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Hispanic Population Climbing in 'America's Greatest Familia Resort'

Census data shows Ocean City's Mexican presence growing stronger.


From Mexico City to Ocean City — 2,006 miles as the crow flies — the American Dream is luring Hispanics away from their homeland, and they're settling in Ocean City for much the same reason everyone else does: It's a safe, quiet and beautiful place to live. 

In the last decade, the number of Hispanics (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, other Latino) in Ocean City increased from 1.99 percent of the population to 5.5 percent, according to U.S. Census data. The largest increase was in people of Mexican descent: At the time of the 2000 Census, 60 Mexicans called Ocean City home; in 2010, that number had swelled to 412. And this happened in a decade when Ocean City itself lost 23.9 percent of its population, as the number of residents decreased from 15,378 to 11,701. (Census figures include both legal and illegal residents.)

"We are looking for a better life than in Mexico," says Nelson Ceron, 34, who left Pachuca, Mexico, 14 years ago for the U.S. He found what he came looking for: a wife from El Salvador, with whom he has three children, ages 11, 6 and 10  months.

In April 2010, he opened La Autentica at 511 Eighth St., responding to a growing demand for food products, such as beans from Guatemala and Honduras, with flavors favored by Hispanics. At the same time, he opened Los Delicioso in Pleasantville, where he lives with his family.

"I came here to look for better opportunities," Ceron says, noting that he headed for Atlantic City at the age of 20 when he was unable to afford college after two semesters in Mexico. He ultimately left Atlantic City because it began to remind him of Mexico City: expensive and dangerous.

"It is hard to live in Mexico now because of the violence and the crime," he says, adding that most Mexicans today, unlike earlier generations who came to America to work and save money before returning home, see the U.S. as the best place to put down roots.

"This is a better life for me," says a 31-year-old restaurant worker who asked to remain anonymous. He moved to Ocean City from Asbury Park five years ago with his 27-year-old brother, also a restaurant worker. "People are looking for a nice place, a quiet place to live. Ocean City is the best place for me."

"Most people like it here," Ceron says. "There's no alcohol. It's quiet. Ten years ago, people would work here and live in Atlantic City. People live here now. They bring their families here, their wives, their girlfriends, their children."

As Ocean City's Hispanic population has grown, so too have demands for services. Among the first to answer that need was Anne Dice, who started the ESL (English as a Second Language) program at eight years ago.

Others meeting the needs of Ocean City's fastest-growing demographic are at Second Street and Atlantic Avenue, which introduced a Spanish-language Mass five years ago; the Ocean City school district, which teaches 25 to 30 students in its English Language Learner classes; and , the city's first Mexican-owned Mexican food restaurant, which opened last year in the 1000 block of West Avenue.

"I felt there was a need in the community," Dice says, remembering how she started noticing "people not speaking English" at , at Eighth and West, and , in the 400 block of Atlantic Avenue, both located in downtown neighborhoods where the Hispanic presence is strongest.

Classes for ESL, which recently was renamed ELL for English Language Learner, are held twice weekly at St. Peter's from October to May. One trend Dice has noticed over the years is the changing class makeup: Once attended almost exclusively by single, young men, St. Peter's ELL classes now count young women and children among its students.

These young men and women are starting families here, a statistic reflected by the ethnic makeup of students in the school district's ELL classes. Dean Paolizzi, director of special services for the school district's approximately 2,200 students, says Spanish is the predominate language of the students enrolled in ELL, although the district also services students who speak Mandarin, Chinese, Bulgarian, German and Portuguese. According to the 2009-2010 School Report Card, issued by the State of New Jersey Department of Education, 7.6 percent of children in the , 0.8 percent of the children in the , and 0.7 percent of the children in speak Spanish as the first language at home.

Because the fastest growing segment of the population is children, the Census estimates more than half of the children in the U.S. will be minorities by 2023 and one in three adults will be Hispanic by 2050. Currently, one in six adults in America is Hispanic.

