AM: Annie Mendez, participant
AS: Aryn Schriner, interviewer
Transcribed by Aryn Schriner
July 26, 2022
AS: Can you share your name and how to spell your name?
AM: Annie Mendez. A-N-N-I-E, Mendez, M-E-N-D-E-Z.
AS: Okay, can we start with you telling us a little bit about yourself and your family?
AM: Well, I know we have four children, three boys and a girl and I still have three boys at home. Two teenagers and one young man. My children are the apple of my eyes. I’m one of those worried mothers. And I’ve been blessed because my kids have been good kids. And that’s the best reward you can have in life. That’s my best project, my children.
AS: How did your family decide to come to this area?
AM: Wow, that was many years ago. My ex-husband and I, you know his brother was here, we just came for a weekend. And he wanted to turn the page and find something where he could do his work. And the next week we were moving, as easy as that.
AS: And what part of town do you currently live in?
AM: In West Hazleton.
AS: How long have you lived in the area?
AM: About 20 years or so? Maybe more? Granted, my kid is 22.
AS: What’s your favorite part about living in this area?
AM: Hazleton has been a town of opportunity. Like many other families that have come here, where rent was cheap at one point, houses were more accessible. And when I moved here it was very tiny. Cute little – quite a – you know, town in the countryside, kind of, for us that come from the city. So back then there were not many people. It was just fresh air. And it was really good to have, you know, a new setting. The weather was, at that time – it was like bad, like was a lot of snow back then. But it’s – it’s a change and with that, just…
AS: What was – what was your least favorite thing about living in this area?
AM: Well, you know I’m one of those newcomers. I am the newcomer. We were like five families, if not, were Latino at that time, we’re – we’re very few. And we went through a lot at the beginning. It was not so welcoming.
AS: Can you talk about where you came from and is it similar or different to living in Hazleton?
AM: Well, you know, I come from New Jersey originally, and that was the area of Prospect Park, Paterson, Passaic County. When I was a teenager in Paterson, it was like that: it was a bigger city, was at the same time smaller. And then, you know, the town overgrew with crime and drugs and everything else, so I moved away a little bit farther up in Prospect Park. And it was nice, but then you know, expensive like everything else in big cities. Life is expensive.
And most people have come here for the same reason: jobs, opportunities, housing. Wherever you find jobs, you’re gonna have a demographic change. And the factories here brought a lot of people, you know, so when I came here that time it was such a small town. It looked like a ghost town, really. It was older, a very much older population. There were not many kids in school, I remember my children were, you know, like the first Latinos in the schools. And then…I love, I fell in love with the town. It was small, cute in the sense of you know, everything was close by – the first time that I came I think I went all the way to Conyngham. I just drove around the biggest street and that’s it? Yes, that’s it! And this was, you know, Hazleton. I love the fresh air.
So we came that weekend and the following weekend, we were renting a place and moving. $200 was the house at that time. A huge house. So that, compared to living in the city, where I was gonna pay $1,000 just in housing, that was a no brainer. You know, was opportunities, you know, like the opportunity to put another business, the opportunity to grow. At that time, we were serving more, you know, the Anglo and Latino community at the same time. So it was a good change. I’m very grateful for this town, truthfully.
AS: So keeping that in mind, what’s your least favorite thing about living here?
AM: Well, a lot. There’s a lot. The first thing is, when I first came, you know, we were called the newcomers and the intruders. That was a very hard time to adapt, you know, to open up a community that can merge into one. It was very hard. A lot of people have resentment of seeing newcomers, but I have an old friend in Hazleton and she told me stories about how – any other population that had come to Hazleton have gone through the same thing. You know, the Irish did it, the Italians too. She says you’re just in the new generation that’s coming and, you know, things are gonna be bad, but then they’re gonna get better. And it did, you know, it did. I had the opportunity to having a business with my ex-husband. We, you know, kind of ran it together all that time. So I mingled a lot with, you know, a lot of people so it was easy to me. But now it’s easier to others.
AS: How would you describe Northeastern Pennsylvania?
