Melting Point

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; C01


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.

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.

On Heritage Day, says Velazquez, it's all right to wave a Mexican flag, play music in Spanish, shout "¬°Viva Mexico!" and "¬°Andale!" in public.

But not every day is Heritage Day.

An Immigrant Legacy

Shenandoah -- pronounced "Shen-Doe" by residents -- is a square mile of tightly packed rowhouses and church spires set in the green and black hills of coal country west of Allentown. Nobody's had it easy here, since the first hunk of hard anthracite was discovered in the mid-1800s.

The English, Scotch and Welsh arrived first and ran the show. The Germans and Irish followed and got stuck with the worst jobs, until they dominated, and then it was the turn of the Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Slovakians, Italians, Jews, Syrians and Lebanese to elbow in. Few people of African descent ever lived in Shenandoah.

An initial adjustment period was always followed by acceptance, then intermarriage, though the ethnic groups tended to cluster in their own neighborhoods, places of worship, cemeteries and sometimes even their own volunteer fire companies.

The first dozen or so Mexicans arrived in the late 1980s, long after most mines had closed and the town was skidding into economic hard times. They came to farm Christmas trees. They lived in the former convent of the Lithuanian parish.

Even counting the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who moved from New York for the small-town atmosphere and the rock-bottom real estate prices, the Latino share of the population is small, perhaps 10 percent, compared with other parts of post-industrial Pennsylvania, such as Reading, where Latinos are the new majority.

Ramirez grew up in a poor farming and fishing town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He crossed the border illegally. After getting caught and deported once by immigration authorities in the Southwest, according to friends, he made it to Shenandoah in 2003 and got a job in a greenhouse. It was hot, heavy work for $6.50 an hour. The way he pulled the heavy rail carts that conveyed flats of flowers in the greenhouse reminded his friends of a horse, so they nicknamed him El Caballo, or the horse. Most recently he held two jobs -- in a potato chip factory and a fruit orchard.

About three years ago, through friends, Ramirez met Crystal Dillman, now 24. She grew up around Shenandoah, the granddaughter of a coal miner. The couple had ups and downs and separations, but they also had two children, Kiara, now 2, and Eduardo, 1. Dillman also had a daughter by a previous relationship, Anjelina, who was just an infant when they met.

"What I saw in him was the fact he was very nice and respectful," Dillman says. "He took over being her father. I didn't ask him. From Day One he was there for her. That really drew me to him."

For the Parade of Nations, six weeks after Ramirez's death, Dillman dressed the children in Mexican red, green and white.

A Deadly 'Rumble'

What exactly happened on Saturday, July 12, is disputed by prosecutors and lawyers for the three young men who have been charged in the killing. Prosecutors paint a picture of murder and ethnic hatred; defense attorneys describe a fight with tragic but unintentional results.

According to charging documents and witness testimony at a preliminary hearing in the Schuylkill County courthouse, events unfolded like this:

After supper, Ramirez went out without telling Dillman where. He spent some time with friends -- a young married couple and Dillman's 15-year-old half sister.

Around 11:30 p.m., the couple gave Ramirez and the girl a ride to the Vine Street Park, a patch overlooking the high school and across from the football stadium. Ramirez had been drinking.

A few hours earlier, several current or former members of the football team met in the nearby woods where one of them had stashed a box of 12 40-ounce bottles of Mickey's malt liquor. Several drank, and one said he polished off two bottles.

They visited the Polish American Fire Co. block party, and then a group of six started walking toward the park. They saw the girl, whom some recognized from school, before they saw Ramirez.

"Isn't it a little late for you to be out?" called out Brian Scully, a running back going into his senior year.

Ramirez came into view and shouted something in Spanish. The words sounded unfriendly to Ben Lawson, 17, a defensive back, who testified against his teammates. But Lawson didn't know for sure what Ramirez said because he does not understand Spanish.