The Rev. Alvaro Diaz, St. Damien Parish's parochial vicar of Hispanic ministry, identifies all of the Hispanics attending Catholic services in Ocean City as Mexican. He counts 120 Mexican families among the three churches of the parish, the majority at St. Frances Cabrini, where he says Mass in Spanish at 4 p.m. Sundays. He says there are 40 Mexican parishioners at St. Augustine at 13th Street and Wesley Avenue and none at Our Lady of Good Counsel at 40th Street and Asbury Avenue. All Hispanic activities are held at St. Frances, which offers a number of outreach ministries.

Diaz, known as Father Al to his parishioners, is one of 15 Hispanic priests in the Diocese of Camden. The need for Spanish-speaking priests is growing, he says, and while the need in Ocean City is not as great as it is in Vineland, where he spent six years, it is a service that he says makes the church community stronger and more responsive.

"They love to have the Mass in Spanish," Diaz says. "They appreciate that." 

The 31-year-old restaurant worker who asked to remain anonymous for this story says he's looking to start a family next. He's gainfully employed, he says, thanks to a friend who encouraged him to move to Ocean City, and wants his American Dream to include a wife and children.

"I never been to Ocean City before," he says, remembering how he eventually settled here from Oaxaca, Mexico. "I ask, 'How is Ocean City?' My friend says Ocean City is nice and quiet. I say I don't know if I can get a job in Ocean City. He says, 'You can come here, you can get a job. You can work construction, you can work landscaping.' I say, 'My job is in the restaurant.' "

Restaurant kitchens, landscaping, construction and housekeeping jobs provide the bulk of employment for Ocean City's Hispanic population.

Dice says she thinks such jobs are easily accessible because they do not require a high proficiency in English. Ceron says these jobs are attractive to Mexicans because they pay fairly well and, to an extent, provide year-round employment, the priority of newly arrived immigrants.  

"When they come here, they are looking for a job," Ceron says. "They need to find a job. Learning to speak English, they can do later."

