by Barry Edelson


Not in Our Country

The murder of an immigrant

On a November night in 2008, an Ecuadorian immigrant named Marcelo Lucero was murdered in Patchogue on Long Island. He was a random victim, singled out along with a companion because they looked Hispanic. The killers, a group of teenage boys, confessed that they were out "beaner hopping" — that is, cruising around in search of a Latino person to attack. It would be hard to imagine an incident that better fits the description of "hate crime".

PBS stations recently aired a documentary about the murder, "Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness", which focuses mainly on the efforts of people in Patchogue to combat intolerance and hatred in the aftermath of the crime. Many were horrified that the world might condemn their village as a haven of racists or white supremacists, instead of the tranquil and tolerant place they believed it to be. Saddened and outraged by the killing, a large number of residents took a very public stand against hatred in their community. They held vigils in Marcelo's memory and made a concerted effort to reach out to the immigrant population. Among those who were deeply troubled by the incident was the mayor, Paul Pontieri, who had lived in the village since childhood. In a very poignant moment, he admits that he never realized how some of his neighbors had been living in fear for a long time. From his perspective, Patchogue had always been a safe place because he felt safe there.

The village was fortunate to have a man like Pontieri as its political leader at such a critical time. It would have been easy to imagine a less enlightened sort of man standing at the microphone, one who would have taken the opportunity to condemn the presence of "illegals" instead of responding directly to the human tragedy that took place on his watch. (Indeed, the initial reaction of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who has a reputation for immigrant-bashing and has been widely criticized for stirring up hatred, was that the murder was getting too much attention and should have been a "one-day story".) In point of fact, Marcelo Lucero was 37 years old and had been living in Patchogue for 13 years at the time of his murder. His younger brother, to whom he was a father figure, had joined him there many years earlier. They were not among the the millions of immigrants without legal status who "live in the shadows". They had steady jobs, which enabled them to send money home to their mother and siblings, who they hadn't seen in more than a decade. They were not afraid to report crime to the police. But when members of the Latino community in Patchogue had previously reported incidents of harassment or violence, they said they were largely ignored. Even the mayor, who seems like the kind of public-spirited person who would have been unlikely to have ignored signs of trouble, just wasn't able to see what was happening in front of his eyes.

The documentary is heart-warming and optimistic, but it raises some disturbing questions. It is to our credit that the justice system pursued and convicted the killers without prejudice, but that speaks only to how we reacted to a terrible incident, not to why we failed to prevent it from happening in the first place. If the majority of the people in Patchogue — like the residents of most American towns — would never sanction violence against innocent people, even illegal aliens, how is it that such violence occurred frequently without anyone outside the immigrant population taking any notice of it? Why was there no outreach to the Spanish-speaking poor in all the years that a substantial number of them were living literally down the street? Why did it take a catastrophe to summon the will of decent people?

It takes courage to admit
that you've been wrong about
something fundamental to your
understanding of the world,
because it means never returning
to the world as you knew it.

Pontieri's self-criticism is instructive. He evidently held a view in his mind throughout his life about what kind of community, and what kind of country, he lived in. This view did not include random acts of mindless cruelty, not, presumably, because such acts were beyond the powers of his imagination, but because they were alien to his experience. A narrative that took into account people of color cowering in fear was not one that had ever entered his consciousness. After the murder of Marcelo Lucero, Pontieri was clearly distressed by his own ignorance, and spent a lot of time pondering the nature of the local community and his role in it. It takes courage to admit that you've been wrong about something very fundamental to your understanding of the world, because it means never returning to the world as you knew it.

The Narrow vs. the Broader View

It is a paradox of the "Information Age" that, as access to information proliferates beyond the imagining of prior generations, our vision of the world appears to be narrowing. It would seem as though a daily deluge of data renders us less, rather than more, able to widen our perspectives. It is safer to retreat to the familiar than to embrace the overwhelming and the unknown. Ironically, the availability of millions of facts and opinions makes it even easier to find ones that reaffirm one's world view and ignore those that unsettle it. Even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, our instinct is to find a comfortable place in our own minds. As Lewis Wolpert wrote, "The primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralyzing uncertainty."

In this period of commemoration of the attacks of 9/11, perhaps we can broaden our minds and spare a few moments of reflection for the fate of those innocents caught in the crossfire of our endless war against extremism: the Muslims who have lived peaceably in our midsts for generations but who now find themselves distrusted and maligned; the unknown ranks of the unjustly detained who languish in an extralegal nether world that a truly free people would be incapable of tolerating; the civilian casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been doubly victimized, first by terrorist thugs and then by their pursuers; and the immigrants of all nationalities who have good reason to fear a poisonous atmosphere of patriotic hysteria.

The killing of an obscure low-wage worker from a far-off country might seem too small a matter to wrench us from the powerful illusions that sustain our daily existence. But if the violent death of innocents fails to arouse shame in every person of conscience, then we have violated our stated principles so grossly as to have rendered ourselves incapable of building the exceptional society we proclaim to inhabit already. If the rights of individuals matter only when one's personal freedom is directly affected, or when the reputation of one's town is defiled by someone else's disreputable behavior, we might as well ask ourselves whether our hallowed Constitution is worth anything more than the parchment it was written on.

October 1, 2011


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.