Then Scully hollered: "This is Shenandoah!" "This is America!" "Go back to Mexico!"

Brandon Piekarsky, 16, a wide receiver and honors student, started exchanging punches with Ramirez. Then Derrick Donchak, 18, the quarterback who graduated last spring, joined in.

Ramirez fell and Donchak landed on top of him. A group of three players stood around Ramirez, kicking him.

Ramirez got to his feet. There was a confusing "rumble" with punches flying, Lawson testified. The end came when Ramirez had his attention on Donchak, when Colin Walsh, 17, a linebacker and straight-A student, landed a surprise blow to his face. Ramirez went down hard, his head thumping on the pavement. While he was down, Piekarsky kicked him near the left temple.

Ramirez, unconscious, started foaming at the mouth and "bouncing off the road" with violent convulsions, testified Eileen Burke, a retired Philadelphia police officer who had come outside her house at the sound of the commotion.

Ramirez went into a coma and died two days later.

Thirteen days later, Piekarsky and Walsh were charged as adults with third-degree murder, ethnic intimidation (Pennsylvania's term for a hate crime) and other crimes. Donchak was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other crimes. Charges are pending against another juvenile, according to District Attorney James Goodman.

That night, as the young men scattered, according to Burke, Piekarsky shouted a final warning to one of Ramirez's two female friends by then on the scene: "You [expletive] bitch! You tell your [expletive] Mexican friends to get the [expletive] out of Shenandoah or you're going to be laying [expletive] next to him!"

In the Aftermath

The words make Shenandoah wince, Latinos and non-Latinos alike. They suggest a context for the violence. But what do they mean? Is Shenandoah a racist place, its immigrants' pride and promise a cruel fraud?

Piekarsky and Walsh were held in the county prison, the same castle where 130 years ago alleged members of the Molly Maguires, the secret militant Irish miners' group, were hanged on dubious charges. The two were led in shackles into the courtroom packed with their family and friends, and the teenage girls filling one bench burst into tears.

Dillman sat in the front row, sobbing quietly. Her lone companion was an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"Here we go again," Roger Laguna, Walsh's attorney, said later. "Hang 'em all, and 50 years from now we'll figure out maybe we should have slowed down and demanded some facts or demanded some evidence." Laguna, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, grew up around Reading where he says he heard the term "spic" in plenty of playground fights. "When people fight they call each other names," he said. "This fight was not racially motivated simply because someone used racial terms."

The young men's attorneys challenge the credibility of witnesses and their ability to pinpoint who said what and who landed which blows. They also argue that Ramirez was an aggressor who kept the fight going longer than it might have lasted.

It wasn't murder, "this was mutual combat," Piekarsky's attorney, Frederick Fanelli, said in court. No trial date has been set. (The families of the three accused did not respond to interview requests.)

Homicide in a small town is a tragedy with multiple roles for everybody.

Among the first Shenandoah police officers on the scene were one who is a friend of Piekarsky's mother and another who is the father of a teammate, according to a witness and local officials. Police knew within hours who was involved but arrested no one for nearly two weeks.

The day after the beating, most of the players and at least some of their parents went to Piekarsky's house. "We made up a plan that we were going to tell the cops," Lawson testified. "That nobody kicked him. There was no racial slurs. There was no booze. And Brian [Scully] got hit first."

Shades of Tolerance

Outside the courthouse, a more complicated question than guilt or innocence lingers: Does all of this say something larger, darker, about Shenandoah -- and, by extension, the rest of us?

The soul of an immigrant town is examined, debated, prayed over in a hundred locations within the intimate square mile, from Mrs. T's Pierogies at one end to the crime scene and the football stadium at the other.

"I don't think very many people say there is no prejudice here," says Mindy Heppe, pastor of the historically German St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church. "On the other hand, I don't think you can call it a polarized community. I think you could say there are parallel communities with very little overlap." She is leading an effort to have everyone make a flag expressing unity.

