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Rural Pennsylvania Mothers Like Me Aren’t Going Anywhere

Candida Maggipinto

If you walk into La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, you’ll see a photo of Joe Biden having some of their delicious Mexican ice cream. La Michoacana is one of the reasons I’m still living in Pennsylvania, in a small rural town an hour from Philadelphia. One of the owners, Juvenal, will tell you stories about his family life and the day the Vice President (now President-Elect) came in to buy some ice cream from him in 2016. I’m also still here in rural Pennsylvania because of mothers and women like me who refuse to be ignored or silenced — there are 126,000 of us (and growing), connected and organized thanks to a Facebook group here in Pennsylvania.

I’m originally from California and was raised in a town with more Mexican-Americans than white Americans. My parents spoke fluent Spanish. I relocated to Pennsylvania because of my husband’s job. Since then, my family of four has felt like a “brownish” (my husband is from South America) square peg in the very white hole of conservative Pennsylvania.

When we first learned about our relocation, we tried to choose the best place to live (we had a choice between Delaware and Pennsylvania) and the best schools for our kids. The people who were part of our financial demographic (all white) counseled us, “Oh, definitely choose Pennsylvania, they have much better schools than Delaware.” And then the chatter would begin about how there were so many minorities in Delaware, they’d ruined the public school system.

After the first six months, I began to feel like a “less than” — like I wasn’t good enough or white enough for the conservative mothers of Pennsylvania that I was meeting, even though I’m white and the daughter of second-generation immigrants.

“I think there’s an International Women’s Club in Delaware,” one mother suggested to me when I told her my husband was from South America. “There’s probably lots of immigrant wives there like you.”

The chatter would begin about how there were so many minorities in Delaware, they’d ruined the public school system.

I soon found myself trying hard to fit into that sapping white hole, feeling I needed to change myself in order to be accepted here, quieting myself down when it came to various subjects — with immigration and “church” at the top of the list. I’d be at a playdate with neighborhood mothers or moms from my kids’ classrooms, and I’d clam up or hear myself saying something misleading.

“So where does your family go to church?” I’d be asked countless times, and I’d say something like, “Oh, we haven’t found one yet.”

I’d been force-fed Catholicism as a kid and resented my parents for it as I grew up. When I became a mother, I vowed not to force organized religion on my daughter and son, though I did suggest over the years that I could take them to various church youth groups, and they could see if they liked it — knowing that many of their school friends belonged to these groups. Both of my children continually declined the offer.

There is diversity here in rural Pennsylvania, but in very small margins. In townships like Kennett Square and West Chester, there are more brown and Black people because of the mushroom industry and because of West Chester University. We chose to buy a home in Kennett because of the Latino population that’s here — because of businesses like La Michoacana and hardworking business owners like Juvenal. Spanish isn’t just an elective here; it’s part of the primary school curriculum. We’d wanted our kids to learn Spanish at an early age, knowing just how valuable it would be in their lives.

The Latino community in Kennett have been the backbone of a billion-dollar mushroom industry since the late ‘80s, after The Immigration Reform and Control Act. The “Amnesty Act” of 1986 completely changed this area. For the first time, Mexican families could finally plant roots in Pennsylvania and raise their families here; they could build small businesses and feel proud to contribute to the local economy. But ever since the 2016 elections, they’ve slipped back into the shadows, back living in fear because of Trump’s immigration policies.

So, I’ve seen the bigotry that exists in rural Pennsylvania and how it’s affected minorities here in the last four years. And if you head out on a Sunday drive in the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, you will pass more Confederate flags, flying next to Trump flags, than I care to count.

My family has also been directly impacted by the bigotry and hate that exists towards LGBTQ people in small-town Pennsylvania. Four years ago, my daughter left her middle school and never went back. She was bullied by girls who gossiped and shunned her because she might be gay. When she begged me not to send her back to a building where she felt threatened every day, I realized that we’d been trying far too hard to fit in here, and I began making plans to immediately find another school. I even considered renting an apartment out of state. New York was the first place I looked, knowing how comfortable my daughter felt there, though it would be costly to rent an apartment. Still, it would be worth it.

In the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, you pass more Confederate flags, flying next to Trump flags, than I care to count.

I reached an agreement with our school district, and my daughter was assigned a designated homeschool teacher who acted as a conduit to her other eighth-grade teachers until we could find another school for her. While she studied at home, I looked for apartments in New York. Then, I found out that there was a small charter school that she qualified for, about 20 minutes away, and I applied for it even though it was a lottery system. I also looked into private schools, willing to spend her college savings on a high school with a more diverse student population, but I was striking out. There was only one private school in our area that wasn’t parochial.

So, the plan was that if my daughter didn’t get into the public charter school for ninth grade, we’d rent an apartment in the suburbs of New York City, and she would attend high school there during the week while I worked from the apartment; we’d then return to Pennsylvania on the weekends to join my husband and son. It would be hard on our family, but my daughter would have a chance at feeling accepted.

Luckily, her name was drawn by the lottery system for the local public charter school. Still, even there my daughter continued to hide herself during ninth grade; she found it difficult to trust people and make new friends. Again, I thought of leaving Pennsylvania the day she called me from school during a panic attack after a teacher had embarrassed her in front of the class.

Little by little, my daughter began to develop trust again after she was included by a diverse group of teens at the charter school — kids who were also there because they didn’t fit into the conservative white hole of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, I sought out — and found — more and more white women who also believed in diversity. Social media also helped me to connect with people in Pennsylvania that I have more in common with; this year, amid the isolation of the pandemic, I found the aforementioned Facebook group.

Those women and mothers have been a lifeline. The support I’ve received from them in the last few months has saved my sanity, and I no longer want to escape to New York. I’ve finally found small-town, like-minded Pennsylvanian mothers who are fighting for diversity, racial justice and equality for their children. And that’s not all: We’re fighting for kindness and decency, and for honesty and accountability from our president and all elected officials. We fight for our kids and a better future — but we’re also fighting for a better democracy for everyone in our country, not just people who look and talk and act like us.

We’re not giving up, and we’re not going anywhere.

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