Shenandoah, a small, coal mining town in the hills of
northeastern Pennsylvania, is coping with a violent death that has
opened racial wounds.
UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
July 8, 2009 | SHENANDOAH, Pa. (UMNS)
Teens in baggy shorts and T-shirts play a noisy pickup game of
basketball on a cracked concrete court that reflects the heat of a
In a narrow strip of weeds between Vine Street Park and the road,
clusters of boys and girls talk, smoke. Across the street, younger
girls lean against a white garage door, chatting and stealing glances
at the older youth.
A few yards away is where Luis Eduardo Ramirez, a 25-year-old
Mexican illegal immigrant, was beaten and left dying on July 12, 2008.
“There is the spot, there by the pole,” says the Rev. Brunilda Martinez, in a hushed tone.
Nothing marks the place on the blacktop road--no flowers, no
ribbons, no memorial--where the ambulance picked up Ramirez after a
brutal beating by several white high school football players left him
unconscious with serious head injuries. He died two days later.
There is no sign of the frenzy that seized the town after the case
gained international media attention. National Hispanic leaders and
civil rights groups came and left, calling the killing a hate crime and
labeling residents as racists.
What is left behind is a town trying to cope with a tragedy that has
opened racial wounds and raised questions about the ability of people
of different cultures to live together in a time of economic tension.
On this June day, the park belongs to the kids--white, black and Hispanic--enjoying the pleasures of being young on a warm day.
Martinez, pastor of First United Methodist Church, said it is a good town, despite what happened.
Gazing across at the park, she says, “Look, see, there are kids of all cultures together.”
A dark past
A miner’s memorial in granite gleams in the sunlight at the end of
Main Street. A six-ton piece of coal, donated to the town in 1935 by
Bazley Coal Co., rests under a shade tree surrounded by green grass and
A miner’s memorial at the end of Main Street celebrates the town’s proud coal mining heritage.
Mining has been part of the town’s heritage since 1790, when anthracite
coal, a hard, lustrous coal with a high carbon content, was discovered
The first miners to migrate to Pennsylvania
were English, Welsh and German. In 1846, the Irish came to take the
hard jobs other ethnic groups didn’t want. In the 1880s, the Polish and
Hungarians came over when the Irish started getting the better jobs.
Each wave of immigrants brought fresh prejudices as the haves and have
nots changed fortunes.
In 1898, the Lattimer Mine Massacre left 25 miners dead, allegedly
killed by a sheriff and his deputies. The sheriff was hired by the mine
owners to stop the men from organizing for better wages. At the trial,
the officials were found not guilty even though the miners were unarmed
and many were shot in the back.
The demand for coal declined in the 1950s. The mines began shutting
down and what was once a thriving community of 25,000 is today an
economically depressed community of about 5,000. The major companies
are Mrs. T’s Pierogies and large commercial farms.
Hispanics are the newest immigrants coming for work in factories and farms in the area.
According to the 2000 census, the population of Shenandoah was 96
percent white and 4 percent people of color. Martinez said that figure
is outdated. Hispanics have been moving to the area in greater numbers
since that time.
The Rev. Brunilda Martinez, pastor of First United Methodist Church, is the congregation’s first female and first Hispanic
The immigrants include Martinez and Ramirez.
Martinez, “Bruny,” came here in 1993 when she couldn’t find work in
Puerto Rico. She was hired by the state’s Department of Education to
work with migrants and their children. She made sure the children
continued their education as their parents moved from one place to
another following the harvest.
Long black hair streaked with just a touch of gray falls down her
back in a thick braid. Even before she speaks, you know she is not from
around here. Her accent is lyrical and she talks with a smile. She is
always teetering on the verge of laughter.
It was a bit of a shock to her as well as her congregation when she
was appointed to the all-white First United Methodist Church two years
ago. Most of the members are in their 70s or older and their families
have been members of the church for generations. She is the first woman
appointed to the church as well as the first person “with a funny
accent,” she said.
Ramirez moved to the area seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico,
working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries. He was the
father of two children, ages 1 and 2, with Crystal Dillman, 25, a
resident of Shenandoah and his fiancée.
He was having a sexual relationship with Dillman’s half-sister, 15, the girl said.
Words that killed
Ramirez and the 15-year-old girl, who is white, were leaving Vine
Street Park around 11 p.m. on July 12 when they crossed the path of
several white high school football players. The teens, who reportedly
had been drinking at a block party earlier that night, ranged in age
from 16 to 19.