"These kids are not bad kids," says Joe Sobinsky, a bus driver at the high school. "They're normal coal region kids. They got in a fight and people got hurt." Sobinsky tells the Latino kids on his bus not to speak Spanish because non-Latinos think they're talking about them. Once a Latino sophomore told him, "You're picking on me because I'm brown!" Sobinsky pointed to the Polish Italian olive hue of his own skin and said: "Before you got here I was the brownest. So you got two shades on me -- now get back in line!"

Sobinsky offers Shenandoah's highest praise to that parallel community: "The Mexicans are the hardest-working people I've ever seen in my life. They're from an old country. That's how our grandparents were." The same themes are discussed inside the parallel community -- on front porches where families relax and chat in Spanish, at the Spanish Mass where they pray for tolerance, in the handful of Latino businesses that have opened among the empty storefronts.

Different conclusions are reached. Yet the feelings about Shenandoah are complicated.

"Most of the young people cause problems for Hispanics," Jorge Perez, owner of La Guadalupana market, says in Spanish. "They don't get along with us."

He has lived in Shenandoah for two decades. "There are people who criticize you for coming from another country," he says. "Sometimes you don't want to argue with them. . . . They want to provoke us to go from Shenandoah."

He keeps a collection box on the counter to raise funds for the family of the man he knew as El Caballo. Ramirez's swollen face in his hospital bed fills the cover of a Spanish-language newspaper on a shelf.

"The community is a little intimidated," Perez says. "You're afraid it might happen to you."

"If these kids go to jail, everything will be okay," says Felix Bermejo, a Puerto Rican attending church services in Spanish, in the tradition of local churches that used to celebrate in German, Polish and Italian. "If they don't go to jail, or they get out in six months or a year, there's going to be a lot of trouble."

The Latinos are shocked that the events of July 12 passed so far beyond the frequent hurtful words and suspicious looks. Lethal violence is not part of the Shenandoah they still appreciate, on some level.

"Thank God, and this country, we have the little we do have," says Perez, who recently wired $600 to his family in Mexico to buy seeds for their farm. "There are Americans who are very special and very good" in Shenandoah.

But to survive in Shenandoah, the Latinos learn to take precautions. They avoid appearing on Main Street after dark. The strip is the province of non-Latino teens and 20-somethings who loiter in large groups outside the pizza restaurants. It's sometimes referred to as the "jock block."

Unlike the out-of-town Latino activists, the Latinos of Shenandoah are not the demonstrating kind. They settle for invisibility, except on Heritage Day.

"When things happen, you keep quiet," Perez says.

Fragile Roots

The Blue Devils lost their first game, 19-6, last Friday night.

The names in the huddle (Semanchik, Whalen, Polosky, Sadja, Amberlavage) conjure the same old countries as the names on the Miners Memorial at the top of Main Street and the names on the tombstones dug into the bluff overlooking the town.

The generations came, and they worked and played and then they died -- and then for half a century after the coal business died, they stopped coming. Maybe Shenandoah forgot how to handle the truly new.

The Latinos haven't been here long enough to fill a burial ground yet, nor claim many spots on the football team. Their new roots are fragile, their identity in transition. Ramirez's body was sent back to his mother in Mexico -- with financial help from the Irish and Italian parishes in Shenandoah. His favorite white Michigan State baseball cap was placed on his head to cover the scars.

"I really thought it was so ironic when I saw this thing in the news, because I've always talked about Shenandoah as a model of the American melting pot," says poet Joseph Awad, whose Lebanese and Irish grandfathers worked in the mines, and who once was grand marshal of the Parade of Nations.

"Let's not say we're having a lovefest with one another," says Dennis Yezulinas, Lithuanian on his father's side, Irish on his mother's, sipping coffee on Main Street. He makes doors for a living. "We never did have a lovefest here in Shenandoah. It's people trying to get by, in a low-income blue-collar area, the best way they know how."

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