She points out that immigrants to the US tend to go “where the work is. When it was in the factories, immigrants moved into the cities. Now the work is in supporting dual-income families.”
Other opportunities followed: landscaping, construction, work in restaurants, and other service jobs.
Changes in the area, and new challenges because of them, followed as well. “Unfortunately, we did have some issues in the early ’90s with overcrowding complaints,” says Mount Kisco Mayor J. Michael Cindrich, who also has worked as a building inspector and a police officer. He says there was an abundance of “individual men living in basically unhealthy and unsafe conditions.”
In addition, many of the area’s immigrants are from Guatemala, which had undergone a brutal civil war. Distrust of the authorities was common among the immigrants, and, Cindrich says, they were often slow to report the many unscrupulous landlords and contractors who didn’t pay after a day’s work or, worse, an injury. And, since many of the workers were undocumented, they didn’t receive healthcare through their employers and wouldn’t qualify for federal assistance, seeing a doctor only if they ended up in emergency rooms, which can’t turn away those in dire situations. Local ERs found themselves stressed.
Tensions arose. One New York Times article says that, during the mid '90s, longtime “residents complained about immigrant men who would cluster in the town center looking for day labor—only to congregate there again, sometimes drunk, in the evening.”
In 2007, a police officer was even indicted for manslaughter after an undocumented immigrant with whom he’d had a confrontation died. (The officer, George Bubaris, was acquitted of all charges the following year.)
By then, however, tensions seemed to be abating, says Cindrich, and the new face of Westchester was looking more and more like the old one. Neighbors Link had begun programs such as parent education and academic support for children; English-language classes; computer and financial literacy programs; and a worker center for day laborers and employers. Open Door Family Medical Centers, a federally funded health center that had been founded in 1972, had begun to focus on the immigrant community, providing translators, multilingual signage, and wellness classes to “take care of people in the primary care setting and keep them healthy” and ease the burden on the healthcare system, according to Grace Beltran, director of Marketing and Community Relations for Open Door.
Police and communities were also starting to meet to address one another’s concerns. And, perhaps most important, says Cindrich, “we have more families moving into Mount Kisco.”
Like many families in Westchester, including Kevin Tejada’s, the primary concern of immigrant families is often education.
“The parents of first-generation Latino youth have the same aspirations for their children and the same goals that all parents do,” says Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, the founder of Latino U College Access, Inc., which helps children of immigrants apply to college. (Tejada was an early participant in their programs.) Acevedo Buontempo says even immigrant parents who may not have received much education themselves know that education is the key to making sure their kids realize those aspirations.
That’s certainly had an effect on schools. Some districts say they have struggled with educating students who may not speak English at home or have the same primary-school preparation as the children of longer-term residents, especially in an age when a downward trend in student proficiency can earn a school negative press and blowback from parents.
“Our diversity is an asset,” says Superintendent Raymond Sanchez of the Ossining Union Free School District, a district with a large immigrant population. “However, it does present a challenge. We’ve found that the lack of language proficiency hinders a child's ability to acquire English, as well as content.”
Additionally, although children of immigrants had access to the opportunities that a Westchester education could afford them, they didn’t always know how to take advantage of them. “What they often lack is parents who are aware of how the system works, due to their limited language and education levels,” says Acevedo Buontempo. Children of immigrant parents, she says, can’t always look to their parents for help signing up for extracurricular activities or navigating the SAT process, while parents may not have the time to take off for parent-teacher conferences.
Acevedo Buontempo says when it comes to the college process, students with immigrant parents “are often undergoing this entire process on their own without adult supervision. Some of them may not even know anyone who has been to college.”
But the diversity in the schools has clear advantages, too, say superintendents. “We are becoming much more cosmopolitan and urban,” says Christopher Clouet, EdD, the superintendent in Tarrytown and also the former superintendent of White Plains City School District, both districts with high immigrant populations. “Both school districts are essentially multilingual environments. Both feature dual-language programs for those students and families who want them.”
In Ossining, the dual-language program “provides native language support in all content areas,” says Sanchez. “By doing so, it strengthens native-language proficiency. In addition, our native English speakers in the programs are able to acquire Spanish.”
Clouet says that there’s something distinctly American about the districts. “It is truly multicultural, and that is natural and it is good. The history of the United States is flavored with the spices of many groups of immigrants.”
The spice analogy seems apt: Where once dramatic demographic shifts seemed to cause dramatic tensions in communities in Westchester, today many immigrants have put down deep roots in the community, having children and starting their own businesses, such as opening one of the Latin-themed restaurants in Northern Westchester that cater to immigrants and longer-term residents alike.
There are still concerns about educating children, getting good healthcare, and helping the next wave of immigrants settle in. No community is perfect, but right now, Kevin Tejada, who was born in the US but lived in Guatemala from the age of 1 until 14, can say that, in Mount Kisco, “everyone gets along very well. My community is very welcoming.”
Otero Bracco, of Neighbors Link, also feels that the story of changing faces and troubling shifts is too limited.
“The families that we’ve seen are incredibly energetic and enthusiastic,” she says. “The individuals are very creative and resourceful. [They have] a strong sense of family, an incredible work ethic.”
They are, in other words, just like the Westchesterites before them.
Ben Brody is a freelance writer who grew up in Tuckahoe. The proud descendent of Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants (among others), he loves stories that put faces on data.