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Death in a small town: The long journey to healing

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 summer afternoon.

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 flowers.

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 here.

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.

New immigrants

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.

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