When employees at the Marlborough Senior Center looked around a few years ago, they realized that the people who were showing up for the “blue plate special’’ lunches on Mondays and the weekly cribbage games did not look like the community outside its doors.
“We knew our community is comprised of a lot of Portuguese families,” said Jennifer Claro, the center’s executive director. “We knew there were a lot of seniors that we weren’t seeing in our center.”
So it added some classes. Now every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Brazilians come to the center to learn English. On those same nights, they exercise in Zumba classes. In the fall, the center will begin offering computer classes geared toward Latino seniors. At the center’s first Portuguese festival a few weeks ago, more than 100 people turned out.
“I think now if you came into our center, you’d just see a better reflection of what our population is comprised of,” Claro said.
In Marlborough, the Latino population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, when 4,174 residents identified themselves as Latino in the US Census — almost 11 percent of the city. Actual numbers are likely even higher, since Marlborough has a large Brazilian population, and many members of the community do not identify themselves as Latino to census-takers, researchers say.
As the Latino population grows around the state, cities and towns are beginning to change.
Between 2000 and 2010, nearly every community in Massachusetts saw its Latino population increase — from the tiny Connecticut border town of Tolland (where the number rose from five to six) to Boston, which added 22,828 Latinos (a 27 percent increase). Only six out of the state’s 351 communities recorded Latino populations that stayed the same over the decade; the numbers fell in just 12.
Statewide, Latinos increased about 46 percent during the decade, when the total population rose just 3 percent. The increase reflects what is happening — and what is projected to continue — in the rest of the country, said Phil Granberry, a research associate at the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“There’s a demographic shift going on,” he said, “and we’re not [even] an immigrant destination place for Latinos.”
In Salem, the city recently announced it would hire a part-time Latino affairs coordinator to help foster connections between the community and the municipal government. In North Andover, the children’s room of the library began stocking books like “Buenas Noches Luna” — “Good Night Moon” — and other Spanish or bilingual titles. North Andover’s Latino population increased dramatically between 2000 and 2010, going from 541 to 1,398.
In Attleboro, Francisco Amaya and his family, after moving to town from El Salvador, opened a restaurant, Papagallo, in 2011 with a menu that includes food from their home country. Amaya arrived in Attleboro in 2008, and now sees many other Central Americans in the city. Although Latinos make up about 6.3 percent of Attleboro’s population, the total number increased by 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, to 2,765.
“I think it’s a lot of people speaking Spanish in Attleboro,” said Amaya, who attends a local Seventh-day Adventist Church with Spanish services.
Juan Vega, chief executive officer of Centro Latino, a human services agency in Chelsea and Cambridge that offers education and health services in surrounding communities, did not need the census figures to tell him that the region’s Latino population was increasing.
“The growth has been exponential,” Vega said. “At the community level and anecdotally, the growth has been consistent and far surpasses what the census could capture in their door-to-door campaign.”
In Chelsea, the Latino community increased by about 29 percent between 2000 and 2010, when the city’s 21,855 Latinos made up 62 percent of the population.
“The family ties are so deep now,” he said. “Businesses are thriving downtown.”
The Point, a district of small shops and apartment blocks not far from Salem Harbor that has long attracted the city’s newest immigrants, is now home to much of its growing Latino population. The number of Latinos in Salem increased by about 42 percent, to 6,465, between 2000 and 2010, according to the 2010 Census.
In the decades since Latinos, many from the Dominican Republic, started moving to the Point, relations with City Hall have often been tenuous at best. But now, the Latino Leadership Coalition meets monthly with Mayor Kimberley Driscoll. Last year, the Salem Education Foundation began publishing the city’s first bilingual newspaper.
“The moment is finally coming when the city is recognizing that it is a community that is growing,” said Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, executive director of the Salem Education Foundation, who moved to the Point from the Dominican Republic when she was 16. “It’s a community that is vital to the city.”
Salem, despite its significant Latino population, is still a largely white city. About 76 percent of residents identified themselves as white and non-Latino in 2010. The Point was once home to French-Canadian immigrants.
The Rev. Silvestre Romero, who was born in Guatemala, became the pastor of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in downtown Salem last year. He is bilingual and celebrates services each week in both English and Spanish. When there have been tensions in the community, he reminds the non-Latinos that they, too, came from families of immigrants.
“It’s been helpful to realize that this reality is also a reality that was lived a hundred years ago,” he said. “Maybe it’s been a cultural context of where people are coming from, but the reality is still the same.”
The Point covers 144 acres and has 4,100 residents, according to Metropolitan Area Planning Council figures. Immigrants have settled here partly because the rents are lower than in other parts of the city.
Lucy Corchado’s family came to the Point from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, one of the first Latino families to settle there.
“It’s always mostly like they start out in the Point neighborhood because they see the bodegas,” Corchado said. “Then slowly but surely, depending on their economic situation, they own their own homes.”
Corchado served two terms on Salem’s City Council, a rare Latino voice in city government. Now, she said, she hopes the Latino affairs coordinator will help convey the concerns of the residents of the Point.
“The hope is this person will be able to bridge the gap that exists between Latinos and City Hall,” she said. “There’s not that much diversity in City Hall.”
Ubiera-Minaya, who graduated from Salem public schools and Salem State University, said previous city administrations did not understand the needs of the Latino community. At the same time, she said, Latinos distanced themselves from city government.
“Historically, we’ve been discriminated against and just not welcomed, looked at as a problem,” she said.
“Baby steps, but it’s finally coming together. It’s been a long, long time.”
Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.