Delma Rivera-Lytle: Carrying on the Latino legacy

In Episode 6 of our “Catalysts” series, we chat with Delma Rivera-Lytle of Central York School District.


In Episode 6 of our “Catalysts” series, we chat with Delma Rivera-Lytle of Central York School District. We’ll talk about her Puerto Rican roots, the work of her parents to uplift the community, and the legacy that she wants to leave.




Part 1: From Puerto Rico to York

Rebecca: Delma Rivera-Lytle is the daughter of Delma and Dr. Edwin Rivera, two Puerto Ricans who became heroes to a number of Spanish speaking people in the city, from the 1960s onward for their work in the community.

Now, Delma, you were actually born in Harrisburg about four years earlier, you had lived in Puerto Rico as a young child before moving to the area with your family, but before we get into your story, can you talk about your parents, especially for people who might not know everything that they did?

Delma: My parents had a wonderful journey in their life. They met in San Germán, Puerto Rico. It was my mom’s first day of college and she met my father, and they dated all through college.

When my dad graduated he went into the Army, and after he graduated from medical school, he had the opportunity to come to Harrisburg to do his residency, and as you mentioned, that was when I was born, and when he completed that was when we moved back to Puerto Rico.

My father had the opportunity, because he did so well with his class at the residence, to be offered to purchase a doctor’s practice in York. And it was really a leap of faith for them to move to a place where they were not familiar with the weather, the culture, they did speak English, but my mom was hesitant to speak it because she had a thick accent.

They came here not knowing anyone, and that was a real leap of faith. When my father moved here, the doctor that was selling the practice, sent out a notice about the doctor that was coming, and some patients decided to go to another doctor because they did not want to go to a foreigner at that time, which I think is interesting.

And my mom worked at the office, so she always knew all the patients, and it didn’t take very long for them to become real part of the fabric of the community, that people that knew him said this is the most wonderful doctor, and I’m not biased or anything since he was my dad, and it was wonderful.

My mom was afraid that here she was a foreigner, even though she was an American, seen as a foreigner, that she would not be welcomed into the community, and there was an organization of the doctors’ wives, The Medical Auxiliary, that really took my mom under their wing and made her feel welcome.

Often, my dad and my mom said it was because of that group that they stayed, because their long term goal was not to stay here, it was to stay for a couple of years, and go back, but they realized that the educational opportunities were better for us here.

Part 2: On discrimination

Rebecca: Oh wow, that’s very cool. So, you mentioned before that because of who your parents were, that you rarely felt discriminated against yourself, but you certainly saw it around you. You witnessed it happening to other people. Can you talk a little bit about that? What were some of the things that you had seen?

Delma: I believe because of the position that my father and my mom had in the community, my father being a physician, and at that time having more education, than some of the other Latinos here at that time, they did not tend to be as well educated, perhaps in their language skills were not as developed as my parents, that we didn’t see that kind of prejudice, and, also, I had to be realistic, that I am white skinned, so the white privilege came into play, and I learned English very early on, so I didn’t have the language barrier, or speak with an accent.

I often have said that I wish I had a dollar for every time that someone would say: your family does not seem like you’re Puerto Rican, because they had a very negative stereotype of what Latinos, or Puerto Ricans, specifically, were, and I think that we helped to dispel that hopefully, because we were the first Puerto Ricans that many people in the York community had met.

Part 3: Building the Spanish American Center

Rebecca: Talk a little bit about what your parents did to help other Latinos in York County. What were some of the things that they had done in that effort?

Delma: They would see that after they would come to my dad for medical services, what now if they had to go to the hospital, to a nursing home, try to get a job, they didn’t have language skills, my parents fortunately did not need those services, so they got together with a few people to see what can we do to have, they came up with the idea to have a center where people could come and get these services, have a social worker, have people that could provide these services, and eventually that, that vision that they had led to the creation of the Spanish American Center on Queen Street.

They were providing so many services, and so many people were coming, that, very quickly, that center was outgrown, and the center moved to Princess Street, East Princess Street, to a much larger facility, and it just kept increasing, and it would be standing room only, at times, and even though it was the Spanish American Center, it was a center that provided services for everyone that needed them.

