- Associated Press - Saturday, February 18, 2017

BLOOMSBURG, Pa. (AP) - The Valentin family had just moved here from Puerto Rico the first time they encountered a hateful slur.

It was 2000 and Maria Valentin and her husband, William, were walking into the DMV in Berwick when someone nearly backed into Mr. Valentin on the sidewalk. Then the driver started screaming.

“You need to go back to Mexico!” he yelled.

Even when she retells the story now, Mrs. Valentin sounds exasperated. “We are not Mexican!”

Nearly 17 years later, nothing’s changed. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

Heads swiveled disapprovingly when they went to cast their votes on Election Day last year, she said. “They look at you so weird. You get angry. You get upset,” Mrs. Valentin said. “(President Donald) Trump got elected. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even understand what’s going on.”

Instead of feeling more accepted in the community where they put down roots, the Valentins say they feel more rejected. “Time went by and it got more racist. They look at you like you are very different. We’re all human.”

Their teen daughter still sometimes comes home in tears when other children torment her because of the color of her skin. And they’ve endured racist insults at the grocery store by people who assume their heritage means they’re Mexican and probably here illegally.

But Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. “We have the same holidays,” Mrs. Valentin said. “We celebrate Christmas at the same time. We’re all the same!”

Her husband owns his own landscaping business - William’s Lawn and Landscaping Service. They pay their taxes, send their four children to public school, and go to work like everyone else.

Mrs. Valentin hopes that by speaking up, the community will begin to understand and be slower to judge someone just because they speak Spanish or happen to have a different color of skin.

“Everybody’s got the same blood,” she said. “I teach my kids not to discriminate for physical, mental, color, race, or country,” ticking off each category on her fingers.

‘Get out of my town’

It was a job that brought the Valentins to the area in the first place.

Mr. Valentin was answering an ad in a Puerto Rican newspaper that offered to pay for his round-trip expenses if he would come work on a tree farm along Route 11 for six months.

He stayed on until it closed, then worked for another local landscaper for 13 years before starting his own business last year.

When the firm he worked for tended the shrubberies at the Wal-Mart plaza in Buckhorn, he endured racist insults spat from passersby on a daily basis, he says.

“Hey, get out of my town!” people would yell to William. “I’m no Mexican,” he thought.

“We are being judged because we all speak the same language,” his wife added.

The family heard similar taunts in the parking lot of Giant Foods in Bloomsburg, too, when someone yelled out “You f–ing go back to Mexico.” That was over a decade ago.

Most of the police are friendly, although an officer once pulled over Mr. Valentin for no apparent reason other than the Puerto Rican flag dangling from his rear-view mirror, he said. He’s since removed the emblem.

‘Stealing their jobs’

Meanwhile, Mrs. Valentin stayed home to raise the children until 2006, when she started working first for R.R. Donnelly, then Sykes, and now with the appeals department at Geisinger.

“I didn’t know any English at all,” Mrs. Valentin said. “I learned the language.”

But at Sykes, she said one co-worker was angry because Mrs. Valentin was paid $1 extra per hour for being bilingual, meaning she could take more calls - and often did. Management “pushed for an understanding” and tried to help smooth over the situation by inviting her and other co-workers of varying backgrounds to bring in ethnic foods to share.

“They think we’re stealing their jobs,” she said.

‘They do nothing’

The Valentin’s children have faced ridicule in the local schools. Despite moving between three different districts over the years, the treatment in each has been much the same, they said.

Another student at Bloomsburg Middle School told their 13-year-old daughter “Go to Puerto Rican hell,” Mrs. Valentin said. She came home crying. “What did the school do? They do nothing.”

“Everywhere you go, bullying,” the teen said. “They don’t know how getting called Mexican feels.”

Mrs. Valentin has another word for it - hate speech.

“I understand we have the freedom of speech, but when it’s racist…” she said.

It was the same in Central Columbia and Berwick, she says.

It was 2009 when her oldest son got beaten up while attending the latter, she said. The aggressor told her then 11-year-old boy, “that he didn’t deserve to be in this country.” He had a concussion from the assault, Mrs. Valentin said. School officials tried to put both children in detention for the spat, but Mrs. Valentin leaped to her son’s defense.

“My kids are not perfect,” but she also responds when school officials call her for problems. “I’m a responsible mom.”

The superintendent there was unaware of the specific incident when reached by phone last week, although he noted he also cannot comment on specific student issues.

‘Nobody important’

For the most part, the family likes living in Bloomsburg.

“I know we are a very small community. I treat everybody equally.”

But sometimes they still encounter stares, or flat-out racist remarks.

Mrs. Valentin had voted before. But when she went to her precinct in November, she got an icy reception from the other people there, she recalled.

“It was very uncomfortable” as people gawked. “I’m nobody important.”

In the months before the election, the family noticed the prevalence of Trump campaign signs in the area. “His hotel was built by Hispanics,” she said. “I voted for (Hillary) Clinton and I’m not ashamed of that. But I felt the pressure from the community.”

She wonders if maybe a parade or a restaurant would help locals understand their culture better and end the confusion.

The couple lives in Bloomsburg now with their four children: William Jr., 18, Christopher, 16, Reina, 13, and Alondra, 5.

“It’s a great place to live,” Mrs. Valentin said.





Information from: Press Enterprise, https://www.pressenterpriseonline.com

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