Penn Sociologists Dig Deep Into the Needs of South Philly’s Latino Immigrants

Emilio A. Parrado is concerned about how immigrants incorporate into new communities.

When he came to the University of Pennsylvania from Duke University in 2008, the sociologist who today chairs the department at Penn and directs the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, decided to bring with him a similar method he’d used in North Carolina, collaborating with community groups to understand the needs and challenges of the relatively new Latino immigrant population.

The Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia is well established, and since the 1990s the city has become a magnet for people from Mexico and Central America. Today, according to United States Census Bureau estimates, more than 50,000 Latino immigrants live here, mostly concentrated in a pocket of South Philadelphia that was once a largely Italian neighborhood, from Christian Street to Oregon Avenue, and from 18th Street to 2nd Street.

For Parrado and other Penn sociologists, including professors Chenoa Flippen and Amada Armenta, postdoc Heidy Sarabia and doctoral candidate Edith Gutiérrez, the area’s migrant influx presented a chance to immerse in a community and to better understand how immigrants settle in a new place. The researchers focused on the health needs and behaviors of the immigrants, their contact with local institutions, employment, changes to the neighborhood and much more.

Considering the nature of what Parrado describes as this “underground” population, the task was not an easy one.

“Immigrants are difficult to reach because they might be undocumented; they have often recently arrived,” he said. “They work all the time. They’re highly mobile. And so they are generally underrepresented in standard surveys. We had to tailor our survey strategy and survey design to be able to reach them.”

Parrado and colleagues sought out community members to participate, what they felt was the best way to foster open conversations. They partnered with Casa Monarca, a local grassroots immigrant institution. Then, with funding from Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and Netter Center, Parrado incorporated service learning into his sociology course “Latinos in the United States” that exposed researchers and undergraduates to immigrant communities. With additional funding from Penn’s Center for AIDS Research, the group put in motion a process to measure and document the immigrant experience of Latinos in South Philadelphia.

During a seven-month period, the academic team and 13 community collaborators developed a questionnaire, trained in survey methods and human subjects, identified a targeted sampling strategy, then collected data.

“We went block by block knocking on doors, talking to people,” Parrado said. “In the end, the project collected information from 155 Latin American immigrant men and an equal number of women.”

The researchers and volunteers also met regularly to share experiences and data-collection strategies. They wanted to ensure quality information but also make those who participated more than words on a page by relaying their personal experiences.

On Nov. 9 the researchers presented summary results at Juntos, a local Latino advocacy organization. “One of the most rewarding ingredients of this type of collaboration is to share and discuss simple yet intriguing findings from the survey,” Parrado said.

The survey itself covered a broad swath of life in this new community, for example, city and country of origin, age and marital status, living arrangements in the home and neighborhood. It focused on how they support themselves and their families, whether they send money to people back home and how they contribute overall to their new communities.

Almost all participants send home $400, on average, per month, a significant portion of the $1,600 monthly income most in the community earn. “Most men work in restaurants, construction and retail,” Gutiérrez said. “A lot of women work in construction and in retail.” And the majority of jobs don’t provide health insurance, she added.

In fact, just 5 percent of those the researchers interviewed had health insurance, translating into missed doctors’ visits. “Fifty percent reported they needed to go to the doctor at least once and didn’t,” she said, for reasons ranging from a lack funds or no free time to having other responsibilities.

Some 7 percent didn’t know where medical help was located. That said, some parts of the health-care system seem to be working; almost a quarter of survey participants answered that they had visited Puentes de Salud, a health-care clinic specifically serving the South Philadelphia immigrant community, 21 percent had gone to Philadelphia’s city health facilities and 17 percent had visited Penn’s Pennsylvania Hospital.

“There is room for concrete attention,” Parrado said, particularly in regard to sexually transmitted diseases. “There are no cultural barriers preventing extending testing to Latino immigrants,” he added.

Survey numbers show that most in this community want to get tested for HIV. “More than 50 percent of men reported having taken an HIV test. There’s a stereotype that they don’t because they don’t care or because of machismo. When you ask them, 70 percent report being interested,” Gutiérrez said. “Among women, 80 percent have taken the test. The challenge is, how can we get access to men? There’s clearly a policy opportunity here.”

Next up the sociologists plan to look at the cross-border implications of immigration. Flippen, with funding from Penn’s Population and Aging Center, will lead a team focused on immigration and elderly support in Philadelphia and in Puebla, Mexico, the hometown of more than 50 percent of the most recent survey’s participants.

In the long run, the researchers say they hope the community will use their data and measures.

“This can be a resource,” Parrado added. “If we want to develop programs, if we want to think about what protects immigrants, what doesn’t protect immigrants, we need to measure their situation.”

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