Days after the United States elected the first president of color, seven high school boys set out looking for Hispanics to beat up in a Long Island village. Spotting Marcelo, they surrounded him, punching and kicking, then stabbed him.
Joselo Lucero stood with his hands clasped at the Congregational Church of Patchogue, his coffee-colored eyes framed by dark circles. His older brother Marcelo, dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, lay in the open casket next to him.
Days after the United States elected the first president of color, seven high school boys—six of them white—had set out looking for Hispanics to beat up in this Long Island village. Spotting Marcelo, they surrounded him, punching and kicking, then stabbed him.
“Perhaps what Marcelo accomplished in death is far greater than what he might have been able to do in his life.” Dwight Lee Wolter, the pastor addressed nearly a thousand brown faces. The predominantly Ecuadorean crowd listened as a man translated Wolter’s words into Spanish. “He can possibly be the source of healing, hope, and reconciliation.”
Next, Reverend Allan Ramirez, a longtime advocate for Long Island’s Hispanic community, took the pulpit. “As believers, we also must be ready to extend forgiveness, even for Mr. Levy,” he referred to Suffolk County’s top elected official. “For that forgiveness can only happen—it can only take place—when Mr. Levy can take responsibility for the way in which his legislation and his views may have influenced a climate of racial hatred.”
Photo by Christopher Saccero via “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/22287673@N05/4330794602/in/set-72157623350804394/
As pallbearers rolled the casket down the aisle after the service, mourners reached inside to touch Marcelo one last time. They filed outside into the unseasonably humid night behind Joselo, who watched the coffin loaded into a hearse idling on Main Street. And, as the hearse pulled away, they began sharing stories of humiliation and abuse.
One Ecuadorean had been knocked off his bike, insulted, pummeled, and robbed. A Salvadorian had been called a “fucking taco-eater” and told to “go back to Mexico.” Another Ecuadorean was surrounded late at night and beaten unconscious. All identified their victimizers as white male teenagers. Most hadn’t reported the incidents for fear of being questioned about their immigration status.
The throng of immigrants broke apart in a sudden misty rain and made their way back to their side street rentals. Half a block away from the church, the candlelight glowed through the window of an Italian restaurant, and white diners turned their heads to look out the window, perhaps wondering why such a large crowd of Hispanics had congregated on Main Street.
The murder of Marcelo Lucero is just one in a rising trend of hate crimes against Hispanics in the United States. In 2007 there were 830 Hispanic hate crime victims according to the FBI, a 40 percent increase since 2003. But a definitive 2005 study by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the real annual level of hate crime in America averaged about twenty to thirty times higher than the numbers reflected in FBI statistics.
Of course, Joselo didn’t think of his brother as a statistic. He was wondering if the American dream he and his brother had chased even existed. Parking his black Toyota Camry, he surveyed the darkness of Long Island’s Great South Bay on a frigid January night, smoking a menthol. He fretted about whether to sell Marcelo’s car, and how he was going to manage rent on his brother’s cramped room. Their mother, Rosario, who hadn’t seen Marcelo for sixteen years, wanted to visit from Ecuador and see how her eldest son had lived. After the murder she begged Joselo to come home; but he was unsure.
“How do you think I’m feeling, you know? I have half of my life here,” he said, his voice raspy and exhausted as he switched between soft-spoken English and Spanish. “I got used to it here. And then to just go back there with empty hands and also without my brother is something I can’t really bear.”
The two brothers grew up in Ecuador with their mother and two sisters in the village of Gualaceo, on an Andean riverbank. They shared a carefree youth, picking peaches and pears, and racing homemade wooden cars down Gualaceo’s hills.
“He liked to study people, analyze them,” Joselo said. “He didn’t trust many people; you had to be a real friend for him to tell you something.”
But like so many Latin American villages, Gualaceo has little to offer its adults. Hundreds of gualaceños immigrated to the United States to work, sending money home and hoping to return home someday. Many who made the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, unlawfully entered the United States, and followed friends and family to Suffolk County, Long Island, a predominantly white, middle-class suburban enclave about sixty miles from New York City. They found work in the island’s construction and service sectors. Many settled in Patchogue, a quiet village whose Algonquin name means “where two streams separate.”