Part 4: Leaders in the community

Rebecca: What was your role in kind of being involved in that as a child or teenager growing up?

Delma: Since my parents were always there when they weren’t at my dad’s office, we would be there helping to clean the center when it was first purchased, my brother and me.

He did his Eagle Scout project for the community room, in the center, and I eventually, I was one of the first social workers there actually, at the Spanish Center, because when I graduated from college was when the services were really at its peak there, and I worked there for approximately four years, so that made me very proud to be working at the center that my parents had founded.

Rebecca: What was it like for you to be there, and see them providing these services to other Latinos in the community that really needed them?

Delma: It made me extremely proud. My parents were very revered as leaders in the community, and not just revered by the people in the Latino community, but the community at large. I think when they saw the services that my parents were trying to provide, then other people, not everyone, but many people came forward to say: what can we do to help?

Part 5: Following her parents' footsteps

Rebecca: You’re named after your mother.

Delma: I am.

Rebecca: And, in many ways have followed in her footsteps. You described her as a little Puerto Rican woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up to politicians and really had it a lot harder than you may have had.

So, aside from holding many of the same positions that she did and earning some of the same recognitions and honors that she did, what are some things that you think you have in common with her, or really learned from her, or your father, as well, for that matter?

Delma: I think, with both of my parents, their faith was very important, and I think that was always instilled into us growing up.

So, I believe that that’s a legacy that I have with them, that my faith is always very important, and they always had a very strong need to be of service to others, and it wasn’t that they grew up well-to-do.

My great grandfather donated five acres of land to the First Presbyterian Missionaries that came to Puerto Rico, and so my mom saw that, that here she had people in her family that donated, and that was a lot of land in the late 1800s to do something like that, but they wanted to help.

So, I think that their faith, their service to community, was always very important, and I don’t know if I would have taken that leap of faith the way that my parents did at the time they did. To move to a place that was very foreign to them.

Part 6: The diversity specialist hearing

Rebecca: You currently work with Central York High School. And there was an incident recently with the board, where one of the members suggested cutting your position as a diversity specialist, to save some money for the district, and you had an overwhelming amount of support during that hearing.

The school board member eventually withdrew the movement to eliminate that position. What’s your biggest take away from going through that process?

Delma: I believe you truly have to stand up for what you think is right. I was standing up, not for myself, but for the position. And this was something that I did that was out of my comfort zone.

And I did it because of the support that we got from the community. And it made me realize that, the services that I was providing at Central School District, which was my school district, were needed by the families, and the parents, and when you have that kind of support then you also have to step forward, and perhaps, had the community not stepped forward the way they did, the school board member would not have rescinded his desire to, really, cut my position.

Rebecca: Why do you think the position that you have within the school, being a diversity specialist, why is it so important today to still have that kind of service?

Delma: I think students feel very comfortable when they have someone they can relate to. If a family comes in and they speak Spanish, or they come into my office and they see the Puerto Rican flag, you just see this: oh, someone understands me, and I can speak my language, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone that speaks Spanish, but I have an ear for accents, so I can… I’m very patient with them, and I always say, I’m just another resource for students in our school.

And I feel privileged to be at my school district, and that we were very progressive. I’ve been at my position for 13 years now, that Central School District saw the need for it as our school district changed, because when I graduated, I was the only Latina, and we had one African-American in my class, and now Central consists of almost 25% minority students.

Part 7: On "Yuck, PA"

Rebecca: You mentioned that you once had a friend who moved away from York County, and they called York “Yuck, PA”, which you took offense to.

Now, unfortunately, that’s not an uncommon sentiment that we find sometimes in this area, but you said you don’t feel, in some ways, like, even your own daughter is proud of her hometown, so how can we, as, you know, leaders in the community, as community members, work to change that feeling that people sometimes have?

Delma: No community, or no place is perfect, and unfortunately York, especially in the last year, and we had a history of riots, and other negative things that have made national and international news, is when you see something negative, then what can we do to correct it?

