Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coatesville redux

Coatesville is one of my family’s favorite weekend destinations.
Those of you who know the once-thriving steel-town as the site of 20-odd deliberately set fires since the start of 2009 might wonder at this. (The latest fire was today. Click here to read the AP report:
But the town has, for the past five or so years, seen a main-street revitalization common to a number of faded steel-towns along the eastern and central Pennsylvania corridor – it has developed a strip of small Latino businesses from grocery stores to retail shops to eateries. This is what draws my family to the town. I go to replenish the food stuffs I can get nowhere else: fresh verdolagas (purslane), plantain leaves to wrap the tamales I make, recado rojo (an annatto and spice paste used in Yucatec cooking) and cecina, an accordioned piece of beef my butcher husband tells me is unbelievably difficult to cut. My husband – an Anglo who genuinely loves authentic Mexican food – prompts the Coatesville jaunts whenever he wakes up with a hankering for chilaquiles.
Two weekends ago we headed out to our favorite taqueria in Coatesville. I expected the atmosphere in the eatery to be subdued – after all, the town has declared a state of emergency and instituted a curfew as a consequence of the arsons. That sort of thing tends to have an effect that can be felt at all hours of the day.
But I was unprepared for what I saw.
Most of the storefronts that had enlivened this stretch of Route 30 with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and colorful paper banners and piñatas were shuttered. Gone was the store that stocked an amazing selection of cowboy boots, and the one that sold an idiosyncratic mix of soccer jerseys and Spanish-language CDs.
The taqueria, though open, was emptier than I’ve ever seen it. Whenever we’ve come before it has been full of workers on lunch break, or if it is a Saturday evening, families dining together after attending the Spanish-language Mass at St. Cecilia.
“Have the fires affected business?” I ask the waitress. None of the newspaper reports I’ve read about the arsons have mentioned Coatesville’s Latino community, but the waitress nods.
“One of the fires burned out a number of [Latino] families,” she tells me.
But it is not the only reason this once vital section of Coatesville is experiencing a second death.
The economic crisis has hit small, resurgent towns like this one particularly hard. Juan Tornoe, a Hispanic marketing professional, wrote in early December 2008 that he expected the Latino immigrant community to weather the economic downturn better than most communities because Latino immigrants (generally) rent rather than own houses, and because they operate mostly in a cash economy rather than a credit-driven one. (Read his analysis at
But Tornoe’s entry was written before the crisis turned from a credit and housing crisis to a jobs crisis. As immigrant wage earners have left communities like Coatesville following jobs, so has the money they poured into the community through rental payments and purchases of food, clothing and household goods. This has greatly impacted the small businesses that sprang up to meet their needs. In an interesting sort of synergy, the businesses that had relied on the immigrants’ purchasing power had also served as their safety-net – extending credit when necessary, allowing services to be paid out over time, and in some small measure, creating employment opportunities.
Additionally, immigrant communities such as the one in Coatesville have been hit with another stressor – an escalation in efforts to round up immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. According to a study released by the Pew Research Center last week, nearly half (48 percent) of Latinos currently convicted of federal crimes have been convicted on immigration charges ( This seems to fit hand-in-glove with revelations that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) teams have been given higher arrest quotas to fill (
Raids and 287(g) agreements to deputize local law enforcement as immigration agents have struck at the heart of many immigrant communities, where, immigration advocates and some ethnic media reporters suspect, the motivation for arrests may be money. A recent Boston Globe article about cash-strapped county jails counting on the federal dollars they receive in return for incarcerating detainees seems to bear this suspicion out (
The economic crisis is exacerbating an already corrosive divide in the way we, as a nation, view immigrants.
In Trenton, N.J., at a November 2008 meeting of comprehensive immigration reform advocates (including participants from the N.J. Catholic conference and Catholic Charities of Camden and Trenton), discussion touched on the often-neglected reality that immigrants are vital contributors to the economy. This is a reality made all too visible on Coatesville’s main street.
I think about this as I fill my shopping basket at one of the few Latino grocery stores still open in Coatesville. It, like the taqueria, is not as busy as it has been in the past.
I remember how difficult it was for my mother when we moved here from Guatemala 30-some years ago. There were no grocery stores out this way that carried Latino ingredients, and even fruits that are now commonplace – mangoes and avocados – were hard to come by in those days. She used to try to make bananas stand in for plantains, and blessed Campbell’s for making a black bean soup from which she could, more or less, make refried black beans reminiscent of the ones from home. She would have thought she had died and gone to heaven if she had stood in front of the bin filled with Mexican sweet rolls and bread I pause at during my Coatesville shopping spree.
Funny what makes a place feel like home. Food, custom, language, even décor. We know this when we set foot in Italian markets, Chinese restaurants, or those church festivals where the pierogies or baklava are homemade and people are happily chatting in their language no matter how many years they’ve lived here.
“How is business?” I ask the owner of the grocery store as I go to check out.
“Terrible,” she answers.
“You’re still going to be here next time I come to do my shopping?” I ask, alarmed.
I want assurances. I want to know that we are whole enough to continue to nurture dreams, no matter how tough the current circumstances. I want to believe we will sustain communities like this – striving, beset by difficulties, but beloved.
The owner gives me a wan smile, and I see her eyes dart to the corner, where a candle is lit on a small shelf altar that holds images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and an infant Jesus I can never rightly identify – either the Infant of Prague or the Holy Child of Atocha.
“Si Dios quiere,” she answers, meeting my eyes again. If God wills it.
Then, at my stricken look, she rushes to add, “Yes, yes, we’ll be here.”
On our way out of town I stare again at the empty storefronts. I think about the families who opened them, worked hard to staff them and keep them viable, and who built up a whole community within walking distance of their church.
It is Coatesville’s story writ again and again – through subsequent waves of promise and hardship. And maybe it is that history of faith ever-renewed that heartens me as I leave.
Little towns are tough. Particularly little steel towns.
Fires, arrest quotas, job losses – they don’t hold a candle to the dream I saw still living in that waitress’s and that storeowner’s eyes.
Hope resides here.

1 comment:

  1. Well done...not much I can add. But you make tamales???


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