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In the key state of Pennsylvania, a majority-Latino city seizes the opportunity to influence the 2024 elections

READING, Pa. (AP) — Religion and politics often overlap in Reading, a former industrial city in one of the most decisive swing states in this year’s presidential election.

In Pennsylvania, there is an early precedent for this sort of thing. The state began as a refuge for Quakers and other European religious minorities fleeing persecution. Among them were the parents of Daniel Boone, the national folk hero born just a few miles outside Reading, a town where the Latino population is now the majority.

Today, the Catholic mayor is also a migrant, and the first Latino to hold the office in Reading’s 276-year history. Mayor Eddie Moran is keenly aware of the pivotal role Pennsylvania could play in this high-stakes race, when a few thousand votes in communities like his could decide the future of the United States.

“Right now, with the growing Latino population and the influx of Latinos into cities like Reading, it’s definitely an opportunity for the Latino vote to change the outcome of an election,” Moran says. “It’s no longer a secret.”

A community of spirituality—and Latinos

In Reading, the sky is dotted with crosses atop church steeples, one after another. The pews of Catholic churches fill up on Sundays, with many standing during services. Elsewhere, often in nondescript buildings, evangelical and Pentecostal congregations gather to sing, pray and sometimes speak in tongues.

Outside, salsa, merengue and reggaeton (often sung in Spanglish) echo from cars and homes along the city streets first laid out by William Penn’s sons, and which now serve a thriving downtown filled with proudly Latino-owned restaurants.

What you need to know about the 2024 elections

This is a place where, when the mayor is told that his city is 65% Latino, he is proud to say, “It’s more like 70%.”

They believe in their political influence. A recent… Pew Research Center Survey found that eight in 10 registered Latino voters say their vote can make a difference.

On a recent Sunday, Puerto Rican-born Luis Hernandez, 65, knelt to pray near the altar at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church. Later, as he left Mass, Hernandez said he would vote for Trump, even on the same day the former president was convicted of crimes related to bribing a porn star.

“Biden is old,” Hernandez says, then reflects on how Trump is just a few years younger. “Yes, but if you look at Trump, you see the difference… Biden is a good man. He’s decent. But he’s too old.”

In the weeks following his speech, many more Americans would join calls for Biden to drop out of the race after his debate debacle, which crystallized growing concerns that, at 81, he is too old.

Immigration is a key issue on people’s lips

It’s not just about Biden’s age or his performance in the debates. It’s also, Hernandez says, about the border crisis. He says too many immigrants are coming to the United States, including some he considers criminals. And, he adds, a lot has changed since his father, born in the Dominican Republic, arrived in the 1960s, when, he says, it was easier to get into and stay in the United States.

For some, there are other problems as well.

“It’s the economy, immigration and abortion,” says Germán Vega, a 41-year-old Dominican-American who became a U.S. citizen in 2015. Vega, who describes himself as “pro-life,” voted for Trump in 2020 and plans to do so again in November.

“Biden doesn’t know what he’s saying. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and we have a divided country,” Vega says. Trump is “a person of character. He seems confident. He never gives up; he’s always fighting for what he believes in.”

Of course, there are some here who simply aren’t in favor of taking sides, except if it’s in favor of Jesus. Listen to Pastor Alex Lopez, a Puerto Rican who cuts hair in a barbershop on the first floor of his home on Saturdays and preaches on the second floor on Sundays.

“We are neutral,” he says. “We simply believe in God.”

A city with deep industrial roots re-emerges

Reading was once synonymous with iron and steel. These industries underpinned the creation of the Reading Railway (one of the first stops on the game of Monopoly) which helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and became one of the country’s leading corporations by the late 19th century.

Today, the city of about 95,000 people, 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is booming again. Reading is a 67 percent Latino city, according to U.S. census figures, and is home to a large concentration of people of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent, as well as Colombians and Mexicans who own restaurants and other businesses in the city.

Political candidates are taking note of Reading’s economic and political power. The 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania was decided by about 82,000 votes, and according to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 600,000 eligible Latino voters in the state.

Reading is still overwhelmingly Democratic, but the Trump campaign is not looking to miss the chance to change things. It recently partnered with the Republican National Committee and the Pennsylvania Republican Party. A “Latin Americans for Trump” office will be opened in a red brick building near the Democratic mayor’s office downtown.

Moran has asked Biden and other Democrats to take note and visit Reading before the election. It is crucial, he says.

“I think it’s still predominantly Democratic,” he says. “But candidates need to go out and explain that to the community.”

One development, Moran says, is that religious leaders are now less reticent about getting involved in politics.

“Things are changing, even for churches,” he says. Clergy “are realizing the importance they have as religious and faith leaders and are calling for action through their congregations.”

The message: Get out and vote

A few blocks from San Pedro, a crowd gathers inside the First Baptist Church, which dates back to the late 19th century.

In a sign of Reading’s changing demographics, the aging and dwindling congregation of white Protestants donated the building to the Church of Jesus Christ is King, a thriving Latino congregation of about 100 worshipers that has shared the building with First Baptist Church for nearly a decade.

Pastors Carol Pagan and her husband Jose, both from Puerto Rico, recently led a prayer service. At the end of the service, microphone in hand, the pastors encouraged parishioners to vote in the election, regardless of who they choose as president.

“The right to vote is,” says Carol Pagan before her husband intervenes, “a civic responsibility.”

After the service, the congregation descends to the basement, where they share a traditional meal of chicken with rice and beans.

“I think the human rights principle is about both parties, or whatever party is running,” says Carol Pagan. “I always think about the elderly, about health care, about health insurance, and how it shouldn’t be so much about capitalism but about more rights so that we can all be well.”

Both pagans make it clear that they will not vote for Trump. They are waiting, like others, for circumstances to arise that will lead Biden to withdraw so they can support another Democratic candidate.

“It is our duty to protect that person with prayer, no matter if they are a Democrat or a Republican,” Carol Pagan said. “We owe them that.”

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through AP collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.