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Study offers new look at Sussex County’s Latino population

The Latino population in Sussex County has grown substantially in recent decades - and is projected to continue growing.

This group's circumstances and unmet needs are also changing, according to a recent report completed for the Delaware Community Foundation.

Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt takes a closer look at the report and what it says about this population.

Charitable funding nonprofit Delaware Community Foundation commissioned the report along with the Arsht-Cannon Fund and a network of organizations calledLa Colectiva — after receiving a grant to study transnational communities in Delaware. 

Sarah Grunewald of the Delaware Community Foundation says the study entitled “Perspectives on the Latino Population in Sussex County, Delaware” is based on a scan of census data and field research, “to understand from community members, what are the biggest assets, contributions and aspirations of this community.” 

“The ultimate report that has come out of that research is really targeted to our community members and organizations that are doing the work and want to work more collaboratively. It’s targeted towards other funders that want to be able to find those leverage points to be able to make a real difference, [and] our government agencies also that are trying to find ways to support the community better,” she said. 

University of Delaware professor of geography April Veness co-authored the study along with Jennifer Fuqua, executive director of La Esperanza, a bicultural and bilingual nonprofit serving Latinos and Hispanic immigrants in Sussex County. 

Veness says the first Latinos to arrive on the Delmarva peninsula in significant numbers came in the late 1980s — mostly from Mexico and Guatemala. Many of these immigrants worked in the poultry industry.

The Latino population in Sussex County has grown since then to close to 20,000 people. Veness says while the poultry industry remains important for Latino immigrants, economic opportunities for Sussex County Latinos broadly are different now.

“Things have changed over the last 25 years. We now have Latinos coming into Sussex County who are coming in as middle class or upper middle class professionals, and they’re filling in lots of slots in the education, in the healthcare industry, in professional jobs that are there. A good number of them are very likely to be second-generation Latinos, so they could be coming from other parts of the U.S., or they could be Puerto Ricans, that are coming in, who have experience in the United States, or they could be the children of that first wave,” she said. “They have English under their belt, they have high school and college degrees under their belt, and they’re able to step into different niches in the labor market, which has really made a big change in Sussex County.”

Veness notes that factors like immigration status, English language skills, educational background and racial discrimination impact access to opportunities. 

According to the report, the lack of affordable housing in Sussex County is one issue that continues to affect Latinos. Veness says despite significant poverty rates in some Latino communities in Sussex County, there is an “incredible amount of homeownership.”


“So the families are looking for housing where they can invest some of their own income, and they may pool some of their incomes together to try to find that housing, and get a foothold within the county,” she said. 

The report recommends more assistance navigating the homebuying process, culturally and linguistically appropriate direct-lending programs and down payment assistance. 

The study emphasizes the need for a pipeline that grows social mobility for Latino immigrants in Sussex. The report also identifies a need for legal services, and recommends more support for accessing higher education. 

‘The Latino families, like other families, look at college education as — oh, how will we even think about this, how can we dare dream of this? Well, some of this is informational. And it means sharing information with the families about the seed grant is one that’s used in Delaware,” said Veness. 

“I think that they are definitely in a less advantaged position compared to white and African American families because they haven’t been around as long, the parents really don’t know the K-12 system— they didn’t go through it— so they don’t know the right questions to ask, they don’t know what’s really possible for their kids,” she added. “The organizations downstate have been working very hard to try to encourage and open up access for college, that’s going to be the future for the community. As more young people — young adults — get their credentials … that’s opening up new opportunities in the labor market and increased incomes, and it gets families out of poverty.” 

The report also identifies a need for more literacy support, especially for adults,  which can help with accessing health and social services. 

Veness says there are specific times when English as a Second Language programs can be most effective. 

“One of the findings I think that surprises many of us that are non-Latinos, is that for some families, learning english may not be their top priority And a lot of that is timed around where you are in your family lifecycle. For example, if you’re a young mother with babies at home, learning English may not be where you need to spend your time right there. You’re just really trying to manage your household, take care of your children,” she said. “We do see that once the first child is entering the school system, the mothers and fathers are now saying, hey — we’ve got to know what’s happening here in the schools. So there might be more of an inclination at that point to saym my child is learning english, I need to learn English along with it. Maybe we can do it together. This is a wonderful point of intervention where you can step in to support not only the child’s learning of English, but the adult's learning of English at the same time.”

Grunewald of the Delaware Community Foundation says understanding these key “moments” may help the foundation be more strategic in its competitive grant-making to organizations working on the ground. 


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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