Culture clash: History repeats itself in Pa. town

They came, like other immigrants, seeking freedom from persecution and a new start in the United States. And, like immigrants before them, their transition into a new culture is a bumpy one.

PennLive reporter Steve Marroni’s story about the fractious relations between roughly 100 Romanian immigrants, members of a minority group called the Roma, and residents of California, Pennsylvania, a tiny borough southwest of Pittsburgh, is a reminder that, while American history is relatively long, our collective memory can sometimes be painfully short.

Residents complain that the newcomers to this community of about 6,700 souls, sometimes referred to as “gypsies,” are responsible for an uptick in crime; fill the streets with garbage and have made no attempt to assimilate with the already present population.

The Roma say they’re seeking asylum from persecution in their home country.

U.S. immigration officials, citing privacy requirements, could not confirm their story.

But they did say the Roma are in what’s known as the “Alternative to Detention Program,” which allows them to remain in the community as they await court hearings and final orders to stay or to be deported back to Romania.

If the Roma’s claim to asylum-seeking is true — and based on interviews with some Roma, there’s every indication that’s the case — then it places them in a grand and proud tradition of those who fled to this nation’s open arms.

“In my country, no help for kids,” a Roma woman who identified herself as Dochia, told Marroni. “I want to make good life in America with kids.”

Some of those who live in California are descended from Italian immigrants who came to the borough generations ago, facing assimilation problems of their own.

But the Roma, some borough residents insist, are somehow different.

“Since they’ve been here, it’s nothing but pure havoc,” resident Pam Duricic told Marroni.

That’s the oldest story there is. There’s nothing new under the sun about bumpy relations between newcomers and already established communities.

Consider this:

“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they … Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.”

That’s from a New York Times editorial in 1899, written in response to the lynchings of all five Italians who then lived in the small town of Tallulah, Louisiana. They lost their lives in a dispute over a goat.

It’s difficult — if not impossible — to imagine such words being written now, generations after those Italian immigrants became a cornerstone of American culture.

Rosemary Capanna, a Democratic candidate for mayor in California, is among those who have tried to reach out to the Roma. It’s a task made difficult by religious and cultural differences, and the fact that the newcomers largely keep to themselves.

Capanna, who is descended from Italian immigrants who faced similar assimilation problems, say her neighbors need to be patient.

“They weren’t refugees, but they faced something similar,” Capanna said of her grandparents. “Assimilation does not happen overnight.”

No, it doesn’t. Sometimes it takes generations.

But it does happen. And American society is always the richer for it.