Lethal immigration

In Mirta Ojito's latest book, a notorious hate crime gains context and analysis

One Saturday night in November 2008, after drinking a few beers and joshing around with their friends, seven high-school boys chased down a 57-year-old stranger in Patchogue, NY, and beat him until a house light flicked on in response to the man’s screams. Then they drove off. The teenagers had been looking for a Hispanic, any Hispanic, to “fuck up” for fun. Near midnight, they spotted another pair of targets: 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero and his friend, Angel Loja. “Everyone was pretty amped up,” 17-year-old Jeffrey Conroy later told the police. “And it was clear what we were going to do.” During that attack, Conroy — a lacrosse player who dreamed of playing midfield for a state university — pulled out a pen knife and stabbed Lucero, nicking an artery. Lucero bled to death. Conroy was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison. His friends were also incarcerated.

The hate crimes of the so-called “Patchogue 7” have already been the subject of innumerable news accounts, at least three documentaries, and a theatrical work by the playwright Margarita Espada. Most of these accounts have tied Lucero’s murder to the anti-immigrant sentiment currently flooding our national politics. A year before Lucero was killed, one Long Island legislator, Elie Mystal, declared that if he saw immigrants looking for work on the streets of his neighborhood, “I would load my gun and start shooting, period.” That kind of invective, many have argued, taught the boys that “illegal aliens” deserve to be treated as parasites, not people.

Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town (Beacon Press, October 2013), the new book by Pulitzer Prize winner and Columbia University professor Mirta Ojito, puts forth that argument as well, amply documenting the connection between hate speech and hate crimes. Ojito also provides detailed profiles of Lucero, Loja, and Conroy as a kind of humanizing antivenom. But her singular accomplishment lies in looking beyond individuals to the demographic trends that are transforming suburban towns like Patchogue. This rare and deep analysis provides much-needed context to the national immigration debate. For one thing, it explains why so many working-class Americans across the country are now in fierce conflict with recent Hispanic immigrants.

When Marcelo Lucero entered the United States illegally from Ecuador in 1993 and settled in Patchogue, on Long Island, he was part of a historic change. For more than a century, immigrants to the United States had tended to settle in big cities. “But as cities lost manufacturing jobs to a changing economy,” Ojito explains, “the immigrant experience changed as well: The suburbs became the beginning of the journey for many who simply by-passed the city experience and moved straight to suburbia.” There they found jobs performing the scutwork of the suburban middle- and upper-class: cooking in restaurants, ironing clothes in dry cleaners, cutting grass for landscapers, hauling debris for contractors, and cleaning private homes.

Because all immigrants tend to follow the routes blazed by their friends and family, Lucero quickly found his way to Patchogue, where many people from his village already lived. In fact, by 2008, more than 2,000 Hispanics resided in the Patchogue area, most of them from Lucero’s tiny hometown, Gualaceo. In a fascinating and accomplished piece of reporting, Ojito tracks down the first Ecuadorian to settle in Patchogue: a shoe factory owner who arrived in 1984, lured by a job making salads in a local restaurant. He’s now a legal resident who owns three businesses on Main Street. Before he left Ecuador, this middle-class man told his wife that he’d do anything to save his family from the calamitous effects of Ecuador’s petrol-boom bust. He “had no fear of starting at the bottom, as long as it was not at home.”

The wealthy homeowners in neighboring could ignore the Ecuadorians, but the same was not true for the residents of working-class Patchogue. They lived in the neighborhoods where the new Ecuadorian arrivals could afford to settle. They used the same library, the same schools. To them, the swift arrival of so many Spanish-speakers must indeed have felt like a kind of sci-fi alien invasion. By 2008, three of the area’s seven elementary schools were 50-percent Latino and more than half of the students in the school district needed ESL classes.

At times, Ojito seems to glide over the seriousness of this conflict. Too often it appears as a matter of clashing cultural norms — different languages, different ideas about what time to end a house party and how often to cut a lawn — rather than as actual competition over limited resources. In her epilogue, for example, she cites Adam Davidson’s reporting for The New York Times, which found that undocumented immigrants actually raise the income of most adult Americans. She leaves out his assessment that the same immigrants can deplete the coffers of some local and state governments since the needs of undocumented immigrants are often high and they “are not evenly distributed.”

It’s those kind of facts that make me wish Ojito had delved a bit more into the numbers of Patchogue’s municipal budgets. But even without such figures, Hunting Season provides a stunningly fair vision of what immigration from Latin America has meant for pockets of the suburban United States. Marcelo Lucero scrubbed shirts at a dry cleaner until his fingernails fell off. He worked incessantly to lift his family out of poverty. This remarkable book made me feel not only compassion for Lucero’s decision to enter the United States against the law by also sympathy for the neighbors who wished he’d never come.

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Marcela Valdes is a freelance writer who specializes in Latin American literature and culture.