AM: I… [inaudible] fresh air, beautiful views, bad weather <laughing>, opportunities. Like many other cities have increased the housing, the rent, the cost of living. And I’m talking about 20 years ago, forget about now, but 20 years ago, you know, and then a lot of the company factories have moved away from the city the same way they did it. Those factories moved away from the city looking for better land, to be able to have their, you know, factories’ better tax break. Economically, that’s exactly why they did it. So they started shipping people over to be able to have the work and the labor, and that brought people here. Because I remember having friends that will come – bus from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to be able to go work. And those people decided, well, you know, ‘What’s the point? I’m just gonna find a place to stay there.’ And that’s how most of these communities have grown because people have come and they say, ‘Well, I’m gonna stay. There’s no point in me traveling.’
They found all the things that were – like, the rent is cheaper. You know, I can be able to afford a house. I might be a homeowner. You know, that’s the American dream. And that’s the first base of creating wealth, you know, for generations. And so people said, ‘I’m gonna be able to afford a house in a city I’m gonna be working in and making a living, and I’m not going to be in a big city where I might not have other needs fulfilled, but I’m going to be able to have a home.’ And I think that’s the primary thing that a lot of people came here for jobs.
Secondary thing was they decided to save for the opportunity of owning a home. You know, in a smaller setting, kids were supposed to have more opportunity in school because in that smaller setting there will be less children in a classroom, less violence, less opportunities for them to get into trouble. So all that stuff at that time when I came here, that’s what I saw. And I’m sure a lot of other people saw the same thing.
AS: What do you think is important about the history of the region?
AM: Well, as I was saying, I met this lady that told me about the history of, you know, of the Hazleton area. History is important because we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes, you know, and this is what we need to learn from that. So once you said to me, ‘Oh, you know, don’t worry about the racial tension that is here with a newcomer, for you guys with the Latino community…that will pass because the Italians went through the same thing, the Irish went through the same thing. You know, it’s just a matter of people getting to know each other and learning from each other and merging as members of one community.’ And it did but, you know, it was hard, I’m sure for the Irish or for the Italian, and on my part of the community, it was hard for us too.
AS: We’re going to shift gears just a little bit. What kind of – can you talk a little bit about the work that you do now?
AM: Yes, well I’m an entrepreneur. Like I told you, when we moved here, we opened an auto repair shop right on Broad Street, Junior’s Auto Repair. And then from that I shifted to, uh, a food industry. I had a restaurant right before the pandemic – closed – Papaya Queen Cafe. And I was trying to open up this store at the same time there, and things happened and the pandemic came. And then I decided, well, you know, I have to do something, I don’t want to stay at home to, you know – I have to support my children.
I took a leap of faith, truthfully, because we opened in 2020, right towards the end of the year. And I just said, ‘God, just guide me and, you know, push me to do what I need to do.’ I believe, you know, I’m a woman of faith. And I believe a lot in…God gives you signs. I asked for a sign and he answered, and I said okay, I’m going full force, and I’m here. Started in a smaller setting, because if, still like we were really in the pandemic, and still we were receiving, like, the merchandise.
So I say, you know, I’m just gonna open a smaller space to test the water and see if it be able to be doable. We did really good the first year. And then we moved here this year, in February, to a bigger setting. And now we kind of can develop the brand and work in and do what we do. And I love people and this is something that is easy for me because I can communicate with people, you know, just keep me on my toes. I love fashion. So, you know, being able to see the things that come new, what is out there before it’s even out in the market, and I can pick and choose what we want in the market here. And just seeing when a lady gets dressed or she fits right in clothes, how you see their faces changing. So I tried to help them find something that will, you know, uplift them. And that’s good. You know, I want to make sure that people leave feeling good and that they’re confident that whatever they’re wearing will enhance them more.
AS: What do you like to do outside of work?
AM: Well, I’ve been very active in my community for many years now. When I do have time, I volunteer, you know, whatever is needed. If we have to go to a protest, I’m here. We have to go get food, I’m here. So things like that – that can give a little bit of good back. God has been really good to me and my children, and I can say the best thing is not when you have received, but when you give. It’s just a different feeling that you know someone is in need, I’ve been there. So I know. I am very grateful that God gave me the opportunity to be able to pay back.
AS: What types of places do you enjoy visiting in the region when you’re not working? Where do you like to go?