Marcelo arrived when he was twenty-one, and Joselo followed a few years later. Joselo found a stable job as a welder. Marcelo worked construction and restaurant jobs, eventually becoming the supervisor of a dry cleaning store.
Joselo described Marcelo as a serious and thoughtful man who spent time alone, lifting weights, reading the Bible, and listening to classic rock. “He liked to study people, analyze them,” Joselo said. “He didn’t trust many people; you had to be a real friend for him to tell you something.”
The brothers worked hard, and saw each other less frequently. It wasn’t Ecuador, where spending quality time with family and friends took precedence over everything else. Joselo had difficulty adjusting. Even though several of his childhood friends had immigrated to New York, he rarely saw them; everyone was always working.
Still, on November 7, 2008, the two brothers made time for dinner together. Marcelo said he was planning to sell his Honda and return to Ecuador for good before Christmas. He was excited to see the house he had paid a construction company to build for his mother, and to start a new life, finally able to enjoy comfort and financial security after sixteen years of work.
Marcelo was stabbed the next day, just before midnight. He and his friend, Ángel Loja, were walking behind Patchogue’s train station to their friend Elder’s house to watch a movie when prosecutors say a group of teenagers drove up, jumped out of an SUV, and started punching them.
As Loja ran down the street, calling the police on his cell, seventeen-year-old Jeffrey Conroy, a star lacrosse player and wrestler, punched Marcelo in the face. Marcelo pulled off his belt, whipping the teen in the head. Furious, Conroy pulled a knife out of his pocket, ran towards Marcelo, and plunged the four-inch blade into his chest. Conroy reportedly washed the knife off in a puddle, secured it against his hip in the elastic of his boxers, and the seven boys jumped back into the car and sped off. As Marcelo staggered down the street, his blood spilled a crooked path down the alley next to Elder’s house. Elder ran outside and found his friend drenched in blood, dying in his driveway.
Conroy was charged with first-degree manslaughter, later upgraded to second-degree murder as a hate crime. Six of his friends, also high school students, were charged with gang assault as a hate crime. The boys, most from the neighboring village of Medford, told authorities they had been drinking in a park in an adjacent town earlier in the evening, and had decided to drive up the road to the more ethnically-diverse Patchogue to “fuck up Mexicans.” They called their diversion “beaner-hopping,” and admitted to attacking other Hispanic men earlier that day.
Later, one—himself half Puerto Rican—tried to explain his innocence to police: “I don’t go out and do this very often, maybe once a week.”
After Marcelo’s murder, Ecuadoreans ended their customary evening strolls down Patchogue’s Main Street with their children. Women working in restaurants, money-sending stores, and international telephone and Internet cafés asked their husbands to pick them up for the five- or six-block trip home. Across Suffolk County Hispanics began speaking out about a long history of humiliation, harassment, and physical assaults by white teenagers—and about the Suffolk County Police Department, which they allege has ignored it for years.
Many described groups of teenagers on bikes loitering in the library parking lot, waiting to harass Hispanic immigrants walking home from English-language classes.
A slight young Ecuadorean man with blue eyes named César, who wouldn’t give his last name, said he has been assaulted in this way several times. “I don’t fight back,” he confessed, “Because to hit an American is a serious crime in this country, and I feared they would say I hit them first, and I’d be deported.” He didn’t report the assaults to the police.
They called their diversion “beaner-hopping,” and admitted to attacking other Hispanic men earlier that day.
A month after Marcelo’s murder, the church that hosted Marcelo’s funeral invited Hispanic immigrants to speak with law enforcement agents. Soon after, the New York Times and Suffolk County’s NPR affiliate WSHU interviewed dozens of Hispanic men who had similar stories of attacks by teenagers. Some identified Jeffrey Conroy as their assailant.
In January of 2009, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota charged the seven boys with felony gang assault on eight other Hispanic men who had come forward and identified them. Several have since pled guilty to gang assault and other charges in connection with Marcelo’s murder, and attacks on other Hispanic men. Jeffrey Conroy’s murder trial is under way, and a verdict is expected in late April.
