On November 8, 2008, having had a few beers and an early dinner, Marcelo Lucero, an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant, took a late-night stroll with his childhood friend Angel Loja near the train tracks in Patchogue, a seaside village of twelve thousand people in Suffolk County, New York, a county that only three years earlier had been touted by Forbes magazine as one of the safest and wealthiest in the United States. It is also one of the most segregated counties.
Before the mild moonlit night was over, Lucero was stabbed and killed by a gaggle of teenagers from neighboring towns, who had gone out hunting for “beaners,” the slur that, as some of them later told police, they used for Latinos. Earlier that night, they had harassed and beaten another Hispanic man—a naturalized US citizen from Colombia named Héctor Sierra. The teenagers also confessed to attacking Hispanics at least once a week.
Lucero was not the first immigrant killed by an enraged mob in the United States, and he most certainly will not be the last. At least two other immigrants were killed in the Northeast in 2008, but Lucero’s case is especially poignant because he was killed by a high school star athlete in an all-American town where people of mostly Italian and Irish descent proudly display US flags on the Fourth of July and every year attend a Christmas parade on Main Street. If it happened here, it can happen anywhere.
Patchogue, in central Long Island, is only about sixty miles from Manhattan—far enough to escape the city’s noise, dirt, and angst, but close enough to feel splashes of its excitement, pluck, and glamour. Lucero, who probably didn’t know about the Forbes ranking of the village as an idyllic place to live and raise children, had come from Ecuador to Patchogue in 1993 on the heels of others from his hometown who for thirty years now have been slowly and quietly making their way to this pocket of lush land named by the Indians who once inhabited it.
In Ecuador, too, Lucero had lived in a small village called Gualaceo. The town has lost so many of its people to Patchogue that those who remain call it Little Patchogue, a way to honor the dollars flowing there from Long Island. Month by month, remittances from New York have helped Gualaceños prosper despite a profound and long-lasting national economic crisis that forced the government to toss its national currency and adopt the US dollar more than a decade ago.
The day before he was killed, Lucero, thirty-seven, had been talking about going home. Over the years he had sent his family about $100,000—money earned working low-paying jobs—to buy land and build a three-story house he planned to share with his mother, his sister, and his nephew. He was eager to join them. The sister, Rosario, had asked him to be a father figure for her son. It’s time to go, Lucero told his younger brother, Joselo, who also lived in Patchogue.
“He was tired,” Joselo recalled. “He had done enough.”
Lucero was planning to leave before Christmas, an early present for their ailing mother. I’ll take you to the airport, Joselo promised. He never got the chance.
• • •
I read about the murder of Marcelo Lucero when it was first reported in the news, but I learned some of the more intimate details through a Columbia University graduate student, Angel Canales, who had immediately jumped on the story and was working on a documentary about it for his master’s thesis. The story resonated with me for several reasons, not the least of them being my own condition as an immigrant. Though I never felt the burden of being in the country “illegally,” I have carried a different kind of stigma.
I came from Cuba in 1980, at sixteen, aboard a boat named Mañana, as part of a boatlift that brought more than one hundred twenty-five thousand Cuban refugees from the port of Mariel to the shores of South Florida in the span of five months. Several thousand of those refugees had committed crimes in Cuba and kept at it in their new country. Quickly, quicker than I could learn English or even understand what was happening around me, all of us were tainted by the unspeakable actions of a few. We became saddled with the label “Marielitos,” which carried a negative connotation, and with the narrative of Scarface, the unfortunate but popular film by Brian De Palma in which Al Pacino played a “Marielito” drug lord. It was a difficult stigma to shake. In 2005, when a book I wrote about the boatlift was published, people still felt the need to point to my story as a rarity—a successful “Marielita” who had done well and had even made it to the New York Times.
In fact, the opposite was true. My story was not unique. Most Mariel refugees were honest, decent, hard-working people. The exceptions had given us all a bad name. Those experiences taught me what it’s like to live under the shadow of an unpopular label, and while “illegal” is not as detrimental as “criminal,” it is close, and it has endured far longer than the “Marielito” curse.