AM: Oh, well, there’s not much to do here, I can tell you that. But when my children were little, I used to take them out of town because truthfully there really is not that much, you know. So we used to go to Allentown just to see the park, to see the lights at Christmas, or to Berwick, they have that Christmas show. The lights were things – were one of the things that I had asked before that we need to, like, start doing more stuff for the kids here and giving them an opportunity to have, you know, especially for the teen years, having more opportunity for them to enjoy a little bit more.
Pretty – there’s not much and it’s got worse now because we don’t even have a Y anymore. So it’s lacking a lot to give the youth, you know, things to do for fun and leisure and learning. We were lucky enough that things, back quite a few years now, Hazleton One Community Center opened. So that kind of helped merge the community and that was the idea then and that had worked really well. I do, you know, volunteer, do a couple of things here and there with them, too. And that has truthfully been a lifesaver for a lot of my children.
The Hazleton Community Center has helped a lot the Latin community, it helped the children. A lot of the parents – you have no idea how hard it was for them when they came here, not speaking the languages, not knowing how to move around town, like where to go. I used to help people even put their water on because they didn’t know. There was no one that spoke the language in the offices, in the school district. There was no one, there was no one that was translating nothing. And you feel that rejection as soon as you walk to a window to someone.
So I used to go help them just, you know, they would come to me to speak Spanish, ‘Help me get this, how do I do this? How do I do that?’ And that’s one of the things that got me involved, truthfully, afterwards. The first thing – I used to translate documents for them, I will take them to the appointments. There were no doctors here. Imagine something as important as your health and you have no way to communicate with your doctor. And the doctor didn’t have, you know, someone that spoke the language.
We went through a lot. I mean, I didn’t personally in the sense that, thank God, you know, I spoke the language. But you know, like a lot of Latinos that first came here, came to work in factories. And they were [inaudible], you know, like they didn’t understand to be able to do certain things. That was the first, like, the first part of the community that came specifically to be able to work in all this meatpacking industry and Amazon and all this other industries and they didn’t have, you know, other people that – to help them.
They, the government office, they didn’t have translation, they didn’t have documents translated. The school, they split the – they, you know the main departments. And you – when you come from the city like New York or New Jersey or Connecticut, where there is a merge of so many different diverse cultures, but they also – the ability of having translators even on the phone, even in Arabic, you know. So that’s, like, was a shock for people that there was not something like that here available.
I’m pretty sure and I know, back then there were people that haven’t even seen a person of color in this town, or – yes – or that had gone out from Hazleton, not even to New Jersey or New York. I met those people. I met those people. So you know I’m light-skinned. I’m biracial. So, speaking the language for me was easy, but I remember having a dark-skinned Dominican friend that, you know, he was bullied, to say the least. So… there is a lot of good and a lot of bad. But there’s more of us that are good. And that want to be included and work together than those are still lingering.
AS: Can you share a little bit more about your community?
AM: Hazleton now is – it’s a beautiful community. It’s very diverse. You can go and buy cold pizza or an empanada, or you can go get the best Italian food or go get some Dominican rice and beans. So I think that food kind of puts the people together. I see a lot of my Anglo friends that they go and, you know, when I used to have that restaurant, my best customers. They love the empanadas, the smoothies, you know the kind of Tex-Mexican food and Dominican style. And so I see the food kind of bringing people together. You know, at the same time, you know, when we started mingling more with each other the community started just merging. And I see in different events that we have planned through the town, how I looked around and one day I was like, wow, we’ve come a long way. It’s good.
AS: You’ve already spoken just a little bit about this, but what other types of activities are you involved in?
AM: Well, I’m very much involved in getting education to my community. Help them understand the importance of being able to exercise, you know, your vote, learning the process. Because a lot of Latinos that come from other countries, they have a different process of voting. They don’t know this country, but like every year, basically, or who you vote for – they come out for the presidential election. You know, that’s like – they’re ‘Okay, I’m gonna vote for the president,’ but there’s so many other different elections that they’re kind of learning now. And we started pushing and getting together as I got myself educated, educating others, also. That way they can, you know, educate others, that’s how you do. Creating leaders, leaders create leaders and leaders continue the work of others.
