“I really love the connection I have with my community and the people in my community.”
In 2011, Fermin Diaz, a young civil engineer with a Master’s Degree in hand, set out from the tropical climes of the Dominican Republic for West Hazleton. He arrived in winter. It was his first. He had heard so much about opportunity in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and, he found it, no doubt. He also found snow, the concept of windchill and the necessity of “winter clothing.” Consider his system thoroughly shocked.
Maybe he’ll never quite get used to winter (he flat out hates it and he doesn’t care who knows it), but he’s fallen in love with this community and he’s not going anywhere. In just a few short years, Fermin has made his mark as a community volunteer and organizer. Aside from running a successful business with his wife, he also teaches at Penn State Hazleton and serves as the Main Street Coordinator for the Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress (DHAP).
We met up with Fermin at The Hub, the DHAP’s brand-new welcome center. He plied us with tasty chicharrón, longaniza, mangú and other traditional Dominican breakfast delights. And we just had to ask, Why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
9 years. But, it’s like the old joke — if you multiply for the time that I have spent working and not sleeping, it’s more like 12 to 15 years (Laughs).
What brought you to NEPA?
A few people from my mother’s church moved here first, and they would always tell her to come to Hazleton because there was opportunity. So, she started to come here for vacations. Then she told me she was moving here, and I said, “Good luck with that.” You know, because when you spend your whole life in the Caribbean, it’s hard to get used to the weather in a place like Pennsylvania. But she kept telling me to move here. She kept saying there was so much opportunity. So, I finally moved here… In December! And, I didn’t like the weather. At first, I only worked and that’s it. But, once I started to get involved in the community, and I brought my wife here and she got involved with the community, and our daughter started growing up here, it started to feel good. But I still hate the winter. We need to just put a dome over Northeastern Pennsylvania and get some heaters in there (Laughs).
What do you love about your town?
I love the level of connection with the people. One of the things that I want to have in a place is history. It was hard, for me, to come to a place where I didn’t feel like I had anything that belonged to me. And most people here know me because I am involved in so many things. That kind of involvement is what gives meaning to my life. Through service to my community, I can look back on moments and conversations with people. That kind of involvement is important to me. It helps me to create a relationship with the place and the people, and it’s more than just being here to work. That had a huge impact on me. I really love the connection I have with my community and the people in my community.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
I think Northeastern Pennsylvania has a unique component. First, it’s a small community, but if you know how to look, you can find a little bit of everything. Think of Briggs Farm Blues Festival – my God, that’s so amazing. People don’t realize that this place brings in superstars in music. Scranton has many great cultural activities every weekend and the Wilkes-Barre NAACP does a really nice multicultural event every year. We’ve got so much stuff in this area. Plus, we are close to a lot of other stuff, where you can find whatever you want culturally, educationally… whatever, and you can bring it back to your community. You have so many multicultural events going on all the time. If you want to learn about Italian culture, you got that not too far. If you want to visit a Dominican festival, you can. If you go out with an open mind, you can experience anything in this community.
What’s next for you?
Wow! To be honest, I see myself in the position where I can continue to serve my community. So much of what I do requires me to be able to jump in and take action in the moment. I don’t like to think too much into the future. I like to think that my action today marks my path to the future. In the Hispanic culture, we are very centered on the present – on today. We don’t look too much to the past, or to the future. We are focused on today. That’s why we are so relaxed. It’s part of our mindset. That doesn’t mean we don’t think about the future. I’ve got a lot of ambitions for myself and for my family and our community. I can see how I want to make things better, but it’s like chess. You can only make your move today and wait and see what happens on the other side. So, the only thing that I can tell you about my future is that I just want to keep serving. I want to be an agent of change in my community.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
I would like to see Northeastern Pennsylvania as a place known for strong international trade. Why wouldn’t we use all of the hard-working people coming here from somewhere else as ambassadors to promote trade? Let’s see, we’ve got a lot of Dominicans here from an area where we produce cacao – for chocolate and coffee. We can use that connection to create a partnership between corporations and individuals to process those products here. Think about that. We have a story to tell about the people down there on the farms and the connection to the people here. That’s an amazing story, and it’s not some big corporation. It’s family. It’s people that are connected together. That’s real. I’d like to see more of that. But we need more people involved in the community to make it happen.
Unique opportunities in education, business development, integration… the list is long (laughs). People need to realize something. If you move to a big competitive city, it’s hard to get the same level of connection and knowledge that you’d get here. Northeastern Pennsylvania has a little bit of everything. And you can go around and see how all the different people make it here. If you come to Hazleton, you get a taste of the Caribbean, because so many of us are Dominicans. You go to Wilkes-Barre; you can see a great example of the African American community. If you want to know more about different religions, or the history of different immigrant groups, you can see that in a place like Scranton. It’s like a living museum. You can spend time in nature, or go to a blues festival. You can even jump from an airplane with a parachute. NEPA is like a small community where you can easily find a little piece of every part of the world.