Friday, April 30, 2010

Coming to America

by Alexandra Lebenthal

Last week the “Patchogue Hate Crime” trial ended with a guilty verdict. 19-year-old Jeffrey Conroy of Medford Long Island will likely be 44 when he gets out of prison for his conviction in the beating death of Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant from Gualacelo, Ecuador a 13-year resident of Patchogue Long Island.

The town of Gualacelo, Equador

The crime took place in on a cold January night in 2009 at the Long Island Railroad Station, within days of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The striking irony of this man pursuing the American dream being brutally killed for sport, just as the first African American president was sworn into office was not lost on anyone, least of all the many Latino friends and family of Mr. Lucero who call Patchogue their home.

Candlelight vigils and calls for justice quickly ensued.

Sadly, this is a story we know all too well in America. Hardworking immigrants striving for better lives, laboring at jobs the rest of us wouldn’t want, are routinely called names, beaten, or as in this case, murdered.

But there is a backdrop to this story that is also a part of our history in the economic vitality that has accompanied the Patchogue immigrants. It holds great value for all of us, and particularly now so, as the signs of life in the economy begin to take hold.

By most measures, Patchogue is not a pretty town. A few grand buildings remain as reminders of what it must have been many decades ago, but for the most part it is representative of the decay that blots much of the country.
There are buildings that have stood in ruin for as long as anyone can remember.

The Plaza Theatre, has been waiting for over twenty years to be demolished or refurbished. In 2007, Suffolk County announced plans to acquire the property, raze it, and sell the land to a developer. Politicians stood proudly in front of the decrepit structure making speeches about the future, yet three years later the only developments seem to be the increased number of pigeons that make the abandoned building their home.

Needless to say, the recession and housing crisis haven’t helped towns like Patchogue. Once in a while a new CVS appears like a beacon in the dark, but for the most part there are more shuttered stores than new ones. (Inexplicably, the 24-hour tattoo and body piercing parlor seems to have a thriving business.)

Yet, at the same time, in a small section on the west end of town, a remarkable transformation has taken place. Patchogue is home to a large number of Latinos, 70% of whom emigrated from Ecuador, (mostly from Gualaciera like Mr. Lucero.)

They work from dawn until late in the evening working for landscapers, mowing lawns and weeding gardens; or in restaurants, filling water glasses and busing tables.

You see them walking on the road, riding bikes or packed in the back of pick-up trucks on their way to work. Ironically Jeffrey Conroy and his friends who went “beane hopping” (yes, there is even a code for beating up Latino immigrants) in Patchogue that frigid night in January, appeared to have a lot of free time on their hands.
As a result of the influx of immigrants to Patchogue, the town has had something of a rebirth in recent years. There are new restaurants, stores and internet cafes catering to its transplanted residents. This section of town has street planters and a cheerful aura about it.

Patchogue isn’t even close to looking like its wealthier neighbors on The East End, but it has life! The restaurants are authentic and serve mouth watering food. In the summer, Gallo Tropical Café opens onto the street allowing the aroma and sounds of Latin food and music to spill into Main Street.

Homes in the town are still dotted with the ugly scabs of foreclosure, but others are in the process of being redone or have already been lovingly restored.

In warm weather, families sit on the stoop in the evening watching their children play outside on the street. One gets a sense that the these families have a bond that keeps them strong even as they are so far from their homeland and unsure of the treatment they will receive outside of their neighborhoods.

Even dead end streets blocked off from the train tracks are home for many of the residents. The vitality these people have created is in stark contrast to the discrimination that surrounds them.

While wandering perhaps into dangerous political territory far away from Long Island, the passage last week in Arizona of the new immigration law also is a reminder that immigrants, no matter what they may contribute to our country, are often not welcomed.

I can imagine a Latino immigrant biking home from work in the evening being stopped by the police to examine his papers and fumbling to pull them out of the dark from his pocket with dirt stained hands.
Will the law help prevent immigrants from being here illegally? Perhaps, but the message it sends to anyone who looks different, here struggling to build a better life, is very frightening.

Thousands of immigrants make their way to America and have for hundreds of years going back to the first settlers. Each new generation does what it has to, not just to survive, but to thrive. They leave their families and live in substandard housing.

They take on any jobs, sending money home, while contributing to our economy. They are the ones we see weeding our gardens amidst heat, humidity and mosquitoes. They deliver our lunch from the coffee shop in January’s sub zero temperatures while wearing shirt sleeves or a lightweight jacket better suited for April. They deliver Chinese Food on bikes in pouring rain or blizzards when most of us want nothing more than to sit in our warm living rooms.

Could we survive without these people? Would others rise to do the work they provide? Perhaps, but in a small town like Patchogue that time forgot, I see signs of life that mean jobs and revenues to the economy. I see creation amidst the ruin. And, a week after justice was done, I see a testament to the memory of Marcelo Lucero and those who continue to live and work as he did.

Thank you Marcelo, and everyone like you, from one American to another.
Alexandra Lebenthal learned from her father, Jim Lebenthal, and grandmother before, about the basics of finances and investments. Today she is the CEO of Lebenthal & Co., LLC and its wealth management division, Alexandra & James Co.