Por Eddy Ulerio
After you wrote the book about Barletta’s ordinance attempt as a resource of the then mayor to gain regional notary hood to win the position of congressman and knowing that you are a son of this city, I am struck by your reasons for it.
- Why does Jamie decide to date the entire ordinance process in a book?
As a student of local history, I obviously saw this as a significant event. Also, Hazleton’s “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” was actually very important nationally, as it marked the beginning of two wider trends: One was the emergence of harsh policies and rhetoric aimed directly at undocumented people – which we saw with Arizona’s SB 1070 a few years later and eventually with Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric. The second was the move toward more local immigration policies. But really, for me, the biggest factor was just how illustrative this was as a case study of how the politics of divide and conquer work. In other words, it really showed up self-interested political elites are able to use race to pit working class people against one another.
- Dismantling all the false arguments used by Barletta to “justify” the ordinance, do you think that changed the mentality of your local political base?
As we’ve all learned by following the national news, some people aren’t going to change their minds, even when confronted with facts. So, no, I don’t think I got to everybody, nor did I expect to. But a lot of people did thank me for providing evidence for what they suspected all along – namely, that Barletta had fabricated the “immigrant threat” and that much of his rhetoric was racist, distracting, and self-serving.
- Was Hazleton prepared for a Hispanic migration like the one that lives in this city today?
No. And many of Hazleton’s institutions – the school district, the newspaper – still aren’t. They’ve done almost nothing to prepare and have failed to adequately adapt. I lived in Dayton, Ohio from 2011 – 2017 and while I was there they passed “Welcome Dayton,” which was an “immigrant friendly city” initiative. It might not be the perfect bill, but it is admirable for encouraging local institutions to be proactive in their encounters with newcomers. To have translated documents ready; to offer multicultural programming; to not hassle people over their immigration status – that sort of thing. Cities must be proactive if they are to be accommodating. You can’t just do nothing and expect things to work themselves out. And you especially can’t do counterproductive things the way Hazleton has.
- You who grew up in Hazleton, what do you understand that the natives miss that they understand has been taken away by the Hispanic migration?
My theory on this is that the source of native-born folks’ angst is at least partially economic. Hazleton is struggling. It’s impoverished. When manufacturing was at its peak in the late 1970s, there was an abundance of stable, decent-paying jobs, many of which came with benefits. Today, there’s still plenty of jobs, but they are low-paying, temporary, non-unionized, and sometimes dangerous. I don’t mean to be nostalgic for factory work; my point is that as wealth has flowed upwards across the globe, working people feel increasingly anxious and unsteady. And they’re in search of someone to blame, of some explanation.
Personally, I think we can get very far by coming together as working class people and making demands on the people at the top who have hoarded so much wealth, power, and resources. In fact, both native-born Hazletonians and newcomers have been harmed by these global economic processes in similar ways. But what happened instead is that Lou Barletta managed to convince so many local people that immigrants were the problem. He convinced them they should point their finger down at those who were more marginalized rather than up at the folks who are actually the reason so many of us struggle to get by. Hispanics didn’t take anything away. They’ve only added to this city. But because they came at a time when so many were afraid and vulnerable to manipulation and race-baiting, they sadly became the “thieves” in the minds of many. It’s time we change that misconception and work to show people where the blame actually belongs.
- What do you think of the local political class? Are not the two political parties and their leaders a retrograde version of what should be a type of inclusive politics where corruption and nepotism do not exist?
Even more so than nationally, I think it’s safe to say the two parties in Hazleton are virtually indistinguishable. The Hazleton Area School Board comes immediately to mind, where the Republicans and Democrats are equally corrupt and the focus on enriching their families and friends more so than on educating our children cuts across party lines. This is partly why, especially locally, I push for working-class politics rather than party politics.
- Now that the Hispanic community is awakening and some members are running for public office, do you think there will be a change in the short term that will result in a balance of forces?
Maybe. I think it’s still too early to tell. But what I can say based on historical examples of other, mostly European immigrant groups finding their footing in this region is that we seem to be coming to a critical juncture. At some point – and maybe this has already begun – the elites who are in charge of local institutions are going to start offering some Hispanic folks a seat at the table. But they’ll do this on the condition that the people they give a seat to are not going to “rock the boat,” so to speak. On the condition that they’ll adopt the dominant ideology, in other words. And so what happens in time is that the composition of the elites starts to change, but the ruling ideology remains the same.
I for one am very excited to see many Hispanics running for office and I’ll be even more excited when they start to win. We need our leadership to look like our community, no question about it. But I also think that it’ll be very important that those first few people who get into office avoid “selling out” and keep their “eyes on the prize.” That they fight for the people and not just for themselves. Again, this is where I think the importance of working-class politics comes in: If a person gets into politics for career purposes, it’s risky; they very well could turn their back on us. If, on the other hand, they care about justice and want to represent the voice of the people and respond to the people’s demands and desires, then we’re heading in a positive direction.
- The economic model prevailing in Hazleton since the 50’s, does not believe that it is exhausted?
Yes. Here’s another example of Hazleton’s leadership being set in their ways and refusing to acknowledge their limitations. As I document in my book, CAN DO has really struggled to attract decent-paying jobs to the region, especially since the 1980s. Worse yet, they’ve given millions of dollars in tax breaks to some of the country’s most exploitative companies. Yet if you look on their website, all you see is self-congratulatory statements about how good of a job they are doing. We need to have a much deeper discussion about their outdated model. But, again, their board is stocked with local elites and their model is still making certain local developers rich, and so it’s not going to be an easy thing to change. This is another reason why we need to get organized and build power within the working class.
- Do you think it is urgent to reengineer the School District if we want to have a population of professionals that can contribute to the development of the area?
I try to avoid capitalist logic when thinking about education. I’m a firm believer in education for the sake of education, nothing else. Education should enrich us as people, not train us to do what our bosses want us to do. So, no, I wouldn’t try to engineer the education system for the sake of economic development.
But here’s the thing: If our schools teach critical thinking, embrace diversity, and immerse students in meaningful history, then what we end up with is a population who’s not going to fall for the manipulative politics of someone like Lou Barletta, and a population that is going to demand more of its leadership in all sectors. Sure, it’d be good to have some opportunities for professional employment around. A lot of people, myself included, leave town and don’t come back for that very reason. But welders and machinists can develop a critical consciousness, too. Many of our coalmining ancestors certainly did!
- Poor education is not proportional to the few opportunities that our young people will have in the future?
I think that’s correct. Opportunity is key. I don’t want to place too much blame on the education system, either. Yes, it is horribly managed and that has dire consequences for many young people, but there are a lot of teachers in there doing good work. We shouldn’t lose sight of them as we criticize the district’s administrators. As someone who went through that school system, I can certainly recall having several very poor teachers who were hired only because of their connections. At the same time, I can also recall some teachers who were truly inspiring and influential. With better management, I think the school district can attract and hire even more teachers like that.
- How do you see the future of Hazleton?
That’s a big question! The answer, I think, will depend on how global and national events shake out. These are scary times we live in. Political unrest, re-emerging fascism, climate change. We’re going to have to rely a lot on each other if we’re going to get through it. Fortunately, Hazleton is a small community where people are used to getting organized and fighting back against mistreatment. We had to do it back in the coalmining era just as we’re having to today. Here’s to us all coming together to weather the incoming storm!