August 1, 2008

Latinos on Edge in Pennsylvania Town

By Cristina Loboguerrero
El Diario/La Prensa

SHENANDOAH, Penn. — In this seemingly quiet Pennsylvania town, racial intolerance is widespread and many Latino residents choose to stay home to avoid any confrontation.

Shenandoah, a small town that spans one and a half square miles and is located three hours from New York City, made headlines in recent weeks after the fatal beating of a 25-year-old Mexican man.

The victim, Luis Ramírez, died on July 14, 30 hours after being savagely beaten by a group of white teenagers who are now in the custody of the court.

The dispute began in a Shenandoah park, when the teenagers began harassing Ramírez, and shouted at his girlfriend: “Hey, you better get out of this neighborhood!” and “Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here.”

In this city of 5,500 residents, 10 percent of whom are Latino – mostly Mexicans, followed by Hondurans and Dominicans – everyone has something to say. But people’s fears of retaliation outweigh their desire to speak up.

”We prefer to stay at home,” says Rafael Rejinfo, a 42-year-old Mexican, who explains in a low voice that he came to this country two years ago “to work.” “I don’t like problems,” he says, “so I prefer to stay here with my family and just go out to work, go to church and the supermarket.”

It’s almost like “living in a prison,” admits Reina Barbosa, who adds, “Not everyone is bad here. There are very good Americans who say hi to us and try to integrate us into the community.”

One of the few respondents who agreed to be identified was Jorge Perez, owner of La Guadalupana market on Main Street, one of the three Latino-owned businesses in Shenandoah. Perez asserted in a firm tone, “Yes, there is discrimination in this town.”

Perez recounted that on several occasions young whites have followed him and insulted him but, he says, “I prefer to let it roll off my back and not confront them for fear that what happened to my friend will happen to me. He was a good person and did not deserve to die like that.”

The grocery store owner, who has lived in Shenandoah for 20 years, says that after school, teenagers gather outside the pizzeria on the corner of Main Street and Lloyd and spend all their time “insulting all the Latinos who dare to go through.”

The only place, apparently, that Hispanic immigrants congregate is the Church of the Annunciation, where more than 100 people meet every Sunday to pray. During a religious service last Sunday, Father Jorge Winnie said a prayer “for good relations and peace in the town.”

The pastor also invited the faithful to attend a series of meetings between the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and members of the Latino community, to respond to questions and tension raised by acts of discrimination.

Mayor Thomas O’Neill described his city as “a place with a great ethnic mix,” and refused to speak about the crime, saying the matter should be left up to the justice department.

Although the congregation laments the death of Ramírez, who was known as “horse,” they refuse to talk about it, saying they don’t want any “problems.” Others, in a resigned tone, say they are used to being called “dirty Mexicans,” but agree that young people are the ones who most often attack Latinos.

Rose Walls, a resident of the town for more than 30 years, asks that they not “label all the whites in the city as racists.” “Personally, I don’t have problems with any person of another ethnic origin. We’re not all bad,” she insists.

Paloma Zamudio, 21, the daughter of Cornelio Zamudio, who owns La Casita de Familia, the only Mexican restaurant in the area, says that in their business, “We’ve never had any kind of problem with anybody. They have never broken any glass and, on the contrary, much of our clientele is Anglo-Saxon.”

James Goodman, the prosecutor in charge of the Ramírez case, says what happened “has filled the city with ethnic tension.” He urges people to remain calm and wait for the case to be resolved in the justice system.

Roger Laguna, lawyer for one of the three white youths arrested for the Mexican immigrant’s death, says that despite the epithets about the victim’s race, the fight was not motivated by racial hatred. However, the victim’s girlfriend, Crystal Dillman, also from Shenandoah, paints a much more racist image of the town and says Ramírez was frequently insulted with slurs like “dirty Mexican.”

The tension is evident in Shenandoah, where Central American residents largely work landscaping and agricultural jobs.

Pérez, owner of La Guadalupana market on Main Street, notes, “For a Sunday, the street is desolate. No one wants to go out. Everyone is afraid.”

Protected by the walls of the Church of the Ascension, worshiper Rodolfo Martínez, who knew the victim, dares to express the mood of the Hispanic immigrant congregation: “All of us who knew Luis hope that justice will be done and that his death will serve to close the rift of hatred and racial intolerance that exists in some sectors, not just in this city but in the entire country.”

Translated by Suzanne Manneh, Peter Micek and Elena Shore of New America Media.

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