Luis Eduardo Ramirez was left dying in this residential neighborhood near Vine
One of the boys asked the girl, “Isn’t it a little late for you to
be out?” Ramirez reportedly responded in anger, yelling back at them in
Spanish and dialing someone on his cell phone.
The boys began using ethnic slurs like “dirty Mexican,” neighbors reported.
A fight broke out. Ramirez was beaten, knocked to the ground and
finally kicked in the head. He never regained consciousness. A photo of
his badly beaten face appeared in news reports across the world.
Two weeks later, Brandon J. Piekarsky, 17, and Derrick M. Donchak,
19, were arrested and charged with third-degree murder. Charges against
Colin Walsh, 18, were dropped after he pled guilty to a federal civil
rights charge and agreed to testify against Piekarsky and Donchak.
Brian Scully, 18, admitted in the county juvenile court that he
participated in the fight. He was sentenced to spend 90 days in a
As national organizations flocked to Shenandoah to hold protests and
press conferences, the community was rocked by the uninvited attention
and needed some place to go with their grief and anger. When racial
tensions between the white and Hispanic population in this rural town
exploded, many saw Martinez’s presence as divine intervention.
Voice of healing
Martinez organized a service of reconciliation for the town on Aug.
10, 2008 -- just a few weeks after Ramirez died. Leaders from the
church, community and state participated. She also was asked to serve
on a state commission on human relations formed to help the community
with any problems that might arise after the incident.
Joe Palubinsky, Shenandoah Borough manager, said Martinez was asked to
join the committee because “early on she was making comments aimed at
“People knew something was boiling up in the community, but no one
thought it would escalate into this,” Martinez said. “Kids were saying
things, kids do that, but now we are more aware. We will listen more
The Rev. Robert Wiltz, superintendent of the Northwest District of
the United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvanian Annual (regional)
Conference, said Martinez’s appointment to Shenandoah might have been
“for such a time as this.”
Martinez preached tolerance and asked people not to rush to judge.
Then the verdicts came down. An all-white jury acquitted Piekarsky
and Donchak of third-degree murder, convicting them instead of simple
When the verdicts were read in court, supporters of the boys
cheered. They drove back into town blowing their horns and shouting in
Recent high school graduate Jose Ramirez, 18, says, “This is a good town. The press has made it sound bad.”
Others in town expressed more subdued relief at the verdicts; they wanted the boys to have another chance for a better future.
John Lawrence said Shenandoah is a violent area and has a violent history.
“Part of me is sorry for those kids. I think except by the grace of
God there goes I,” he said. As an Irish Protestant, he said he got in a
few scrapes as a younger man. Any one of them might have ended just as
badly, he said.
“I don’t think it was done in hate, it was the heat of the moment. I
know those boys, I know their parents, and I don’t think in their
hearts they wanted to take a life,” Lawrence said.
In the Hispanic community, however, many were outraged, saying the
life of one of their own was not as valued as the lives of the white
Paloma Zamudio, 22, who works at La Casita de Familia, a Mexican
restaurant in downtown, said the boys should have received a longer
sentence. She doesn’t think the trial was fair.
“If it had been a Hispanic hitting an Anglo he would have been
grabbed right away and put in jail,” she said, referring to how long it
took police to arrest the boys.
Zamudio works with other members of her family who own the popular
eatery. She said she came to Shenandoah from Mexico City nine years ago.
“Now Americans will think they can do things to Hispanics and get away with it,” she said.
Maria Louise Ruiz, 16, goes to Shenandoah Valley High School and knows the boys involved in the fight.
“They are just normal kids, I didn’t really talk to them much but I never imagined they would do something like that,” she said.
She also thinks the trial outcome was not fair.
“Maybe they were drunk, but there should have been some
consequences,” she said. “Shenandoah is a nice place but there is
racism in this town, not just toward Mexicans but toward people from
“We know that justice only belongs to God.
Whatever the outcome, we all lost in this tragedy. The teenagers lost,
Luis lost his life, his family lost, the whole community lost.” --The Rev. Brunilda Martinez
The town needs time to seek the mercy and grace of God, Wilt said.
“Folks have come to me using words like ‘shocked’ and ‘surprised,’”
said Wilt. “These folks did not agree with the verdict, and expressed
that justice had not been served. As a result, there’s an
acknowledgement that the road to peace and reconciliation will not be
The truth is no one won, Martinez said.
“We know that justice only belongs to God,” she said. “Whatever the
outcome, we all lost in this tragedy. The teenagers lost, Luis lost his
life, his family lost, the whole community lost.”
Not over yet
Piekarsky and Donchak were sentenced on June 17 to serve from seven
to 23 months. The teens must report to prison July 19. Whether Walsh
and Scully will have to face jail time or how long their sentences
might be is still pending.