So, this group that kind of got together, we push for things – like 2012, I remember doing this for Obama and then the campaign for Hillary kind of put everyone on their toes and say, ‘We need to get involved.’ There were too much that could affect the Latin community that was going on at that time. The language of the president, the language that was used by the candidate for president at that time was very negative towards the Latino community in general. Not only here, but the whole Latino community in this country. We’re more than 57% [in Hazleton]– maybe more now – millions of Latinos in America, North America, and United States of America. You know, that is a very good piece of the pie when it comes to voting and electing these officials that want to represent us. And not us only as Latino or us as American, us as members of communities.
You know, the government starts from a small town like us. That’s where it starts. That’s where the work started. And we started working towards helping people understand. Somehow campaigns have reached out to me. We kind of just put – people volunteer… I’m easy to talk to <laughing> so I get a lot of people together. Said, ‘let’s do this.’ You know, you need to understand how the process works. You know, there was no one that translated at the poll, or people that weren’t Latino that can, you know, work also.
So we kind of got this group together to do that, to bring that to the other Latinos in the community. And we did pretty good in 2016, you know, ‘16. I think we, a lot more votes came out, more people got involved and that continues through now. There are Latino ladies that have run for school districts, others that have run for city council. We’re not there yet, but the doors are opening and we’re kicking them open, that’s for sure.
AS: Are there particular challenges that you and your community face?
AM: Language is still the problem. It is still a problem. There are people that are still coming. I’d meet people here that come, ‘Oh, I just moved here recently.’ [They are going to have] lesser problems because now there’s a vast, vast majority of the Latin community that now make what the composition of the Hazleton area is.
But – and they tell them, the doors are open for them in a sense, but there’s still, you know, the more people that moved here, the more challenges that the city encounters, in education, in the city itself. And that’s normal. That’s normal for any growing city. But we were blamed for that. For the problems that carry through having a bigger population. We were blamed for that. So, I’m sure that is just normal as populations grow. There’s gonna be more garbage in the street. There’s gonna be more – what do you do, we got more students in the classroom. But what do you do? There is going to be more traffic. There’s more cars that are parked in the street. So what do you do? And this is what the officials haven’t seen, foreseen.
You know, that’s what happened when my children went to school and the populations are changing. The school wasn’t prepared to have the amount of kids that came to live here. And the same thing with the city. And I don’t think they even prepared. I think that they just let go with the flow and let’s see what happens. And in life or anything else, if you look ahead, the road can be easier. And I think that we could have been…welcomed more, merged faster, and worked together if we hadn’t had certain politicians push us back instead of merging their community and being able to create mass voting. He used the hate and division to rise to power and that, we’ll never forget that. Because I was one of those people there, that he stood on, to rise to power. That was my community. I was one of those people that came here looking for opportunities.
Latin people are very loving and hugging, kissing just like Italians are, you know, we don’t come here to…we’re happy people. Just like any other immigrants, just like back in the 1600s, they came in looking for new opportunities. That’s what we, as any other immigrant, that’s what we do. Nobody come here – or, who is going to leave their country that is in a good position, that is not in war, that is not crime, that is not in poverty? Who wants to say ‘Oh, I’m gonna move’? No one. No one. If you’re comfortable in your country, if you are protected by your government, if your human rights are protected, you know, and the economy’s flowing, you will succeed. In anywhere in the world that you go that that’s happening, you will succeed because you’re going to work for it. And that’s what the American dream is. I love this country. Having my home and now my children. And the opportunities. Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional.
The opportunities that I can say that my kids have here living in freedom, being able to… even though with everything that is happening, I worry about my kids all the time because my kids are biracial. One is white, the other one is dark skinned. He looks like he’s Arabic, you know? And his dark skin and his father’s dark hair, very dark hair. I’m worried about my boys. I have three boys and I worry about them. Everything that’s happening with the police, with our rights being stepped on. For the opportunity of my children to be able to vote and be in an environment where they can have access to all that, the opportunity for schooling, and you know, having here the main focus on having the school district helping them achieve greatness.
So I worry about that. I worry about my kids walking on the street one day and being stopped by a police officer. I worry about that all the time. I see this every single day on the news, something happened. Teenagers, you know. You don’t have maturity when you’re a teenager. You can do stupid things, dumb stuff. I tell my children ‘Always make good decisions. Where are you? What are you doing? Be careful.’ But, you know, when they turn 18, they think that they own the world and they’re invincible. And I tell them, ‘Be careful. Be careful. You have to work 10 times harder to be able to make it.’