Over the last decade Hispanic immigrants have become the main focus of American hate groups. According to Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, after September 11, 2001, the conservative media began discussing immigration as a national security issue, often using terms like “illegals,” “invaders,” even “potential terrorists” to describe undocumented immigrants. Then a spate of anti-illegal immigration activists lobbying to restrict benefits to illegal immigrants cropped up in California. They held regional and national events, and melded with established hate groups. Then came a 2008 announcement from the Census Bureau that by 2042, white Americans would be a minority, adding fuel to the fire. Nationwide the suburban Hispanic population grew 71 percent during the nineties, largely due to illegal immigration. And as the vitriol escalated, the debate shifted to America’s suburbs, now home to over half of the nation’s Hispanic immigrants.
Long Island’s two counties remain predominantly white but the Hispanic population has skyrocketed. Nassau and Suffolk County’s strip malls and planned communities have provided immigrants—many of whom are undocumented—with steady work. But by and large, county residents have not welcomed the influx of Hispanic men who congregate at intersections, waiting to be contracted for day labor; and their new neighbors who sometimes live ten or twenty to a three-bedroom house. Many white Suffolk County residents directly link the value of their homes to illegal immigrants, who they claim have brought noise, crime, and clutter to their once peaceful communities.
“I think it’s the fairness issue,” said Suffolk County Legislator Jack Eddington. A member of the Independence party, Eddington has been a vocal opponent of illegal immigration. “I’m paying ten thousand in taxes for my house, for my family. You’re paying ten thousand dollars, but you have three families paying it, and I have my two kids going to school, and you have your seven kids going to school. So you’re not paying your fair share of housing costs. And property taxes is the biggest issue on Long Island. So even though advocates will say they pay taxes, they pay sales tax. And I will tell you this,” he adds, his voice taking on a conspiratorial tone. “Come back in the spring, you know what garage sales are? There is nothing but Hispanics going to garage sales. And there is no sales tax on garage sales. There’s a subculture now where they know how to get used stuff.”
SQL adopted nativist and racist rhetoric, and began perpetuating myths that Hispanic immigrants were responsible for crime waves, and that they were foot soldiers in the Mexican government’s plot to “re-conquer” parts of the U.S.
Five miles from Patchogue, the blue-collar hamlet of Farmingville became an early suburban immigration battleground after thousands of day laborers arrived in the late nineties. In 1998 a schoolteacher named Margaret Bianculli-Dyber organized a group called Sachem Quality of Life (SQL). SQL held daily protests where hundreds of day laborers waited for work near a 7-Eleven. The protesters held up signs like “Deport illegal aliens!” and photographed the workers, threatening to turn them in to the authorities.
“The community said ‘We’re only going to accept deportation,’” said Paul Tonna, a Republican, and then-presiding officer of the Suffolk County legislature. “The only thing that would make them happy was for them to be deported.”
Tonna proposed building a hiring hall to keep the day laborers off the streets. The legislature took up the bill, and it passed, but the Republican county executive vetoed it.
Meanwhile, Bianculli-Dyber invited national anti-immigrant organizations to Suffolk County, many of which were considered hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. SQL adopted nativist and racist rhetoric, and began perpetuating myths that Hispanic immigrants were responsible for crime waves, and that they were foot soldiers in the Mexican government’s plot to “re-conquer” parts of the U.S.
“If you ground yourself a little historically, in what happened in the Know-Nothing movement, it’s almost the same stuff,” explained Tonna, referring to the nativist political movement of the mid-1800s, fueled by fears that Irish Catholic immigrants were overrunning the country. In spite of Long Island’s immigrant roots, “You have this kind of clan mentality—once you’re in, you forget where you came from.”
On September 17, 2000, two white men picked up two Mexican laborers, ostensibly to work. They took them to an abandoned warehouse, gave them shovels, and told them to start digging. They then attacked the workers, stabbing them and beating them with a crowbar. Three years later, five teenagers firebombed a Mexican couple’s home in Farmingville in the early morning of July 5th.