The murder of Marcelo Lucero also resonated with me for a professional reason. It brought back memories of a story I had written for the New York Times on September 30, 1996, about a Hudson Valley village called Haverstraw, where, according to the 1990 census, 51 percent of the residents were Hispanic, although everyone knew the ratio was closer to 70 percent. Just thirty miles north of Manhattan, Haverstraw had been a magnet for Puerto Ricans since the 1940s. In more recent years, Dominicans had followed. The mayor, Francis “Bud” Wassmer, told me he no longer recognized the village where he had been born and raised. The public library carried an extensive selection of bilingual books, a local store that once sold men’s suits was selling work boots, the strains of merengue spilled from the pink windows of riverfront Victorian mansions, and the old candy store had closed down while eighteen bodegas had opened.
My story included the following paragraphs:
The suburbs, long the refuge of fleeing city dwellers, are quietly becoming a magnet to newly arrived immigrants, who, lured by relatives and the promise of a better life, are bypassing the city and driving to the proverbial American dream straight from the nation’s biggest international airports.
The trend, entrenched everywhere there is a significant immigrant population, is transforming the character of many suburbs, sociologists and demographers say. It is making suburbia more heterogeneous and interesting. But, like never before, it is also pressing onto unprepared suburban towns the travails and turmoil of the cities.
New immigrants, unlike immigrants who have lived in the country for a while, have special needs. They are likely not to speak English. They need jobs, help in finding affordable homes, guidance to enroll their children in schools, and information on how to establish credit and even open a checking account. They may also need public assistance to make ends meet until they find jobs. And they need it all in their own language.
Cities, where immigrants traditionally settled, have the services and the expertise to help new immigrants make a smoother transition to life in America. Places like the village of Haverstraw are not always fully equipped to deal with the needs of new immigrants.
“We have social problems just like urban communities,” Mr. [Ronaldo] Figueroa said, “but we don’t have the resources to address them in the same way, so they tend to accelerate at a greater pace than we can keep up with.”
Throughout the piece, I quoted the work of Richard D. Alba and John R. Logan, both sociology professors at the State University of New York at Albany, who had been researching how members of minority groups get along in suburbs of New York City, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
“The question is how are they going to meet the needs of these new immigrants in a suburban environment?” Professor Logan told me. “This is very new for suburbia and it poses a challenge to public institutions.”
Twelve years later, when I heard about Lucero, I thought of Professors Logan and Alba, and I remembered the words of Mayor Wassmer, who told me that one of the problems he had with Hispanics in Haverstraw was that they produced a lot of garbage. Perplexed, I asked what he was referring to. He replied, “I mean, rice and beans are heavy, you know.” The other problem, as he saw it, was that Hispanics tended to walk in the streets and congregate at night by the tenuous light of the village’s old lampposts.
In fact, Lucero had been taking a stroll when he was attacked by seven teenagers and killed. Was it unusual in the village of Patchogue for people to walk late at night in its deserted streets? Was anyone there threatened by two Latino men out for a stroll? Was this the challenge that Logan had talked about, the turmoil that Figueroa had envisioned? The “problems” that the mayor had been able to discuss only by referring to garbage?
The Haverstraw story had always felt unfinished. As many reporters do, I had swooped in to collect information, filed a story, and moved on to the next assignment. I had never followed up. Patchogue, I thought, was my chance to connect the dots, to explore what could have happened—but, to my knowledge, never did—in Haverstraw.
That Lucero had been killed in a town so close to New York City and by youngsters who are only two or three generations removed from their own immigrant roots came as a shock even to those who for years have known that there was trouble brewing under the tranquil surface of suburbia.
“It’s like we heard the bells but we didn’t know if Mass was beginning or ending,” said Paul Pontieri Jr., the village’s mayor, who keeps in his office a photo of his Italian grandfather paving the roads of Patchogue. “I heard but I didn’t listen. I wish I had.”
