Immigration: Mixed-Race Couples Face Violent Harassment in Pennsylvania Town

Editor's Note: The small town of Shenandoah Pennsylvania recently made the national news when a Mexican man was murdered by a group of white teenagers who reportedly shouted racial epithets while beating him. The victim, Luis Ramirez, had a white girlfriend.

SHENANDOAH, Pa.-- They are united by their love for each other, their children and their commitment to maintain a strong family. But every day, they must contend with disapproving looks and, sometimes, insults shouted at them because they belong to different ethnic groups.

This is the story of the many couples in interracial relationships, mostly white women and Mexican men, who live in the town of Shenandoah, Pa. This summer, the town garnered national media attention when a group of white teenagers killed a Mexican man who had a white girlfriend.

Amid an environment of racial harassment, these couples also live with the uncertainty that they could one day be separated because their partner is not in the United States legally.

This is the case of Ruben*, a 39-year-old Mexican, who came to Shenandoah 10 years ago and lives with his partner of five years, 28-year-old Susan*.

Marriage is not a possibility for Ruben, who entered the country illegally and would need to return to Mexico and wait for 10 years before gaining legal status. He prefers to stay here with his three children and his girlfriend, ignoring the occasional insults shouted at him in the street by white teenagers, who call him a "dirty Mexican" or a "wetback."

Susan says she has also been the object of disapproving glances and comments for having a Mexican partner.

"It doesn't happen every day, but occasionally they've told me that I'm dirty to be with a 'dirty Mexican,'" says Susan. "I feel more welcome in the Latino community," she adds.

Susan sadly recalls the life of Luis Martinez and his girlfriend, Crystal Dillman, who suffered similar harassment on many occasions. On July 12, Martinez was beaten by four white teenage boys as they yelled racial slurs at him. He died 30 hours afterwards in a local hospital.

Dillman, a mother of three -- two with Martinez -- did not get married because the couple had planned to move to Mexico, far from the insults and stares of Shenandoah. She says Shenandoah residents have screamed "dirty Mexican," at her boyfriend on various occasions.

Another couple that has faced the hostile environment of Shenandoah is 32-year-old Felipe* and his girlfriend, Anne*. A native of Guanajuato, Mexico, Felipe works as a gardener and has lived for six years with Anne and their two children, who are two and four years old.

Although they may get married, Felipe says he doesn't want to. "I don't want people to say that she married me so I could get my papers," he says. "I am with her because I love her."

Anne says she respects his decision, but hopes that he can change his mind: She knows single mothers in Shenandoah whose undocumented partners have been deported.

Yet, discrimination in East Pennsylvania is not limited to Latino men and white women. Latina women who are dating white men are also harassed.

Ana Taveras, who is Dominican, is married to Raymond Schuman. The couple, who lived together for seven years before they got married and had a 5-year-old daughter together, still faces discrimination. Living in Hazelton, Pa., Taveras says she has to listen to people tell her husband that "'he could have done better.'"

Taveras says that when you marry someone from another culture, "there are a lot of barriers you have to break, everything from food to clothing and music. It isn't easy, but fortunately, my husband has been able to adapt to my culture well," she says.

The couple moved to Shenandoah two years ago, where Taveras says she hasn't felt discriminated against because people didn't know that she was Latina.

About 500 out of Shenandoah's 5,000 residents are Latino. The town is located in the coal mining area of eastern Pennsylvania and, despite the lack of official figures, interracial marriages here have increased in recent years and today could number 80 families.

The local Annunciation church has become a haven for many of these couples. Approximately 100 people attend Annunciation church's Spanish services, and at least 20 of those families consist of white women and Latino men, the majority of whom are of Mexican origin.

Even though most of these women do not speak Spanish, they participate in the mass. The children speak English with their mother, and Spanish with their father.

Various couples of white women and Mexican men say they have to endure the discrimination of belonging to different ethnic groups, as well as offensive slurs and the stares. But what bothers them most, they say, is the lack of tolerance in a town that is barely a mile long and has a church on every two blocks.

Yet, there are a few couples that have been fortunate to experience no discrimination here. Margaret and Pedro, who have been together for two years, say they "have never felt attacked," and explain that they live a life like any other couple.

But they agree on one thing: The white women who have chosen to be with Latino men say it is because they are more "loving, more responsible, and have a clear concept of family and also prefer working two shifts so they can be home caring for their children."

*These names were changed to protect the identity of the individuals interviewed. Translated from the original Spanish version by Suzanne Manneh

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