In 2006, three Latino teens were abducted in tony East Hampton and terrorized by a teen-aged skinhead. “This is how you run across the border!” he reportedly hollered as he chased the terrified youngsters with a running chainsaw.
Despite the violence in Suffolk County, the debate about the impact of illegal immigration has raged on. And this tension has provided politicians with a golden ticket to public office.
Steve Levy, fifty, a mustachioed, fiscally conservative Democrat, was first elected Suffolk County Executive in November of 2003 with a political platform centered on confronting illegal immigration. His first initiative was deputizing the police as immigration agents under a controversial federal program. Levy abandoned the plan amidst concern from law enforcement that it would discourage Hispanics from cooperating with the police.
“Many local governments take the point of view that they don’t want to ask that question,” he told the New York Times in 2007, referring to inquiries about immigration status. “I think it’s ridiculous for localities to call themselves sanctuaries.” He said it was “silly” to think immigrants would be fearful of and cease cooperating with the Suffolk County police.
“This is a terrible, terrible message to the Hispanic community,” said Tonna. “You’ll have tons of different types of crimes that they will never come to the forefront about—rape, murder, harassment—and you will have people frightened because they’re afraid they’re going to be deported.”
But the message paid off for Levy. He was catapulted into a second term in 2007 with 96 percent of the vote, the nominee of the Democratic, Republican, Working Families, Conservative, and Independence Parties. Under Levy, the number of undocumented immigrants referred to the feds surged from forty-four in 2004 to 2,289 in 2007. In 2005, Levy founded an organization called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform—a national group advocating for reimbursement from the federal government for the expenses incurred by local governments in providing health care to undocumented individuals—to which he has invited representatives of extremist anti-immigration groups. He has referred to the children immigrant women give birth to in the U.S. as “anchor babies,” and complained about the strain on school and hospital budgets. He has called Long Island’s immigrant advocacy organizations “communists,” “anarchists,” and “wackos.” And he was a return guest on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” a show whose host was criticized for perpetuating vicious myths about immigrants. Days after Marcelo was murdered, Levy said that if it had happened anywhere else it would have been “a one-day story.” This March Levy said he would switch to the Republican party and run for governor of New York.
“It put Patchogue on the map,” a man behind the counter of a pork store said of the murder. “Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it.”
The County Executive declined interview requests, but his spokesperson provided a statement: “While Mr. Levy opposes illegal immigration, he has never once incited hatred or fear toward those here illegally.” Still, many argue that Levy’s rhetoric has had disastrous consequences.
“You’ll hear in the debate about immigration that they are raping our resources, they’re on welfare, they’re using up all our health care resources, bankrupting our schools. And so they serve as a scapegoat,” said Dr. Luis Valenzuela of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance.
Two months after Marcelo Lucero’s murder, Patchogue Mayor Paul V. Pontieri, Jr. leaned back in a chair at a small conference table in the Village Hall, his fingers pressed together in a triangle. His dark eyebrows framed the distress in his eyes. “Did I not listen? Did people give me clues and I missed them?” he asked. “I didn’t know what was going on. Why didn’t I see it, feel it, know it? Because I should have known it. Have I not done my job?”
Pontieri said he had heard reports of Hispanic immigrants being harassed. But, he said, “It just seemed to be part of the complaints you got about kids and how they were acting and reacting on the streets.”
As more Hispanic victims came forward after Marcelo Lucero’s murder, the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District launched a joint investigation into the local Police Department’s handling of hate crimes against Hispanics.
After the murder, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer often repeated that his officers did not discriminate and did not ask the immigration status of crime victims. However, a 2009 investigation by Newsday, Long Island’s main newspaper, revealed that the department’s incident report forms instruct officers to ask whether a crime victim is a temporary resident or foreign national, which could be interpreted as a status inquiry.
“When it starts to happen in patterns with these young men, I think they can damn well start to see there’s something wrong here,” said John Gallagher, who preceded Dormer as Suffolk County police commissioner. “Powerful officials often used the words ‘illegal immigrant’ and aggressively say they are not conforming and are draining society’s resources.” The culture of a police department, he continued, is that officers give their commissioner the policing he demands. “And who does their boss listen to? The elected official that appoints them.”
