Professor, students compile stories of Hazleton
By JILL WHALEN (Staff Writer)
Published: April 27, 2014
People from all walks of life opened up to students in Steven Accardi's English class at Penn State Hazleton.
Some shared stories about the racism they have encountered since moving to Hazleton. Others reminisced about the Hazleton of 50 years ago.
Accardi's students wrote it all down.
The stories - 41 of them - are included in two books that tell Hazleton's story from the people who live here.
"The assignment was to collect an oral history from a Hazleton community member," Accardi explained. "The students were asked to get an idea of what it is like to live in Hazleton, and also to find out how it changed over the last 10, 15, 20 years."
Some students spent time at the Hazleton One Community Center, where they talked to people enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. Other students planted themselves at restaurants and other area businesses, hoping to find folks willing to talk.
In an introduction to a book containing the immigrants' stories, Accardi writes, "The changes that Hazleton has gone through in the past 15 years have been well-documented: an increase in crime, gang violence, and teen drug use and a decrease of high-paying jobs. Many have blamed these problems on the increase in Spanish-speaking immigrants.
"Scapegoating is not new. It usually begins when we don't understand (or refuse to understand) a complex problem, such as the economic decline of a once-robust city. It's much simpler to blame a group of people, especially if that group of people looks, speaks and acts differently. When we don't understand each other, walls are built, and the space between fills with fear. Racism, xenophobia and ignorance provide easy, albeit wrong, answers to questions we have about changes in our community, further dividing and reinforcing the biases, stereotypes and blame."
In one book, immigrants shared stories of their struggles in Hazleton, not only with learning a new language and culture, but with dealing with racism and discrimination, Accardi said.
Those who shared their stories are not named, and some students, like Yulissa Arias, chose to write about them in the first-person voice. She writes about a woman from the Dominican Republic who struggled through English classes and eventually opened her own day care center.
"The struggles I went through of being an immigrant who had to start from the very bottom to reach my goals was all worth it. I had started a new beginning for myself and my family. To this day when I open that door to my daycare I smile and think about how much I love my life here in Hazleton because of where I am at today," Arias writes.
Student April Comstock interviewed an Egyptian woman who moved to Hazleton with her family.
"We learned that lack of skill and education in this country makes living much more difficult. If we could come back and start over my husband and I would focus on his education, acquirement of skills, and then starting our family. Although things are tough right now, we are still thankful. We may not have tons of money but we are grateful; we know we have a better life here in America than we would in Egypt," Comstock writes, quoting the woman.
An accompanying book includes oral histories from Hazleton residents.
"The community members written into these pages come from all walks of life and speak to the diversity of the Hazleton community: residents of various ethnic backgrounds; younger and older adults; immigrants and those who have been living in Hazleton for decades; and business owners and those making a living doing menial labor," Accardi writes in its introduction.
One resident tells student Michael Canavan about the coal industry.
"After a few years of everything going smoothly, the coal business died out and Hazleton's main attraction was gone. It left me with nothing to do because a lot of my friends left with the coal. All of the jobs remaining were low-paying restaurant and family-owned business, and that's where the problem started," Canavan quotes the man. "Along with my friends leaving the area, a majority of the things to do left with them. The main street was gone because nobody had money to shop from the family business or restaurants. With no money and nothing to do, the rate of drugs and crime was starting to increase."
Student Phydra Leonard talked to a woman who was forced to moved from her Hazleton rental. She told Leonard that her Spanish-speaking landlord defaulted on the mortgage.
"As she took the boxes out to the truck she looked around the quiet neighborhood that had once been full of the sounds of children and her frown deepened. Toys were discarded in almost every yard showing yet another change that had occurred in the last couple years," Leonard writes. "She could remember a time when the yards and neighborhood itself had been full of kids running around from when they got their chores done until after dark when the streetlights came on and their parents called for them to come inside for dinner."
While the people interviewed have their own unique stories, Accardi said a common thread can be found.
"No matter whether it was a white person living the past 40 years in Hazleton, or a Latino living here for the past 10 years, they talk about their desires for a good job, of wanting to create a better life for their family," Accardi said. "I'm hoping that people will begin to see the commonalities."
Copies of the books will be given to those who shared their stories. Accardi is also debating whether to make it available to the public.