In Hazleton, PA, Latinos brace for elections outcome
“Hazleton is a mirror for the whole nation to look itself into. This is where America could wind up.”
Hazleton, Pennsylvania – Berta Batista approached the rickety white wooden house. She was unsure she had the address right, but still decided to climb the stairs and knock on the door, softly.
“I’m looking for Julio …?”
“Soy yo,” It’s me, a nervous young man in a white T-shirt replied, as he caressed his goatee.
“Ah! It’s you!” Batista proceeded to deliver her brief, rehearsed message. Remember to vote on Tuesday. You are a US citizen; other Latinos aren’t so lucky. Here’s the address of your polling station, in case you didn’t have it …”
A blonde pregnant woman stepped out of the house, looking alarmed. She was holding a toddler. Batista knew she was running out of time.
She handed the young man an informational leaflet, thanking him, in Spanish, for his time. As she turned around, she hung a sticker on the house door.
“This is for Hillary Clinton?” the young woman shouted. “Get out of here!” she yelled at Batista. As Batista turned the corner, the blonde lady ripped the sticker off her front door.
Batista, 68, was using her one day off last week to volunteer to get people to vote “against Donald Trump”, as she put it, in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
Born in the Dominican Republic, the petite, brown-eyed woman was carrying a list of Hazleton residents who are both Latino and US citizens, which makes them eligible to vote in the November 8 election.
For Batista, who became a citizen in 2010 herself, the stakes could not be clearer.
“I’m asking people to vote just so we Latinos, can have some peace of mind,” she said on Saturday morning. “We have to stop all this nastiness. We have to stop Trump.”
Batista is one of Hazleton’s 15,000 Latinos, who form about a half of the Eastern Pennsylvania town’s inhabitants. As she walked around East Hazleton, only a few blocks from the town’s downtown area, she was in hostile territory.
Economic and demographic transition
“They are Trumpistas,” she mumbled at every other turn, noticing the ubiquitous signs saying, “Trump/Pence, Make America Again,” or, worse, “Lou Barletta for Congress”.
A couple of decades ago, Hazleton was preparing to die. The rural Pennsylvania town had seen its main industry perish. Founded around the countless coal mines surrounding it, Hazleton was destined to disappear as the mines dried off or became obsolete in the 1950s.
It was nice while it lasted, but the local miners, most of them retired by then, were getting ready to see their communities evaporate.
The local authorities made one last pitch to the gods of Capital – they called it “Can Do”. It was a programme that used taxpayers’ funds to buy cheap land and pretty much give it away to corporations that chose to set up shop in the newly created “industrial parks” around town.
Against many odds, it paid off. Big companies, such as meat packing Cargill and large-scale printing enterprises took advantage of the bargain the city was offering: tax credits, few regulations, and a strategic location right in between the two highways connecting North, South, East and West Pennsylvania, not far from New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York City.
Soon enough, even Amazon.com was opening a plant next to Hazleton. The city went on a hiring spree.
Conveniently, a supply of labour was readily available. Escaping exorbitant rents in big cities nearby such as New York, a flow of workers began migrating to Hazleton, where many residents were selling off their properties, downtown businesses had shut down and where, by the late 1990s, the inhabitants were mostly retired miners and war veterans.
The new workers, however, were not Hazleton natives, but Puerto Rican, Mexican, Ecuadorean and, most of all, Dominican immigrants. Just as Hazleton’s longtime white residents seemed to have given up on the town, it began filling up with Latinos.
When Amilcar Arroyo arrived in Hazleton in the late 80s to pick tomatoes, there were no more than a hundred Latinos in town. Arroyo, born in Lima, Peru, had left his native recession-hit country as a young business management graduate and moved to Miami, but found it hard to get work there, so he quickly relocated to Hazleton.
“I washed floors, did dishes, and worked my way up as most immigrants do in the States,” he said years later.
As he moved up in the city, the Latino population skyrocketed. In 2000, there were about 1,000 Latinos in Hazleton. Ten years later, the Hispanic population had reached 10,000, about a third of the town’s population.
By 2016, Arroyo, who now publishes El Mensajero, Hazleton’s leading Latino newspaper, estimates that the town’s Latinos amount to 15,000, about a half of all people living in Hazleton.
Latinos changed the dynamics of the city, he said.
“A lot of them came with savings from New York, and bought properties,” Arroyo said. “They would rent a house, buy another one to live in, and open a small family business.”
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The model was replicated around town, revitalising the downtown area. But, Arroyo explained, a cultural clash soon emerged.