Although Dormer has acknowledged in the past that his police department might have missed a pattern, he strongly disagreed with his predecessor’s remarks. “When [Gallagher] was police commissioner, he had some horrible hate crime incidents,” he said. “Any criticism that we should have picked up a pattern? Unfortunately, these things were happening under his watch.”
Recently, Patchogue’s tiny downtown underwent what Village Hall calls a “renaissance.” A vaudeville theatre was restored. White tablecloth restaurants arrived alongside the Ecuadorean and Salvadoran joints. Local painters and sculptors display their work in shop windows.
Three months after Marcelo’s murder, many of the storefronts still displayed Statue of Liberty posters reading “We are all one”—in English and Spanish. As the economy worsened, however, “For Rent” signs took their places in dusty windows.
And Patchogue residents have learned some unpleasant truths about the media spotlight. Newsday has covered every hearing, task force, and accusation hurled by illegal immigrant advocates and opponents.
“It put Patchogue on the map,” a man behind the counter of a pork store said of the murder. “Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it.”
“When children don’t make a good choice, I know myself, I take it personal,” said Manuel Sanzone, principal of Patchogue-Medford High, where the attackers went to school. He said he does not know why the teens decided to attack Hispanics, but he has heard parents complain about how English as a Second Language classes have caused cuts in the budget, and wonder aloud why immigrant children are even in school. “You almost say what didn’t I do? Did they not have an opportunity to express themselves, talk about it? Could we have intervened at some point?”
Legislator Jack Eddington lives near Conroy, who allegedly stabbed Marcelo. He said the teen is one of six kids, and that Conroy’s father had attempted to buy a bigger house across the street but couldn’t get a loan. According to Eddington, three illegal immigrant families bought it. “Do you think that wasn’t discussed at the kitchen table?”
Late on a chilly evening in February, 2009, Joselo walked into JFK Airport holding a dozen white roses. His mother Rosario, sister Isabel, and nephew Isaac were arriving from Ecuador. Joselo wondered what his mother—who has been living in the multi-story house Marcelo paid for—would think of his tiny apartment, and his humble American life.
When he finally spotted her, he broke into tears, throwing his muscular arms around her diminutive shoulders. “Mi mamá, mi mamá,” he sobbed. She let her youngest son hold her, looking very much in shock, still fragile from a recent surgery.
The surviving Luceros stayed awake until three in the morning, talking, holding each other, mourning Marcelo. Isabel’s son Isaac whined and cried, confused by the cloud of sadness enveloping his family. Rosario was unable to speak very long without weeping.
These days, Joselo is the sole provider for his family in Ecuador. Once a quietly thoughtful man, he has emerged as a vocal and impassioned advocate for the Hispanic community, rushing around New York to almost daily meetings with elected officials and the media.
But after midnight on a Saturday, when his mother, sister, and nephew slept in the living room he converted into a bedroom, Joselo was awake, and alone with his thoughts.
“Sometimes I feel like he knew something was gonna happen to him,” he whispered. “I never listened when he said, ‘Listen, you have got to be the man of the house. ’” He sighs. “I don’t feel that my brother is dead. I feel like he’ll show up any time. But I have to realize it, I have to accept it.”
A few months after the murder, Joselo visited his dead brother’s room, taking in the Pink Floyd poster, the bicycle, the closet full of designer clothes Marcelo developed an affinity for through working at the dry cleaner. He found his brother’s Bible, and opened it to a page bookmarked by a thin ribbon.
“I am scorned by all my enemies and despised by my neighbors I have heard the many rumors about me, and I am surrounded by terror. My enemies conspire against me, plotting to take my life.”
As Joselo recited the verse, his voice broke. He paused, and finally whispered: “I couldn’t read the rest of it. I couldn’t go on.”
Jennifer Jo Janisch is a multimedia journalist living in New York City. She recently joined Thirteen/WNET.org “WIDE ANGLE” as a production assistant on the documentary series “Women, War & Peace.” She previously worked as an assistant producer at Voice of America and interned at 60 Minutes and WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show.” Janisch graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This piece was adapted from her master’s thesis.
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