by Bill Savitsky
I live in a small former coal mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania that boomed in the late 1800s before beginning to go bust about a half century later. It always had a diverse ethnic population, although almost all were light-skinned, coming from impoverished areas of northern Europe where coal mining skills were common.
The communities of the coal region had their origins as coal company towns, often built right on top of the deep mines that honeycombed beneath them. Coal barons ruled the region, controlling all aspects of political structure, from local police and elected officials to county judges and state representatives. Residents lived under the oppressive thumb of their enormous power, with its tentacles tightly wrapped around social and economic structure.
Stereotypes always played a big role in old coal region life, by design of the coal companies. Towns were divided according to ethnicity. You had the Irish section, Polish section, Italian section, Lithuanian section and so on. Coal barons and their political stooges aimed to insure divisiveness among the ethnic groups. Keep them fighting among each other so they don’t unite against their overlords. That was the line of thought.
As demand for coal dwindled, many descendants of the original immigrants moved on, some following work in nearby cities, some chasing far flung dreams to California and beyond. The boom and bloom had turned to bust and dust.
The remaining faces of the towns changed as early immigrants aged, and the men, suffocating in the shards of coal dust impaled in their lungs, did not fare well. By the time I came of age, most of the previous generation still living in my neighborhood were widows. And most of the imposed hostility between the ethnic groups had passed, as survivors realized they had far more in common than they had been led to believe.
Coal region women were always tough, and hard times only made them tougher. As the coal industry collapsed, they took to the garment mills, which had sprouted alongside the mines. They worked hard, and they played harder. And many of the old gals, true to their eastern European roots, loved to dance the polka. Mostly they danced with other widows, and two women dancing together drew no attention, as everyone knew that men with spring in their step were hard to find. They also enlisted the younger generation, and so I grew up with the polka a big part of the soundtrack of my life.
Today my formerly Polish neighborhood is mostly inhabited by Mexicans, and they are by and large resented and ridiculed by the older populace as had each wave of immigrants before them. Old habits die hard.
One would think that formerly oppressed immigrants would be sympathetic to the plight of newcomers following the same path, but that is not what the old timers were taught by example and still remember. The prejudice is sometimes whispered and sometimes shouted, but is instilled in some so deeply that the first reflex is to lay the blame for all the current crimes and other problems on “those Mexicans.”
But when I read the police reports, I see foreign names that are all too familiar. They are the names of families that have long inhabited the town and have been the source of trouble since I was a child.
My Mexican neighborhood is filled with families that mostly keep to themselves, as did my ancestors. The newly arrived men and women are hard workers who love their families and are just trying to climb the ladder so that their children can reach higher by standing on their shoulders – just as my generation rose on the backs of our parents and grandparents.
But just as before, the lines blur with the passing of generations. While most older folks hold close to their hard beliefs, among my peers there are many who have opened their minds and hearts to the new ethnic reality. And throughout the town I see young children of all colors mingling and playing and embracing each other with no apparent realization that things could be otherwise. I see hope.
The oddly ironic and unchanging part of this story is the music that wafts past my old homestead. Most of my new neighbors came from the northern region of Mexico where a particular style of song, brought there long ago by German immigrants, is most popular. Whether it is drifting from homes or playing from the back yards of family gatherings, I still hear polkas – and I want to dance.
Bill Savitsky is a freelance writer, editor and photographer who was born and raised in Shenandoah, the son and grandson of coal miners. After attending The American University and then Penn State University, he returned to his hometown as planned because he always wanted to give back to the coal region of his upbringing. Following work with regional newspapers, he became a longtime Northeast Pennsylvania correspondent for The Patriot-News of Harrisburg until it ceased statewide coverage. He then became a guest teacher for special education students in numerous regional school districts and finished his full-time career as a case manager for Schuylkill Community Action, providing low income residents of Schuylkill County with assistance in food, housing and utilities.