NEPA member reflects on racism, divide and conquer of immigrants

By Rose Yanko, Northeast PA Healthcare Rights Committee

I come from a small town in Northeast PA (NEPA) and grew up on a property with several houses on a 15-acre lot.  My father was born to an immigrant family in a nearby town. The town was a wonderful little web of many different languages and cultures. Since that town was so close to our family property, we remained friends with everyone and frequented my grandparents’ bar.   Like mostly everywhere in NEPA, they were coal miners in the past and many worked at the coal company right down the road which is still open today.

At the bar, elders frequently told tales of struggle and strife. They took any job they could get such as cigar factories and coal mining, where if you were killed at work, they dumped your body on your porch. I heard the struggles of immigrants who could not speak English until their new neighbors befriended and helped them. My ancestors wouldn’t have survived here without the people who accepted them – though surely not everyone did.

As I read the most recent articles along with the comment sections in the local news regarding Hazleton and the Covid-19 pandemic, I wonder how many of my peers have forgotten the struggles of our own ancestors as they turn around and point fingers at the Latinx community now.  Our proud ancestors stood together across racial, religious and ethnic lines to lead the working class struggles of the time and fight the exploitation of the bosses. People died because of exploitation back then, too. 

A story comes to mind from a 90-year-old woman I cared for in her home. When she was a child at home with her mother; when she heard what sounded like roaring thunder.  A majestic, uniformed Hanover policeman was at her door. He asked if her neighbors were home but she told him she did not know. The policeman knocked on her neighbors’ door and asked for the man of the house. The wife answered and went to get her husband.  When the husband approached the door, the policeman clubbed him in the head.  As his body dropped to the porch with his kids and wife screaming, the mounted policeman rode off.  All because the neighbor was fighting for safety and rights in the workplace as a coal miner.  He was a Polish immigrant. And that was his bitter end.  Despite attacks and intimidation by police in the service of wealthy bosses, workers continued to fight for and won greater rights and protections for coal miners.

Today, a problem that I have recognized is that most Latinx people within Hazleton, work essential jobs with low pay. The global corporations that own the factories, plants and logistics centers – subsidized by our tax dollars – are not providing these workers with Personal Protective Equipment. They can’t just stay home because many have families. So people are getting sick and dying because of corporate exploitation and greed. I compare this to the struggles of immigrants from days gone by.  Have we forgotten already?  

A stand must be taken by the people against the corporations that are the root cause. We must defend the people falling victim to racist narratives. With Put People First! PA, we have a vision for how to get through this crisis that includes all working people and offers real solutions to keep our families and communities safe. We have a Healthcare Rights Committee in Northeast PA and everyone is welcome to get involved.

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