But the killing did not surprise experts who track hate crimes and who knew that attacks against Hispanic immigrants had increased 40 percent between 2003 and 2007. According to the FBI, in 2008, crimes against Hispanics represented 64 percent of all ethnically motivated attacks.
In the two years that followed Lucero’s death, hate crime reports in Suffolk County increased 30 percent, a ratio closely aligned with national trends.8 It is unclear whether more attacks have taken place or if more victims, emboldened by the Lucero case, have come forward with their own tales of abuse.
Lucero’s murder, as well as the growing number of attacks against other immigrants, illustrates the angst that grips the country regarding immigration, raising delicate and serious questions that most people would prefer to ignore. What makes us Americans? What binds us together as a nation? How do we protect what we know, what we own? How can young men still in high school feel so protective of their turf and so angry toward newcomers that they can commit the ultimate act of violence, taking a life that, to them, was worthless because it was foreign?
Global movement—how to stimulate it and how to harness it—is the topic of this century. Few issues in the world today are as crucial and defining as how to deal with the seemingly endless flow of immigrants making their way to wealthier countries. Even the war against terrorism, which since 9/11 has become especially prominent, has been framed as an immigration challenge: who comes in, who stays out.
The relentless flow of immigrants impacts the languages we speak (consider the ongoing debate over bilingual education and the quiet acceptance in major cities, such as Miami and New York, of the predominance of Spanish), the foods we eat, the people we hire, the bosses we work for, and even the music we dance to. On a larger scale, immigrants affect foreign policy, the debate over homeland security, local and national politics, budget allocations, the job market, schools, and police work. No institution can ignore the role immigrants now play in shaping the daily life of most industrialized countries of the world.
In the United States immigration is at the heart of the nation’s narrative and sense of identity. Yet we continue to be conflicted by it: armed vigilantes patrol the Rio Grande while undocumented workers find jobs every day watching over our children or delivering food to our door. In 2011 members of Congress considered debating if the US-born children of undocumented immigrants ought to be rightful citizens of the country, while in Arizona Latino studies were declared illegal.
While the federal government spends millions of dollars building an ineffective wall at the US-Mexico border, the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States wonder if the wall is being built to keep them out or in. In fact, 40 percent of undocumented immigrants, or more than four million people, did not climb a fence or dig a tunnel to get to the United States. They arrived at the nation’s airports as tourists, students, or authorized workers, and simply stayed once their visas expired.
The immigration debate affects not only Hispanic immigrants, who comprise the largest number of foreign-born people in the United States, but all immigrants. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, DC, think tank, reported in August 2012 that the number of immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in the country hit a new record of forty million in 2010, a 28 percent increase over the total in 2000.
In a 2007 report researchers at the center generated population projections and examined the impact of different levels of immigration on the size and aging of American society. They found that if immigration continues at current levels, the nation’s population will increase to 468 million in 2060, a 56 percent increase from the current population. Immigrants and their descendants will account for 105 million, 63 percent of that increase. By 2060, one of every three people in the United States will be a Hispanic. Another study, released in 2011 by the Brookings Institution, revealed that “America’s population of white children, a majority now, will be in the minority during this decade.” Already minorities make up 46.5 percent of the population under eighteen.
As a nation we remain stumped over immigration. Are we still a nation of immigrants? Or are we welcoming only to those who follow the rules and, even more, look and act like us? In Suffolk County, the answers are complex.
The county likes people who have legal documents, who speak English, who don’t play volleyball in their backyards late into the night while drinking beer with buddies, who don’t produce a lot of garbage, who pay taxes, who know when and where to put the garbage outside and keep the lid on it, who support—or at least don’t interfere—with school sports programs, who don’t urinate behind 7-Elevens, who don’t look for jobs on the sidewalks, and who keep bushes trimmed and fences painted, preferably white.
“As I often say to immigrants,” said John F. “Jack” Eddington, the grandson of Irish immigrants and a former Suffolk County legislator, who lives in Medford but kept his legislative office in Patchogue, “When you move to a new town, the moment you walk in your new house—in fact, before you walk in—stand on the front steps and take a look around. The way people maintain their homes, their lawns, their cars: that’s what you must do.”
