Five years ago this month Marcelo Lucero, an undocumented immigrant living in the Long Island, N.Y., village of Patchogue, was stabbed to death by seven teens who were out on one of their “beaner-hopping” jaunts. Attacking Latinos for sport was one of the teens’ late-night diversions. Some of the last words Lucero heard before his death were slurs. “Fucking Mexican, fucking illegals,” Jeffrey Conroy and six other teens—Jordan Dasch, Anthony Hartford, Nicholas Hausch, Christopher Overton, Jose Pacheco and Kevin Shea—shouted at Lucero and his best friend, Angel Loja. (It hardly mattered that they were in fact Ecuadorian.)
But the horrific violence was hardly isolated to Long Island. For several consecutive years between 2003 and 2010 the FBI recorded steady, serious increases in anti-Latino hate crimes in the U.S. Back in Patchogue, Lucero’s death shook the small village to its core. In her new book “Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town” (Beacon Press), journalist Mirta Ojito set out to understand how so brutal a murder could take place in so idyllic a town. What she found amidst the lasting scars of pain and confusion was a small town that seemingly ignored the warning signs that something so horrible could happen, but is determined not to let the past repeat itself. Ojito spoke with Colorlines about ‘Hunting Season’ soon after ; observed the fifth anniversary of Lucero’s murder.
The years around when Marcelo Lucero were killed were full of many anti-immigrant hate crimes. Of all the hate crimes, of all the small towns, what drew you to this story in particular?
I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons. One was the type of crime. The fact that these boys went “hunting for beaners,” quote unquote. I had never heard the term before; you had to explain it to me and it made me curious.
Two, this was in the state of New York, on Long Island, 60 miles from New York City. Years ago when I was working for the New York Times I wrote a piece that said immigrants were bypassing the cities and moving straight to suburbia. It seemed this was an opportunity to follow up on that story that I had worked on in 1996 in which a sociologist told me there would be consequences to the movement of immigrants to suburbia bypassing the cities. I though I could make a contribution with my book.
One thing you’re really clear about is the anti-immigrant political sentiment that was so thick in the air at the time, and how the drumbeat of lawmakers and media personalities repeating that rhetoric made its way to school children, including the young people of the town. Can you say more about that connection and what you learned about how young people internalize the fear and the distrust in the ether?
It continues to be part of our political discourse that [undocumented immigrants] have done something so terrible that they do not deserve to be Americans. And at the time that message was exaggerated by what many elected officials were saying. [Politicians like Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy] were mocking immigrants. I had a hard time even writing down their words even though I was copying from published texts.
How do young people internalize that? As they internalize anything else. Young people learn from what the adults around them do and say. Particularly those they respect or those who take care of them, from their parents to their teachers to people they see, and people on TV. Children are like sponges, and these seven people grew up at a time when there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment in Suffolk County. They would have been witnesses to the way immigrants were treated and the language used to describe them and their actions. And I think to a certain degree they were taught to dehumanize immigrants. And, when you don’t think of people as humans, you think of them as prey, and you can hunt prey.
You’re very detailed in your descriptions of the killing and the responsibility these kids have for killing Lucero, but you also advance the idea that the young people who killed Lucero were failed by society.
I think so. I met the families of two of them and I didn’t see anything in these homes and families to indicate that they were horrible people. I went to their homes. I saw what they have on the walls. I saw the way they live. Their home was not unlike mine. They had pictures of their kids on the walls, regular furniture. They were regular people. They were not horrible people. They were parents in terrible pain and they don’t understand what happened. One in particular, the father of Jeffrey Conroy, said his son was blamed for all the failures of immigration [reform] in the U.S. and that it was unfair. I wouldn’t go as far as that because his son did kill someone. But I do think that these young people were failed by the system. And what is really sad is no one seemed to be paying attention.
