Despite anti-immigration sentiments among conservatives, some say there are benefits to embracing a new Roma community in California, Pa. | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Despite anti-immigration sentiments among conservatives, some say there are benefits to embracing a new Roma community in California, Pa.

“They are going to be shopping in our stores, they are going to be paying taxes, they are going to be revitalizing an area.”

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In the past, Shuster, State Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Monongahela), and other California representatives have espoused anti-immigrant and anti-refugee views. In a 2015 Facebook post, Bartolotta wrote that “many” Syrian refugees are terrorists and that the U.S. must close its borders.

Pittsburgh City Paper reached out to all of California’s representatives, including Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, for comment on the new Roma community, but none responded. 

Regardless of politics, the Roma’s culture also appears to align with traditional small-town values. Carnegie Mellon history professor Emanuela Grama, a Romanian native, recently spent time with about 15 Roma in California, Pa., while acting as a translator for Post-Gazette reporters. She says that the California Roma were extremely polite, and that they have similar values to other Roma from around the world. But she emphasizes that her observations reflect her personal opinion. According to Grama, Roma from Romania traditionally work as craftsmen of precious metals like gold, and are known to travel to sell their goods.

“It’s a traditional society; they are very proud Roma,” says Grama. “They seem to value community and family most.” 

(CP attempted through multiple sources to interview the Roma, but didn’t receive any response.)

Grama adds that some Roma were upset about being portrayed, in social media, as poor and looking for handouts. “These are not people who are poor,” says Grama. “Many people were telling me they would be willing to do any kind of work, painting and construction, blue-collar type of work. They are proud, they have a very clearly defined dignity, and that is what they felt was taken away from them.”

Chavez says conservatives who fail to defend immigrants like the Roma are disregarding conservative values. “Even illegal immigrants are more likely to live in households with children, to be comprised of a mother and a father, to have a father who works full time,” says Chavez. “All of the things us conservatives are supposed to believe in.”

Chavez also believes churches can play a role in welcoming immigrants to small towns. But area churches are sending some mixed messages.  

Rev. Samuel Smolcic, of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in nearby Belle Vernon, says he understands that it can take time for any immigrants to assimilate. Smolcic says he doesn’t speak Romanian, but the Roma “are welcome to my parish, everyone is welcome.”

But Rev. Gregory Peterson, of Holy Trinity Church, an Orthodox Christian church in Charleroi, just upriver from California, says he’s “not interested in illegal immigrants.” When CP reminded him that the Roma were here legally, he seemed skeptical, but said “We are a small community and we don’t have the means to take care of these immigrants. If a gypsy comes here, they are welcome, but we are not looking into that right now. They are not interested in church; they are interested in material things.” 

But longtime California resident Rosemary Capanna says that, despite the initial objections of some, relations with the Roma immigrants are already improving. Capanna, who is running for California mayor as a Democrat, says the reaction to the Roma shouldn’t be classified as hysteria, and that a lack of communication between residents and elected officials worsened the situation. 

She says many townspeople came to the July borough meeting upset because they witnessed some Roma speeding while driving on town streets. Capanna says that once the police chief announced that he had been issuing citations and working toward improving public safety, many residents had calmed down. However, Capanna realizes that some residents might have reacted too strongly initially. According to the Post-Gazette, some townspeople were upset that the Roma hadn’t yet assimilated, even though they had been in town for only a few months. 

“Our reaction to their presence is something we are judged by,” says Capanna. “How long can you hold onto anger and outrage? But in the heat of the moment, people had legitimate concerns.”

Capanna says people in town don’t really see themselves as conservative or liberal, and says that as long as the Roma are learning and obeying the laws they are welcome. She says local businesses like the beer distributor and convenience stores have already seen an uptick in sales thanks to the Roma. 

“We have a downtown area that we are looking to improve, like most Mon Valley towns,” says Capanna. “Improved commerce is good.” 

Capanna says the local magazine Pennsylvania Bridges is planning events to bring the Roma and native-born residents together. She believes things will only improve. 

“California really does well by its residents,” says Capanna. “I have faith they will do that when there is a need. I certainly feel there are enough people here who want to welcome [the Roma], and learn about their culture.” 


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