By Mirta Ojito
Where are we, socially, as a country, ten years to the day after the murder of undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero? Sadly, in the exact same place. The environment of angst toward the growing presence of immigrants in 2008 Patchogue, New York, where Lucero lived, looks too much like today’s administration that continues to spout hate-laced rhetoric and policies toward the immigrant community. Except this time, it’s cranked up to fever pitch. Look at the migrant families being separated at the southern border. Listen to the comments about “caravans.” This is reminiscent of the hotbed of hate that led to Lucero’s murder. Mirta Ojito wrote about it in Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town. So, in honor of Lucero’s memory, we’re sharing an excerpt of it. Because we still have so much to learn about the war on immigration.
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.
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. 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?
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. Mayor of Patchogue Paul 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.
About the Author
Mirta Ojito, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has worked for the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, and the New York Times, where she covered immigration for the Metro desk. She is the author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus and Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town. Follow her on Twitter at @MirtaOjito.