Jessica Hernandez, and Dayra and Andrea Adorno sing during the Spanish-language worship service at First United
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Latino civil
rights organization, as well as other Hispanic and civil rights groups
are pressing the Justice Department to pursue civil-rights charges
against the teens. A statement from the department said an “independent
review of the facts” is in process and the FBI is also conducting an
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has joined with others asking for
further investigations. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern
Poverty Law Center have also denounced the punishments as too lenient.
Martinez, the Rev. Margaret Marshman, then pastor of William Penn
United Methodist Church, and other nearby United Methodist clergy have
been meeting to come up with ways to reach the youth in the area. They
are talking to Bishop Peggy Johnson, Eastern Pennsylvania, about
pooling resources and hiring a youth pastor for the area.
Martinez started a movie night the first Saturday of every month, but she wants to do a lot more.
“Right now the youth just hang out on street corners and walk up and
down the streets,” she said. “If they can just hear the wonderful word
of God, that’s all I want. It is our calling to spread the word.”
She added, “Of course, if they start coming to church I will be jumping around praising God!”
Marshman rolls into the small gravel parking lot across the street
from William Penn United Methodist Church just a few minutes before the
9 a.m. worship service. As she gets out of the car, clerical robe over
her arm, a few more cars pull in and folks follow her into church.
William Penn is a “patch town,” one of the small villages founded
during the booming coal industry, about a mile outside of Shenandoah.
“I am like a drop of water falling on the same place on a stone. Someday I will make a hole.” --The Rev. Brunilda Martinez
white frame church leans to the left and by the time she reaches the
sanctuary on the second floor, Marshman is a little out of breath.
About 10 people spread out to sit on the well-worn wooden pews. She
greets each person.
A few stay behind after the service and it just takes a few moments
for hard feelings to bubble up as they talk about the Ramirez case.
Many people in the community are angry and frustrated; some blame the
local police for giving the town a bad reputation.
“The cops are not doing their jobs, they are afraid of their own shadows,” said Ken Martin, a member of William Penn.
Lawrence, another church member, said the worst part for him was
hearing that after the trial, the parents came into town blowing their
horns and cheering. “Where were their minds?” he asked.
Back in Shenandoah, Rev. Martinez is busy herding her family up the
stairs to get the 11 a.m. worship started at First United Methodist
Church. She is preaching from 2 Corinthians 5:17. Printed on the front
of the bulletin are the words: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new
creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become
The Rev. Margaret Marshman served as pastor of nearby William Penn
United Methodist Church.
After the service, everyone gathers around a table on the first floor
to enjoy cookies and the company of friends and neighbors. Martinez
said they all look forward to this time together.
But the mention of the Ramirez case sets some tempers on edge.
Several folks at First United Methodist Church think the whole thing
has been “blown out of proportion.”
“They are calling us all a bunch of racists,” said Bob Beddal, who
has lived in this town all his life. “A couple of kids had too much to
drink and a life was lost. They also ruined their own lives.”
Beddal said the Pennsylvania governor “shouldn’t of stuck his nose
in it” referring to the governor calling for a federal investigation
into civil right violations.
Peggy Milewski said, “God has blessed us with Pastor Bruny.”
“It is unfortunate the ways things were handled, it was a street
brawl and some people turned it into a race thing,” she said. “Pastor
Bruny has no boundaries, she reaches out to everyone.”
Martinez has made it one of her missions to bring the Hispanic community into the congregation at First United Methodist Church.
Adorno, 3, dances as her grandmother leads worship. Martinez’s
family outnumbers the congregation at the Spanish-language service.
She has started holding a 1 p.m. service in Spanish in the fellowship
hall. This Sunday, like many others, only two children come. Their
mother used to come to the service but her job changed and now she has
to work on Sundays, Martinez explained.
Martinez and her family take their places. She plays guitar and the
small congregation sings along in Spanish. They pray together, dance
and play tambourines. Martinez reads a passage from the Bible, gives a
brief message and the service ends.
Getting youth and the Hispanic community involved in church is no
easy task, but Martinez is not discouraged by the lack of people in the
pews. She believes someday the church will be packed.
“I am like a drop of water falling on the same place on a stone. Someday I will make a hole,” she said.
On this warm summer day, Martinez ends worship by taking each child by the hand and walking them safely home.
* Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn, (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
Audio: The Rev. Brunilda Martinez
“…legal or illegal, God loves you.”
“My dream… the church being involved…”
“…appreciate what we have and what we are.”
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