“We Latinos like to talk loudly, and keep the music playing until late into the night.” The new residents also made use of the town’s public services. In a city that was cutting budgets and bracing for a population decline, the popular sentiment that there were “too many” outsiders soon began to take hold.
“Soon, community relations started to shatter,” Arroyo said.
All it took was a convenient crime and an opportunistic politician for the fire to catch on.
In May, 2006, a white man was murdered as he was working on a neighbour’s car. Newly elected mayor Lou Barletta seized on the opportunity, launching a campaign against “illegal aliens” which culminated in the passing of the 2006 Illegal Immigration Relief Act.
The law set prohibitive fines for those who employed or rented to undocumented immigrants, thus making landlords and employers the de-facto immigration police.
“Everyone who looked Hispanic, spoke Spanish or even had an accent became suspect,” Arroyo said. “Being Latino was suddenly a crime.”
Dr Agapito Lopez could not believe it when the law was passed.
A retired ophthalmologist, he was on a trip in Texas with the rest of the board members of the city’s water supply company when a relative called to relay the news.
Upon his return, he quickly asked to see Mayor Barletta, and tried to tell him the city stood to lose a lot of money if it went ahead with the new law.
“This was worse than the laws in San Bernardino, or even Arizona,” he said.
Lopez knew what he was talking about. An American citizen born in Puerto Rico, he had practised eye surgery in New Jersey and Arizona, where he “saw the racism” his children had to experience before the settled in Hazleton in the 1980s.
Noticing Barletta’s unwillingness to back down, he quickly set up a meeting with community leaders at a local church. Lopez, a soft-spoken man in his 80s, with a playful moustache and a wide smile, quickly found himself organising a full-on peaceful resistance movement, asking the mayor to refuse the ordinance he himself had helped to spur.
Lopez kept pushing the city, with one foot outside the system and one foot inside it.
He used his position in the board of the water supply company to tell Barletta, at every opportunity he had, that “the new law was going to cost the city a lot of money”.
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Meanwhile, he helped to organise vigils on the night that the City Hall was set to approve the legislation, and again when Mayor Barletta was set to sign it into law.
That night, Lopez, who had been the governor-appointed Pennsylvania commissioner for Latino Issues, organised a protest.
“The day the ordinance was set to be approved, the Latinos were on the stairs leading up to City Hall, on Church Street, and on the other side were the people supporting the ordinance, with signs saying, ‘Illegal means illegal’, and ‘Go back to your banana republic’,” Lopez recalled.
Suing for peace
Barletta did not back down.
When the law was finally passed, Lopez, along with lawyers from the ACLU and other organisations, sued the city of Hazleton. After nearly a decade of litigation, they won two years ago. The city still owes almost $2m to the lawyers, who have pledged to donate the reward to Latino organisations.
Meanwhile, Barletta had ridden a wave of white populist disenchantment from City Hall into Congress, where he has been re-elected twice. If the signs in and around Hazleton are any indication, he is on his way to a third re-election. During this campaign, he ceded his office to the Donald Trump campaign.
In many ways, Hazleton has been rehearsing for more than a decade the fight that America will be waging on and after the Tuesday election.
To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, it is a struggle which opposes an old order that refuses to die, with one that is not quite yet fully alive.
Lopez is clear on the stakes of the 2016 election. “Hazleton is a mirror for the whole nation to look into,” he said, from a local Democratic Party Campaign office where he was making calls to remind voters to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.
“This is where America could wind up.”
But it remains to be seen if Democrats, who under the Obama presidency have deported more Latino immigrants than any other administration, offer a real solution.
For Berta Batista, it is a matter of faith.
“It’s the million-dollar question. But I know that if Trump wins, it will be hell for us. I pray that [Hillary] will be good; at least she is courteous to us,” she said.
Batista relocated to Hazleton only five years ago, after living in Puerto Rico for more than 20 years. She now works loading vans in an office supply business, where the hours are long and irregular, and the pay just above minimum wage.
She paused for a second, her flat brown eyes looking for the next address on her get-out-the-vote list.
“The blanquitos – the white Americans – say we are here to take their jobs. That’s not true, what happens is, they come to work first, and last only one or two days, and then they leave,” she said.
“We don’t leave, we are ready to do the work, even if it’s hard and the pay is bad, so the bosses pick us. It’s not our fault, they should ask their bosses, who are also blanquitos, why they chose us.”
Batista’s question may remain unasked until November 8. Defeating Trump is the most important goal for her until then.