John K November 26, 2011 at 01:02 PM
Our un-representative "governments" Federal, State and local ignore this HUGE issue. We pay for these illegal aliens and their off-spring with our taxes - and not by our choice. Ocean City schools are extremely expensive for us - not for the illegals.
Salt E Water November 26, 2011 at 02:10 PM
I love how everyone rails against illegal immigrants -- yet when they need their lawns cut or want cheap work done on their homes there are mexicans doing the work. All summer long I watch landscape businesses all over this town to the point where I don't think anyone cuts their own lawn (note: I cut my own lawn). They are all mexicans- and the same people who hire them because they love the cheap labor act all holy about the illegal alien issue. Believe me -- its in my own family. Want a new roof -- hire a cheap mexican worker, landscaping --hire a cheap mexican worker, paint your house - hire a cheap mexican, go to a restaurant for an affordable meal -- almost every restaurant hires mexican workers. But everyone gets on their high horse about illegal immigrants. If you want to solve the problem - stop hiring mexican workers and don't eat at restaurants that hire mexicans. There will be a lot of uncut lawns and people eating at McDonalds.
Cindy Nevitt November 26, 2011 at 05:05 PM
Thank you, Salt E Water. Those who so vehemently object to Mexicans working in Ocean City because they obviously hold themselves to a higher code of ethics should refuse to patronize businesses that employ these immigrants. In which case, they should be prepared to cut their own lawns, repair their own homes, cook their own meals, launder/dry clean their own clothes and make their own beds when they stay in a hotel.
Eleanor November 26, 2011 at 06:42 PM
I am getting tired of people confusing this issue - there is a big difference between having Mexicans -or Salvadorans or Vietnamese - move into your area. No problem there. But it is a BIG problem to have an influx if illegal immigrants from anywhere. And sorry Salty & Cindy but if i hire a landscaper or buy a sub or have my roof repaired it is the job of the landscaper or food shop or contractor to make sure the people are legals. I expect the places that sell food and deliver furniture and repair houses to use a legal work force. Immigration is part of the American landscape but illegal immigration causes a huge drain on the limited resources of any area - the police, the schools, the hospitals. It is really too bad to have the job of immigration enforcement passed down to the end user because the people who are doing the hiring and enforcing the laws are shirking their responsibility.
Patrick Piriano November 27, 2011 at 12:22 PM
I have my ideas on this topic, but HEY! Lets get back to BYOB, its been too quite for a time. On the subject at hand, Bury anyone that every hires an un documented alien. Go after the business's first, then we will deal with everything else! I mean realy, realy hurt them!!! Thats the first step in my mind. Make sure any business that ever, and I mean ever hires an un documented alien... All you have to do is walk down to the bus station at 10th and West, and watch them get paid in cash before they go out in the Bus. I see it first hand all the time! You can not blame people trying to feed there familys. Go after the people that hire them. Its realy easy in OC!
Florence Moyer November 27, 2011 at 12:35 PM
And take the crappy, low-paying jobs that so many immigrants accept.
tax payer November 27, 2011 at 12:36 PM
no problem with peopel who come and do it right.. but remember, in the interview,, they would not give there name or address.. we are dealing with Criminals living and working in our city.. I for one praise the man who opened a busiensss, not the criminals who live here.
Patrick Piriano November 27, 2011 at 02:40 PM
If there were no jobs, IE: Local OC companys that hired Un documentated workers, it wouldnt be so easy. I like the work ethic, and I don't blame anyone that wants to feed there family and raise there children; well. I just think the first step has to be, and I know I am repeating myself. It's not hard to find the company's that hire.... Landscapers, Rest., Maids, Come to my neck of the woods, and just look at the Bus Station between 10th and West And Haven. Go after all these Business's first!!!! It's not hard! Make sure we hurt those business's first in the pocket book, and then maybe time spent in jail, or a least the cost they will have to pay for lawyers.
anonymous November 27, 2011 at 03:51 PM
Most are not legal....they buy a SS # 1000 Mexicans will use the same SS# and pay the taxes and SS and all that...but they never collect on it because they can't because it's not them and they have no idea about how it all works anyway...where does all this money go? The bad Mexicans are the ones that don't have any interest in learning the language and don't spend any money here in this country...that's hurting the economy...unless you own a western union or money gram business... It's also not good for the community when the 22 year old illegal Mexican has a pregnant wife, 4 kids, pregnant girlfriend with 3 other kids, etc...Control yourselves
sam lavnerw November 27, 2011 at 04:55 PM
Some of the writers place the emphasis on how many of the Mexican immigrants are here legally...and imply that they do not know, and then write as if most or all are illegal. That's an assumption not supported by any facts. Regardless, the same writers emphasize that some number are here illegally and complain that misdemeanor laws are actively enforced but not felonious immigration laws. In doing this they ignore local law enforcements' legitimately limited took kit for immigration enforcement (intended at their heart to protect legal residents and basic human dignity) and also ignore relative consequences on our town of the misdemeanors vs. that of the actual illegal Mexican immigrants in OC. The writers put that in an economic context and, unfortunately for their argument, they venture into weak territory when doing so. A strong case can be made that the illegals add more to our local economy than they take for the reasons listed by other writers in this string. And, if I can venture onto some thin ice, I'll guess that what is at the heart of some of these people's resentment is just plain old-fashioned racism. The same kind that greeted italian, irish, eastern european jewish ,etc immigrants who came here at the turn of the 20 century - tons of whom came illegally (e.g., WOP - without papers). I cannot know what these people's motives are, but their arguments have the same stench that has persisted throughout our history.