And it shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t be like that. It should be that there is equal opportunity for everyone. No matter what your background is or where you’re coming from, you should have the same chances to move ahead. I tell them, ‘You have to go to school, you have to learn, because you have to work 10 times harder than somebody else to get the same job, even though you have the qualifications.’
And, you know, even though I love this country, and I’m sure that in other places in the world it’s worse, you know I look at it this way: we have so much to do to be able to bridge that. You know, in racial, in ethnicities, that shouldn’t be what they look at when they see you. I want my children to be seen as human, not for what they look like on the outside. And as a person, you know, once you get to know someone. Not for what they look like on the outside.
And it’s sad –all the racism in this country. That’s one thing that I learned that I didn’t know existed. Yeah, I never learned that nowhere else in the world. And here, I learned it. And that sticks with you. You learn that you’re different because someone sees you as different, not because you are different from anybody else. Once you get to know the person, they believe a lot just like you, they have feelings just like you, and they smile and their family are [inaudible] and they do the same things that you do. They’re careful of their children, they want to make sure that they’re good. It’s just so similar, and they make us so different.
AS: Is anthracite coal history important to you?
AM: It is. it is because we are part of the history now. We are part of the history. And what I love about this, is like I was referring back to the Italian community, the Irish community. I read, and I know through word of mouth of things that had happened before here, with the mines, with the coal barons, and how hard it was for them. How they went through, you know, surviving and dying in the mine. Child labor. And the Irish specifically were one of those communities that went through really bad times here. And plenty of them died trying just to survive and live. Just like any other immigrant that has come to America.
So I think it’s important that we look at that and don’t forget, and like I said, we try not to repeat mistakes. And that’s why we need to keep the history, so we can learn from that. ‘What did we do wrong?’ I’m sure in a couple years from now, in 20 years maybe from now, we’re gonna look back at the Latin community that has merged here and say, ‘What did we do wrong? And how could it have been fixed?’ We have to learn from that, you know. I’m sure that if another community will come here – which is, they’re coming, I’ve seen it – you know, we as now the majority being the Latin, hopefully, not going to do the same mistakes. Because we went through that.
And that’s what happens, people forget. Because the first settlement here, they forgot what they went through. And they forgot when the Irish came, what they went through. The Italians forgot what their grandparents went through. So, we forget our history and we become so American that we forget that we’re all immigrants in this country. And this is land that wasn’t ours that was taken. And that we’re here as renters, as we say, of this world that we’ve created that became America, you know. And we need to learn from that, keeping the history.
And it’s, unfortunate events that have happened and this…we can’t forget that. We can’t forget that. Because before it was the mines, now it’s the factories. And you know, what, what the factory did during the COVID pandemic, it was as bad as what they did with the coal miners. It was as bad. It was as bad. And I think if the community didn’t step up, myself included, to fight for our people who are working in these factories and were getting sick and infecting everybody else. Things could have been worse – they were bad enough. We were one of the hottest spots in PA.
So we can’t be silenced when something’s going bad, when something’s wrong. We can’t be silenced. Because it’s just as bad as being the other people, as the oppressor. In this case, the factories were the oppressor. And the community had to step up. I’m telling you this from experience.
I had so many people that had reached out to me during that time. So many people telling me, ‘This has happened, this has happened.’ But they wouldn’t speak out. So I – I will. If you need me to be your voice, I will be your voice. If I have to – I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid to speak up, I’m not. And I don’t think of consequences, and maybe I’ve gained the respect of a lot of people for that reason. They know that if they need something and I can reach out to whoever, it will be done. And during the pandemic, there was a lot of things that were bad here happening.
But a lot of good came out too. The Center [Hazleton Integration Project] opened up a food kitchen and they started giving food out. And that was a beautiful thing that was happening. There were people going hungry, people sick. We started delivering food to leaving it on their porches, and calling them and say, ‘Your box of food is on the front porch.’ There were people that were stuck in buildings, sick – apartments, entire buildings, sick with COVID. We used to go and just drop off the boxes in front of the porches at the entrance and call them and say, ‘The food is there.’ And they would come and get it. Or put it by the door. The lines in the Community Center went twice around [the building], and within an hour all that food was gone. So other institutions started doing that, too.
