Jill Biden hears local stories of hardship and hope in Lehigh Valley ‘charla’


The Lehigh Valley stories Jill Biden heard on Wednesday all had similar themes: hardship, help, success and hope.

There was Juan Martinez, the owner of Don Juan Mex Grill, born in the Dominican Republic, an immigrant at 16 who went to a local college, started his own business and managed to keep it flexible even though he lost. most of its customers during the worst pandemic in a generation.

There was Victoria Montero, who emigrated from Mexico at age 13 and worked for St. Luke’s University Health Network, where she now manages equity initiatives. She also runs the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley.

There was Brenda Fernandez, a Puerto Rican-born and longtime Allentown resident, who after “some bad decisions” in her youth, founded the non-profit SELF! to help women returning from incarceration.

“When someone spends a lot of time in prison, and one more woman, a lot of doors are closed on you,” she said.

And there was Jessica Rodriguez-Colon, who grew up in Allentown and was inspired by her memories of helping people and organizations in her eventual career as a social worker at Valley Youth House.

Everyone spoke of their past difficulties; current needs for education, housing and pandemic assistance; and the desire to give back to their community.

“It’s so admirable. I think it’s a mark of a really good community that you get people moving, ”Biden said.

The first lady held a charla – Spanish for “chat” – at the Learning Hub in Center City Allentown. Biden, a native of suburban Philadelphia with a doctorate in education, was joined by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, US Representative Susan Wild, D-Lehigh Valley and Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf.

Jill biden charla in Allentown is the latest in a series of meetings with the country’s Hispanic community coinciding with National Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends Friday. It was Biden’s third town in two days after stops in Kansas City and Chicago.

It was also the first visit to the Lehigh Valley by a seated First Lady in nearly a decade.

And that was the second major recent political event at The Learning Hub, where two weeks ago Wolf announced a $ 30 million increase in state funding for preschool education. The preschool education center opened in 2019 and is operated by Community Services for Children.

Biden landed around 1:45 p.m. at Lehigh Valley International Airport and was escorted to the school, where she spent about an hour on tours and lectures.

Protesters for First Lady Jill Biden’s visit to Allentown gather on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, outside the PPL Center on Seventh and Hamilton Streets.Kurt Bresswein | For lehighvalleylive.com

Buses were temporarily diverted to downtown Allentown to accommodate the high-profile First Lady’s excursion. Meanwhile, a group of protesters waited outside to heckle Biden’s procession. Some supporters have staked out vantage points to wave from rooftops, balconies and a parking lot.

Inside, the first lady toured the Learning Hub classrooms to see lessons from some preschool students in action. There was a group of 3 and 4 year olds who regaled the First Lady and her entourage with animal dances, followed by a demonstration of an “innovation lab” which included a touch screen table.

In another room, her session with the four residents of Lehigh Valley lasted about 30 minutes. They explained to Biden the importance of affordable housing and scholarship opportunities.

“I am a strong believer in education as a way out,” said Martinez, who graduated from three local colleges. “I come from poverty. We had nothing in the family. And through education, I was able to cope and do more for myself and my family.

In the end, Biden grabbed a message of hope while promoting President Joe Biden’s pending infrastructure plan.

“I want to bring you hope. I really want to bring you hope, ”said the first lady. “The Latino community is really important to me and to Joe. And that’s what I am here. … I want you to have faith. And that’s what Joe always says: have faith.

A crowd of protesters, some supporters, greet the first lady in Allentown

Jim McKeown, left, and Karen Schlegel hold signs welcoming First Lady Jill Biden to Allentown on Wednesday, October 13, 2021.Kurt Bresswein | For lehighvalleylive.com

Becerra, the health secretary, preceded the first lady’s appearance with a tour of the Lehigh Valley Clinic neighborhood health centers in Allentown, promoting the President’s ‘Build Better’ campaign by highlighting the ’emphasis on access to health care coverage, especially amid the COVID -19 pandemic.

(Can’t see the Lehigh Valley diversity map? Click here.)

Lehigh Valley’s growing Hispanic population is a major electoral bloc in an area known to tip Pennsylvania into the presidential election. Allentown, the third most populous city in the state, is 54% Hispanic and Latino, according to the 2020 census.

The visit was seen by some as a provocation by political opponents. It “says a lot about the issue of Hispanic Democrat engagement,” Andres Weller, former Republican National Committee field director, wrote in a letter to lehighvalleylive.com, citing the president’s 38% approval rating. among Hispanics in a recent Quinnipiac University survey.

“While Jill Biden, Susan Wild and Democrats flatter communities their policies have abandoned, the RNC continues to invest in Hispanic communities as it prepares to elect Republicans from top to bottom through its game in permanent, data-driven ground, ”RNC spokeswoman Allie Carroll said in a statement. “Jill’s parachuting into Allentown will not alleviate growing concerns about inflation, violent crime, the sharply rising cost of everyday goods as real wages fall, or start correcting figures for Joe Biden’s plummeting endorsement. “

Jill Biden’s shutdown comes months after President Joe Biden himself promoted a “Made in America” initiative at Mack Trucks in Lower Macungie Township. The July speech was the third presidential visit to Lehigh Valley in two years.

The last sitting First Lady to make an appearance in Lehigh Valley was Michelle Obama at Moravian College in Bethlehem in 2012, for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

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Steve Novak can be reached at [email protected].

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