The horrific murder of Luis Ramirez and the increasingly tragic story of the small town in which it took place are both featured in today’s New York Times.
Mexican’s Death Bares a Town’s Ethnic Tension
By Sean D. Hamill
SHENANDOAH, Pa. — Crystal Dillman knows that four teenagers have been charged in the death of her fiancé, Luis Ramirez, that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is monitoring the case and that most people in this small town in the Appalachian Mountains believe it was a horrible crime.
But Ms. Dillman, the mother of Mr. Ramirez’s two young children, is not sure justice will prevail.
“I think they might get off,” she said of the four teenagers, “because Luis was an illegal Mexican and these are ‘all-American boys’ on the football team who get good grades, or whatever they’re saying about them. They’ll find some way to let them go.”
The case has raised similar concerns among Latinos across the country.
“For many Latinos, this is a case of enough is enough,” said Gladys Limón, a staff lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “And it can help us get attention to the wider issue that this is happening all over the country, not just to illegal immigrants, but legal, and anyone who is perceived to be Latino.”
Mr. Ramirez, 25, who had been in the country illegally for six years, picking crops and working in factories, died July 14 from head injuries received two days earlier.
Investigators said he had gotten into a fight with a group of teenage boys — most or all of them members of the town’s high school football team, the Blue Devils — who left him unconscious in a residential street, foaming at the mouth.
Exactly what happened during the fight is still hotly debated on Internet message boards in Shen’doh, as the town is called, with some saying it was just a street fight that went bad, and others claiming the teenagers singled out a Mexican immigrant for a beating and made anti-Mexican remarks.
Since Mr. Ramirez’s death, this town of 5,600 has been bitterly divided over the case, illuminating ethnic tensions that surprised town leaders.
“I’ve heard things like, ‘We don’t want to send our kids back to school because we’re afraid people don’t like Mexicans,’ ” Mayor Thomas O’Neill said. “That’s shocking to me. That is not the Shenandoah I know.”
Prosecutors have charged Brandon Piekarski, 16, and Collin Walsh, 17, with homicide, ethnic intimidation and other counts in adult court, though their lawyers are trying to have the case moved to juvenile court.
Derrick Donchak, 18, was charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other counts, including providing liquor to the other boys on the night of the confrontation. All were members of the football team; Mr. Donchak was its starting quarterback.
A 17-year-old, whose name has not been released, was charged in juvenile court with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation and other charges.
They have all pleaded not guilty.
After anthracite coal was discovered near the town in the late 1800s, immigrants poured in, mainly from Europe. The hamlet grew to a borough of 25,000 before the mines started to close. The immigrant groups largely got along, but they also felt the need to ethnically divide not just their churches — some of which are still considered “the Italian church” or “the Irish church” — but also the town’s volunteer fire companies.
The town’s biggest festival every year is Heritage Days near the end of August, when the major ethnic groups, among them the Lithuanians, Irish, Italians, Greeks and, more recently, Mexicans, put floats in a parade and sell ethnic food from booths.
Mr. Ramirez’s death has also reignited a regional debate over immigration that began two years ago when the town of Hazleton, about 20 miles from Shenandoah, enacted an ordinance that sought to discourage people from hiring or renting to illegal immigrants.
At the time, Shenandoah, whose Hispanic population has grown to about 10 percent, from 2.8 percent in 2000, considered a similar ordinance but held off after Hazleton was sued.
Even then, there were signs of tension. After the debate over the Hazleton ordinance, Shenandoah’s Mexican community pulled out of Heritage Days in 2006.
“They just didn’t feel comfortable then,” said Flor Gomez, whose family runs a Mexican restaurant in town.
Many people believe the debate fueled by Hazleton’s actions helped create the environment that led to Mr. Ramirez’s death.
“Clearly there were a lot of factors here,” said Ms. Limón, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which has been helping Ms. Dillman. “But I do believe that the inflammatory rhetoric in the immigration debate does have a correlation with increased violence against Latinos.”
Hazleton’s mayor, Lou Barletta, said he saw no connection to his town’s ordinance, which was scrapped after the town lost a court battle.
“It’s a tragedy what happened to that man,” Mr. Barletta said. “But I don’t believe our ordinance had anything to do with it. Every person is responsible for their own actions.”
James P. Goodman, the Schuylkill County district attorney, who is prosecuting the case, said ethnic intimidation cases were rare in his county.
But town leaders have now heard about a number of incidents from Mexican residents that were never reported. The town is trying to reach out to them, said Mayor O’Neill, who said he still could not believe the fear some residents had expressed to him.
“How it came to that point, I don’t know,” he said. “But maybe these are things that it is good that it came out.”