Paul Pontieri, the mayor of Patchogue, said almost the same words to me in two separate interviews. Others in Patchogue have given similar answers to questions of assimilation. It is clear that in this town—if not the entire country—the notion of what it means to be an American is tightly woven with the idea of home ownership: how to get it, how to keep it, and how to protect it from strangers. And nowhere is home a more sacred, almost sanctified,
concept than in suburbia, the very place where, for decades, the middle class has sought refuge from urban blight, despair, poverty, and the kind of social ills that cities confront and suburbia— mythically, at least—narrowly escapes.
In the last decades, though, immigrants have been following jobs to rural and suburban areas. In 2010, census data showed that “immigrant populations rose more than 60 percent in places where immigrants made up fewer than 5 percent of the population in 2000,” while in big cities “the foreign-born population was flat over that period.” The data also showed that the country’s biggest population gains were in suburbia. “But, in a departure from past decades when whites led the rise, now it is because of minorities. More than a third of all 13.3 million new suburbanites were Hispanic.”
A study released in September 2012 by Brown University confirmed that trend, and found that “of the roughly 15,000 places in the country—defined as cities, towns, suburbs or rural areas that govern their own fiscal affairs—some 82.6% were majority white in 2010, down from 93.4% in 1980. Places where whites made up at least 90% of the population fell even more sharply, to 36% in 2010 from 65.8% in 1980.”
And so the process of acculturation that an immigrant used to experience in the anonymity of the city—from learning the essential first English words to understanding how close to stand when speaking to an American—now occurs in the wide-open spaces of suburbia and under the scrutiny of neighbors who worry about property values, taxes, and the height of a blade of grass on the lawn, just like Alba and Logan envisioned so many years ago.
Suffolk County, where the population’s growth in the last two decades has been fueled by immigration, fits squarely in this demographic trend. Some towns have gone from being practically all white to having a 17 percent Latino population. In 2008 the Latino population in Patchogue and Medford, mostly from Ecuador, had reached 24 percent.
In Patchogue, learning how to mow one’s lawn the proper way is a serious, defining matter—a milepost on the road to assimilation. Francisco Hernández, who was born in New York City and moved to Patchogue from Queens, remembers how a neighbor had to teach him what products to use to keep his lawn pristine. “Spanish people [Hispanics or people who speak Spanish] do learn,” he told a documentary filmmaker in 2009. “Look at Raúl, my neighbor. His lawn was like crap. He’s got one of the best lawns now in the neighborhood. He won’t let one car park
on his lawn.”
Such are the issues that can turn neighbor against neighbor in Suffolk County, particularly if the one who won’t use the right fertilizer speaks a language other than English.
While six of the zip codes in Suffolk County are among the hundred wealthiest in the United States, Patchogue and Medford are predominantly middle-class towns with strip malls and pizzerias. These are towns where teachers, police officers, and deli owners live, not where Wall Street tycoons vacation or where pint-size Park Avenue trust-fund children learn to ride their first horses. Thus, working-class families that live in places like Patchogue and Medford are likely to view immigrant newcomers not as hired help but as competitors for the jobs they too covet.
Immigrant advocates say that the attitudes young people develop against Hispanics are fueled by the rhetoric they absorb in the hallways and classrooms of their schools, in the news media, or in conversations at home.21 In fact, research has shown that to be the case. Research has also shown that much of the immigrant bashing rhetoric is caused by fear.
“I think the difference in the situation now,” Eddington, the former legislator and Medford resident, told me, “is that you have people . . . moving into Patchogue that can’t speak English, didn’t grow up in the community, and I think what happens in that situation is that people become afraid because there are cultural differences.”
It would be easy and convenient to have a villain in this book. Take Jeffrey Conroy, for example, the teenager convicted of killing Lucero. He was seventeen, restless and unruly in school, and he once asked a friend to tattoo his body with symbols of white power: a swastika and a lightning bolt. But many in Suffolk County see Jeffrey as a victim as well—a jock who, though friendly to the Latinos in his circle of friends, absorbed the hateful rhetoric of those around him in positions of authority.