Gloria November 27, 2011 at 05:52 PM
This country and it fruits were paid for in blood,sweat and tears, not doled out on a silver platter as it is now. I fail to understand why people from other lands, who aren't interested in learning the laws and language and ways of this land, don't stay in their own lands and fight as our forefathers did, to make their native lands better? Freedom wasn't free then, why is it sooo free now?
Gloria November 27, 2011 at 05:55 PM
Sam, be careful what you call people. My Irish ancestors married into the native American nations, all learned what became the English language, and nothing was GIVEN to them, it was fought for and earned and paid for. And I don't mean $680.00 either!
John K November 27, 2011 at 06:45 PM
This subject should be very easy to understand. If an immigrant enters this country legally that person gets an ID card. An illegal doesn't get a valid ID card. That person gets a forged ID which is probably a stolen ID. The dictionary definition of "illegal" is very clear. Most of the illegals do not want to speak our language or obey our laws. They are criminal law breakers.
sam lavnerw November 27, 2011 at 09:49 PM
If Gloria didn't address "Sam", I'd have no idea she was reacting to my comment (note I chose the word "reacting" and not "responding").
tax payer November 27, 2011 at 09:53 PM
maybe as we drive by the WA WA we should call the police and report a criminal is out side.. they might get the hint
steve fenichel November 27, 2011 at 11:33 PM
Steven Fenichel, MD The only people having a clear title to the land called America are the Native People. The European Invaders were never hassled for a Green Card by the Original People. It is ironic that in the "Christian" Community of OC today many of the comments above indicate a xenophobic rantrage. What would Jesus say?
robert November 27, 2011 at 11:42 PM
he would say everyone shut up we are all people. and this land is no ones but gods its not American land or Mexican land its Gods land and we all need to love each other whether we are Mexican white black Asian or European legal or illegal we still all die the same way.
Eric Sauder November 28, 2011 at 12:28 AM
It's sad to say but the Mexicans are here in part because they're a relatively cheap labor force that can easily be exploited. They can survive on lower paying jobs (I suspect) because they're willing to live in shared housing and have a lower standard of living than the rest of us do (which may be a higher standard for them). I respect them because the ones I've known are good people and are willing to work hard for a living. I assume most of them rent, so the argument that they don't contribute to our school system is a dubious one. Their landlords do.
Eric Sauder November 28, 2011 at 12:33 AM
What would Jesus say? Who's listening?
Eleanor November 28, 2011 at 11:16 AM
To the one who called people 'racist idiots' - it seems like bigotry to me to label people that you dont know. People here question what was left out of the story - whether the people were here legally or illegally. As for the 'what would Jesus say' - we know from the New Testament that Jesus was law abiding and that he encouraged everyone to do the same and that the NT repeatedly encourages people to follow the laws of the land. As for loving each other - nobody said they hated anyone only asked whether they were here legally or illegally. Try going south of the border and just settling without becoming a citizen and see how you are treated.
Patrick Piriano November 28, 2011 at 12:20 PM
Great word Sam... WOP... We all love that one! I know you know it's a different world now? My Grand Parents came from Italy. I lived in the same house on Asbury Ave. my whole life... Coming up on 53 years. All I know, is what I know from a lifetime in OC, and will fight Fascism... I know you are going to think that's a strange statement, but it is here, and alive!
Patrick Piriano November 28, 2011 at 12:27 PM
Remember, and don't forget that all you Conseritves, that LOVE Reagan so much... Did the bigest "Amnesty: ever! NEVER FORGET THAT!
Gloria November 28, 2011 at 03:57 PM
Eric, I can see you are dieing to tell us what Jesus would say, so go ahead......
Gloria November 28, 2011 at 04:00 PM
Here's my RESPONSE, SAM not my knee jerr REACTION.......you called "these peoples" ...... "old fashioned racism"! Don't you read your own stuff?
Gloria November 28, 2011 at 04:03 PM
Or was it Steve who has the inside last word?
Eric Sauder November 29, 2011 at 01:27 AM
The point is Jesus said many things that few Christians live by and didn't say most of the things they do live by. We all know what Jesus supposedly said. But who lives by it? No one needs to tell you what you already know. Blessed are the poor in spirit ...
di November 29, 2011 at 06:00 PM
I worked in a hotel that had illegals, sometimes they changed their names after a while; (new SS card). We are not asking for much just come in and become legal, learn the language. Did you know that they are intitled to all the freebies, and if they show up at a hospital emergency room with no insurace they get treated. My daughter just lost her job but if she showed up at an emergency room I wonder what would happen.
DTK December 01, 2011 at 08:20 PM
.... sigh....just another sunny day in Ocean City....
walt hays December 25, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Did we ever get an answer? What percent of these aliens in OC are legal? And, if they are not legal, why are they still here?
Sam Lavner December 25, 2012 at 03:10 PM
Walt - Way to keep the hate alive, especially on this particular day. I'm tempted to devote a few minutes to contemplating the utter depravity of the soul and wretchedness of the mind of someone who would revive this ugly string after one year of dormancy and at 7:56 Christmas morning, but I prefer to rejoin my in-laws, all of whom are opening gifts and basking in the joy and love of the season and in our immense good fortune to live in this great country made up almost entirely of immigrants - legal and not. Walt - get ye to a church and pay attention while there.


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