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Melting Point

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

SHENANDOAH, Pa.

Of all the stories this tough little coal town has to tell -- stories of industrial might, bloody strikes, black lungs; stories of Friday night football, Saturday night drinking, Sunday morning praying; and now, the story of a sensational murder -- its favorite tale unfolds on a Saturday every August.

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This is Heritage Day, when Shenandoah celebrates what it considers one of the best things it's still got going, besides the high school football team: the story of how for 150 years the community has embraced succeeding generations of immigrants. The highlight of Heritage Day is the Parade of Nations. Descendants of each nationality in the town of 5,600 line up, alphabetically, on Jardin Street for the procession up Main Street.

"We have 18, if everybody shows up," says grand marshal Val MacDonald, clad in the plaid of her Scottish clan. "Here's my China. There are the Bulgarians."

The Germans wearing bonnets and broad-brim hats stand in patient ranks. Polkas blaring from the Lithuanians' gold Chevy convertible compete with rancheras pumping from the Mexicans' red Chevy truck.

The Mexicans! Everyone keeps an eye on the Mexicans, luminous in their shiny cowboy boots, swirling folk dresses, white suits and sombreros.

Not everyone was sure the Mexicans would attend this year. Not after the brawl that got out of hand -- as non-Latinos refer to what happened one Saturday night in July. Not after a popular group of current and former high school football players beat Luis Eduardo Ramirez to death because he was a Mexican immigrant -- as Latinos summarize recent events.

It's been a brutal summer: families grieving, clean-cut local sons charged with murder and "ethnic intimidation," the Justice Department conducting its own investigation, big-city activists riding from over the hills like rival cavalries to conduct dueling demonstrations. And the beloved Blue Devils of the Anthracite Football League are forced to play with a depleted roster, owing to the criminal charges against three current or former players.

"It's a quiet town. Well, it was, until they murdered the Mexican," says Kitty Merrick, the widow of an Irish American, whose maiden name, Glabyte, places her in the Lithuanian parade contingent.

The death of Ramirez, 25, threatened to undermine not just Heritage Day, but Shenandoah's hard-earned idea of itself. This difficult summer, it would be tough to find a more apt microcosm of the entire imperfect nation of immigrants than little Shenandoah, struggling to realize its ideals and reconcile its ironies.

The non-Hispanics lining Main Street applaud with more than mere politeness as the dozen Mexican marchers come along.

"This is a special day when we are allowed to express our feelings more than other days," Macario Velazquez says in Spanish. He's a maintenance caretaker at Annunciation Church, the Irish parish where the noon Mass is celebrated in Spanish.


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