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.

Monday, February 9, 2009

'A degrading spectacle'

“It has come to this: In Phoenix on Wednesday, more than 200 men in shackles and prison stripes were marched under armed guard past a gantlet of TV cameras to a tent prison encircled by an electric fence. They were inmates being sent to await deportation in a new immigrant detention camp minutes from the center of America’s fifth-largest city.

The judge, jury and exhibitioner of this degrading spectacle was the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, the publicity-obsessed star of a Fox reality show and the self-appointed scourge of illegal immigrants.”

That is from the Feb. 5 op-ed piece in the New York Times. It is worth reading in its entirety [ ]

Here is the Associated Press report about the event:

And the excellent report from El Diario/La Prensa, if you can read Spanish:

Or, read the Catholic News Service report in the Catholic Standard & Times issue of Feb. 12.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The good, the bad and the ugly

For those of us tracking immigration issues, a roller coaster set of weeks. I’ll start with the positives:

• More than 200 religious leaders advocating comprehensive immigration reform gathered in Washington D.C. Jan. 21 – sandwiched between the inauguration on the 20th and the March for Life on the 22nd. Although the immigration advocates didn’t garner a lot of media attention, they signaled the need for a shift in the direction and tone of discourse about existing policies. "Immigration practices in this country have been undermined by severe and deep constitutional and human rights violations," said Rabbi David Shneyer, director of Am Kolel Sanctuary and Renewal Center at a Jan. 8 press conference announcing the gathering on the 21st. "Now is a time for healing and renewal." (Catholic News Service, Jan. 9)

• Two weeks ago, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, a partnership of faith-based organizations committed to enacting fair and humane immigration reform, announced a national effort to organize prayer vigils coinciding with the first recess of this session of Congress, February 13-22, when members will be home in their districts. The interfaith coalition is asking people to plan public prayer vigils for their communities of faith, to include prayers petitions concerning immigration reform within worship, and to ask clergy or lay leaders to offer a sermon focusing on immigration during this week. Go to for information about organizing a prayer vigil or to register an event on the event calendar. As I’m blogging this, there is one prayer vigil already scheduled in Pennsylvania: the Latino Ministry - Lehman UMC, Hatboro, Pa. will hold a prayer vigil Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. Call 215-470-2229 for more information.

• Senior Catholics officials attending the Jan. 14-18 Vatican-sponsored meeting of families in Mexico City expressed optimism that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama would usher in more favorable immigration policies that include putting an end to the workplace raids separating parents from their children. "We foresee and we hope that the new administration will organize migration in the right way, with contracts and limited-time (stays)," Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, told Catholic News Service.

• Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers gave a speech Jan. 28 at the University of San Diego saying that integration of immigrants "is the responsibility not only of the immigrant but also of the host society" and is achieved through open dialogue. The speech was billed as a preview to an international conference April 15-16 at the Catholic university in California; the conference will discuss the relationships among migration, religious experience and national identity. (Catholic News Service, Jan. 29)

• Amid anecdotal accounts of people being assaulted for speaking on their cell phones in Spanish and the Mummers Parade “Speak English” anti-immigrant float (see my blog entry of Jan. 7, “Oh, Philadelphia!”) comes news that the people of Nashville, Tennessee have voted down a proposal by a councilman that would have barred government employees from communicating with businesses, tourists, hospital patients and crime victims in any language other than English.

But, also in the news:

• New York’s governor appointed a new senator with an anti-immigrant voting record.
El Diario/La Prensa, which covers immigration stories more fully than almost any other newspaper out there, has a terrific editorial about Gillibrand’s opportunities to rethink immigration policy now that she represents the entire state as senator. Lamentably, though the print and smart editions of the newspaper carried the editorial in both English and Spanish, the web site has it only in Spanish.;ana-cu-106472-1.html

• The U.S. children of an undocumented Nicaraguan woman in detention in Florida went on hunger strike trying to postpone the deportation of their mother – who was held in ICE detention for more than a month. The children, 9 and 12 years old, came home one day to find their mother gone.

• Another immigrant died while in detention. The New York Times tracked reports that the death was a result of institutional medical neglect. The facility is the same one where, two years earlier, another detainee died after being denied medical treatment.

• Anti-immigrant groups released reports this month blaming for Florida’s budget shortfall and the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure (“the potholes!” in the words of one immigration advocate) on undocumented immigrants. and

On a seemingly unrelated note, those of you who already know I’m a poetry geek will be unsurprised by the fact that I listened attentively to the inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander when she intoned it on that cold, blustery January day. I can’t say I thrilled to the poem. But I have to admit that lines from it resonate. Especially today, at the end of this particular post:

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.


What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light


In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

I think about the sentences to be uttered at the prayer vigils in upcoming days, filled with love instead of hatred. And about the candles lit by leaders of many faiths and individuals of good will (and even by some newspapers) that will continue to shed widening pools of light on our human family.

Unexpectedly, without starting out to write about hope, I find myself there.