No one had more authority in Suffolk County when Jeffrey was growing up than Steve Levy, a man with such striking anti-immigration views that a report released after Lucero’s death by the Southern Poverty Law Center, of Montgomery, Alabama, called him “The Enabler,” blaming him for fueling the attack on Lucero and others before him. He was fond of calling critics “communists” and “anarchists,” and he cofounded Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform, a national group that advocates for local ordinances against undocumented immigrants. On one occasion he said that immigrant women were crossing the border to have “anchor babies,” a term used by those who claim the country is under siege by invading Mexicans.
While it is true that Levy was the most vocal and most visible of the Long Island politicians who continuously stoked the flames against immigrants, he wasn’t the only one. More important, shrewd politician that he was, Levy would not have used immigrant bashing as one of the pillars of his campaigns and speeches if he hadn’t recognized that his words would be well received by the majority of the registered voters in the county.
Lucero’s death has left a mark on Patchogue, and placed the village in the eye of the political storm that immigration has become. On the night of November 8, 2008, a Saturday, everyone went to sleep in a town that was almost totally anonymous and awoke the next morning to find satellite trucks in their front yards. Pontieri found out about the attack as he sipped coffee and read the Sunday paper in his backyard. Diana Berthold, a local artist, heard the story on TV. In desperation, and out of habit, she began to quilt. Jean Kaleda, a local librarian, was coming back from a short vacation when a friend told her about it; her stomach lurched at the news.
Film and television crews descended on the town. A half hour documentary was promptly filmed and released, PBS taped a show, and a local theater group staged a well-received play about the murder. In addition, college students wrote essays about Lucero and hate crimes to win scholarship money. Later a separate scholarship fund was established by the Lucero family to help seniors from the local high school—the same school where the attackers had been students—pay for college. (At the end of 2012, four students had received scholarships ranging from $250 to $500.) A group of about twenty women worked for more than a year on a three-part quilt that has been used in a local anti-hate campaign. Soccer tournaments that include Latino teams have become yearly events spearheaded by Eddington, the former legislator, and a group of Ecuadorians, under the banner of the Lucero Foundation, has met regularly to discuss issues that affect their community. (At a meeting in November 2011, the discussion wavered between two issues: whether to give toys or candy to children at a Christmas gathering, and how to react to a man who disrupted a town parade because Latinos had been included.)
But beyond the headlines, sound bites, and community meetings, and after the satellite trucks left, what remains is daily life in this seemingly sleepy and charming village. It is here, in the mundane details of personal stories and relationships, where my book dwells. This two-way process of assimilation and adaptation—a drama unfolding every day, in every small and not-so-small town across the United States—is how stereotypes are shaped and cemented, opinions are molded, and political decisions are made. When the process works well, as it usually does, America is at its best: welcoming and gracious, showering newcomers with handouts and opportunities like no other country on earth. When it doesn’t, as has been increasingly the case, America is at its worst: parochial, protective, and dismissive of the other. (Arizona and Alabama, with their punitive anti-immigration laws, are relevant examples.)
In Patchogue, Marcelo Lucero thought he had found a home, albeit a temporary one, but to the town he was always a stranger, a foreigner, an invisible other. Pontieri is still upset when he recalls that a few days after Lucero’s death a local Hispanic man approached him to talk about his fears. Pontieri asked him where he lived. Over there, the man said, pointing to a small, white, wood-framed home two doors from the house where Pontieri grew up, the house he visits every day to check on his mother. “How is it that I never saw him?” Pontieri asked me rhetorically. “He’s been living here for years and I never saw him before, and I know everybody in this town.” Four years later, wanting to meet that man, I asked Pontieri what his name was. He had forgotten—or never learned it.
Of course, Pontieri does not know everybody in his village. He didn’t know Lucero either, just like most people in Patchogue. Only in death did they learn his name. Only in death were they forced to see him.
From the Hardcover edition.