Play prompts discourse on hate

04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Greg Wills playing the role of an anti-immigration activist.

“Hate stems from ignorance motivated by stereotypes.” That’s the opening line of Margarita Espada’s “What Killed Marcelo Lucero?”

The play, performed for the first time on the East End, attracted a standing-room-only crowd of whites and Latinos to First Presbyterian Church in Southold Friday night to relive the events leading to the 2008 fatal attack on the Ecuadorian immigrant in Patchogue.

Written by a Long Island Latina and so far produced by a group called Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja in several locations west of the North Fork, the play abounds with stereotyped images: “They use our services for free and I’ve got to work my tail off,” a white man says, complaining about his Latino neighbors. There are references to overcrowded living conditions, noise and shouts of, “Hey, get off the streets. You don’t belong here.”

A politician who uses the published words of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is not identified, but the character repeats Mr. Levy’s comment that the murder would have been a one-day story if it had happened in Nassau County. He said it generated headlines for weeks because of his hard line on immigration.

A police officer, responding to a call from a Latina after an attack, tells her, “None of this would have happened if you were back in your county.”

It’s not about hatred, but the rule of law, the white characters want you to know. But it’s clear, as audience members shift in their seats, that they are disturbed by the racial slurs.

Rosa Umana, an immigrant from El Salvador who’s been here for 10 years, told a reporter through an interpreter that she felt “horrible inside” as she heard the slurs and stereotypes.

What will it take to change the arc of racism and bigotry? a man asked during a panel discussion that was held after the play.

“It’s a start when the playing field becomes more level,” said Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate. It can take an immigrant 20 years or more to get a green card that establishes his or her right to permanent residency and work, she said.

Besides Sister Margaret, the panel included Dr. Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, and Dr. Lucius Ware, president of the East End branch of the NAACP.

“Nobody leaves a country because you want to,” