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."