As you saw in the book, the high school was pretty divided and a lot was going on in the high school. It’s pretty incredible that no one noticed it. If teachers were not paying attention, or did know and didn’t want to intervene, that’s serious. That’s alarming. The police didn’t know people were being repeatedly attacked in the streets of Patchogue, that is serious and is alarming. If the police knew it and didn’t do anything, that is even more serious and alarming. So I feel that there were moments in which these activities could have been stopped. The signs were there, and the intent to do harm and harass people were there in six of these kids if not all seven. But at some point someone could have stepped in and said, “What you are doing is wrong.” For an entire community to say, “We didn’t know”—it seemed to me almost impossible that no one would have known. When one of the youth [who participated in attacking Lucero] was giving a confession he said, “Oh we didn’t do it that often. We did it once or twice a week.”
And ostracizing someone who does something so horrific is easier than looking inward at what role the community played in that act.
I actually think after it happened, after, some people did look inward. The mayor certainly did. The mayor of Patchogue, Paul Pontieri, just read a book on a flight to Denver. When he landed he sent me an email and said, “I didn’t think I wanted to read this book, but I’m glad I did. I was crying on the flight.” He sent me another email: “Use this in any way you want because everyone ought to read this book. It’s a cautionary tale.” And it wasn’t just the mayor. People have stepped up and people have tried to help the community heal in many ways.
So many people in the town were willfully blind or studiously avoided the presence of the burgeoning Latino community. So many people had no idea of the names of their neighbors. It has become a cliché that many undocumented immigrants ‘live in the shadows,’ but to many in Patchogue, the immigrant community really was invisible.
I can see how that could have happened. But not every Hispanic person who lived in Patchogue was undocumented. Hector Sierra, the person who was attacked right before Marcelo Lucero and Angel Loja, was a naturalized citizen born in Colombia. So I think people who were Hispanic in Suffolk County were fair game. Nobody was going to stop and ask you, “Do you speak English? Do you have papers? How long have you lived here?” It was an anti-Hispanic feeling even if they wouldn’t put it that way. In their words they would say it was against quote unquote “illegals.” But I think illegality is difficult to separate from being Hispanic in this country.
During the trial, even the judge, when he was asking [potential jury members] about their biases, he asked the pool, “Do you have any ‘Spanish’ friends?” Spanish as in the language, or as in the country. So the language and the ethnicity have become intrinsically linked with illegality in certain areas of the country. Not so in others, but it was certainly true in Suffolk County.
Young people are the ones who commit the most hate crimes, and they attack in groups, they tend to be male, and they tend to be on drugs and alcohol. But they tend to be fueled more by seeking thrills than by bigotry. So they’re hate crimes in the sense that they are clearly looking for a certain type of target. They utter certain words and phrases during the attack. But the real motivation may have been just thrill-seeking, just because it’s fun and these people don’t matter anyway and no one cares. And I think that’s the message they were getting from the grown-ups. I don’t mean their parents, I mean everyone, just about everyone in their community.
What has the path toward healing looked like for the town?
In Patchogue there was an immigrant attack in April. The mayor said it wasn’t clear if it was a hate crime or a crime of opportunity. A lot of undocumented immigrants carry cash on them because they cannot be paid in checks. After that, two others were attacked in East Patchogue, nearby. It’s kind of alarming that it keeps going on, but on the other hand the mayor was happy that the immigrants went to him first. That meant the lines of communication have been opened. That they did not go home quietly as they used to before and now are seeking help. To me, that’s healing. Other than that, Marcelo’s brother Joselo has picked up his brother’s memory in a very graceful and courageous way. There’s a vigil in the town every November.
I didn’t go this year but in the past they were community events. There were truly many people from many segments of society at these vigils. It’s hard to know what people have in their hearts or what they say at home but it seems to be a safer, nicer place now according to what some immigrants have told me. A high school student said there’s no longer a hallway just where Hispanic students congregate at school. Some of them even have lunch together. There is a soccer tournament in which everyone plays. A lot of it is symbolic, but I think symbols, like words, add up.