I believe that many people in the community are stepping forward and right now, I even tell my daughter, there’s groups like Latinos Unidos, that the various segments of the community are working, just even the building that we’re in right now, the revitalization of this city, and the county, it’s amazing.

And we have an example from Lancaster, when you see that you want your community to get better, if you see racism and you don’t do anything about it, or you don’t vote in people that are going to do something about it, it’s not gonna be perfect, but it can be better.

Part 8: Starting Latinos Unidos

Rebecca: So, Latinos Unidos, is one thing that I definitely wanted to talk about. You do many things in the community, but that was one that I made sure that we touched on. Explain to us a little bit how that organization got started.

Delma: It’s very interesting. It’s very similar to how the group started with my parents, that we just saw that there was need for the Latino community to, once again, reunite. It seemed there was a lull, and many new professionals were coming in, and wanted to start being involved with this revitalization of York.

So, we just had a meeting one day at a restaurant. We said, we came up with a name, we are now a non-profit organization.

We are doing things all over the community. Now, getting more involved in getting chosen for boards within the community. We are very proud that we have First Friday Latino every Friday, and we use a different site within the city.

And so, it’s really just an engagement of the Latino community here in York. And also outside the community as well.

Part 9: A changing community

Rebecca: Why is it so important that York begin to truly take an active stance in engaging more with the Latino community that we have?

Delma: The Latino population, not just only in our county but nationwide, is just continuing to grow, and you have to recognize when your community is changing, and it’s no longer that you can either, not recognize that or not know the importance of it, or if you’re a business, to know that it makes business sense also financially with all the money that Latinos are putting into our economy.

So, we’re also working with all the different organizations, there’s an Indian organization, there’s a Filipino group, we work with Crispus Attucks, so it’s all of us working together.

Rebecca: What progress have you seen that you’ve been proud of already in the short time that Latinos Unidos has been going on?

Delma: I really have to say that, the way the community is reaching out to us, saying we have a board position open and we want someone from the Latino community. Or, where can we get Latino food? What are the cultural events that are going on? These are the services that we’re providing, how can we reach out to the Latino community? So it’s going both ways.

Part 10: Building on the foundation

Rebecca: So there have been a number of Latinos in York that have said they’re building on the foundation that many people build years ago, including your parents.

How does that make you feel, and how in your own way do you feel like you can carry on the legacy that they had?

Delma: Well it makes me very proud, because whenever we talk about what’s been done in the past, it’s always Dr. and Mrs. Rivera, they were the founders of the center, this is what they did, Dr. Rivera was the first Latino physician in York, and of course that makes me very proud.

And it’s almost come full circle, because my mom, when we lived in the city, many people said that she should run for the mayor of the city of York, but then we moved outside of city limits, and that now I’ve been honored to be chosen to run for the 93rd district here, for the House of Representatives, so it’s just truly ironic, and I sometimes have to pinch myself and think: what would Mom and Dad think? And many people have said to me, that they think my parents would be very proud of this.



Rebecca: How does that make you feel, you know, if you could imagine them seeing what is that you’re doing now?

Delma: I think that they would be very proud and say that they paved the way for a lot of people, and were the role models for many people to say that you can make it when you have doubts about yourself, or when you’re not sure what the future holds, that you just have to put yourself out there.

You may have your haters, you may have the people that question that this is not going to come to fruition; many people did not think the Spanish Center was something that was needed, or that they really supported, and my mom just kept fighting, and fighting for it, and got others to help her with that fight, and so, I believe I have that fight.

Rebecca: Well Delma, thank you so much for stopping by to share your story with us, and talk to us about the different things that you’re doing in York. We really appreciate it.

Delma: Thank you, it’s been an honor for me.

I believe you truly have to stand up for what you think is right.

Delma Rivera-Lytle On Central York's diversity specialist position

“Catalysts” is a production of Our York Media. The project was funded in part by the YorIt Social Venture Challenge Grant from the York County Community Foundation. Our title sponsor is York College of Pennsylvania Center for Community Engagement with support from Stock and Leader Attorneys at Law. This show is hosted by Rebecca Hanlon and produced by Will Hanlon and Caleb Robertson.

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