So, there’s a lot of good in people. Besides, when something’s happening bad, you can see everyone comes together. So I know there is good in humanity. And I have noticed that. We can bring all that out and work together. And I saw that when COVID happened.
I saw a lot of negative things happening during COVID, they blamed the Latino community. ‘Oh, people coming from New York, from the city.’ But you know what, I said, ‘But there was San Francisco, there was other countries, other parts of the country that went through the same thing, and they don’t even have Latino communities there. So what happened?’ So this is something that is happening, and what we can we do to prevent the infection going through as high as it did here, you know? And a lot of those areas that were getting infected were areas where there were factories, food plants. That’s really the essential workers, that they call them, that got sick. And they had to go to work.
Like again, economic power. That’s why I said my community needs to have three things. We have to gain the economic power, we have to get the voting power, and we have to get our hands on every single table. Because if we don’t, we have no representation. We have no one to speak for us. And when I say speak for us, it doesn’t mean to divide us, it means to let you know what affects us directly and how can we as a community fix those problems. At the end of the day, if I’m not good and I live here, you’re not gonna be good because, you know, we’re all one at the same time.
AS: What part of anthracite history is worth remembering and making sure that your generation and that your community will remember?
AM: Well, unfortunately I will say, the mistakes we have to keep that. All those mistakes that we made, everything that was bad. Why? Because we don’t want to repeat that. So we can’t forget the people that came here and worked hard in those mines. We can’t forget that. The ones that died, we can’t forget that. The ones that sacrificed to build this town, we can’t forget that.
And the same thing, we can’t forget the community, the Latin community, and what we have done for this town. Many people will think that we have done nothing. When I see rural America, how it looks like, and I saw Hazleton when I came here so many years ago, what it looks like – that was rural America. You know, and small businesses were practically nonexistent. Store fronts were empty, houses were decaying. The population was dying. Kids were not here, they were leaving, they were leaving to the city. And so that fresh, new blood has built this town again, has rebuilt this town. And like every city that is growing, it brings the good with the bad.
But I think we’ve done a lot of good here. There is a lot of good things happening, and will keep happening. And Hazleton has become, I say, a really good example of things not to do and things to keep trying to do. You know, merging a community, getting education, art into the community, music, centers like the Community Center where there is a space for children to be safe and to look after. You know, that Community Center and our kids, that Community Center – and I keep saying the Community Center because that’s really the only thing we have here. There’s not a Y. There’s not a pool. The parks are not adequate, or the wrong people hanging out there. Because that happens in a city. I can’t say enough about the Community Center because from 2, 3 years old to teenagers, they take everyone in as much as they can. And give them activities, summer camp. All this with no money. Summer camp and arts and music and activities and all kinds of clubs and things. So that is what we need more of.
I’m sure that back then that when Hazleton’s first settlement came, they had a group of people like that. And I’m sure there were, because you know, no one can be oppressed forever. No one can be oppressed forever. There’s always gonna be one that is gonna speak up. There’s always going to be one that’s going to say ‘Enough.’ And one come another, and another, and another, and that’s how rebellion happens. That’s how liberation happens. That’s how America got created in the first place! So yes, you know, no one can be oppressed forever.
AS: Thank you. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about you or your community or your family?
AM: I mean, I speak a lot, I’ve talked a lot. <laughs> And I’ve spoken about a lot of things. I don’t want to leave behind, saying that Hazleton today is better than it was yesterday. And I’m sure tomorrow it will be even better. And I’m sure the following generation, the following immigrants will have hopefully an easier way to come into a new town.
For any town in America, rural America, that is seeing a change in their population, in their demographic, I would just say: embrace that. Merge, learn from each other. And make whatever you have left, build on that. And I thank you guys for being here, for taking the time to hear me speak. And I’m very grateful for this area. I built my home here, my children here, my business here, and probably the opportunity that I probably wouldn’t happen in the city. So I’m very grateful to this area. And I will continue to fight and be a voice for whoever it needs to be, and for what is right.
AS: Thank you. Thank you for sharing with us. That’s all of our questions.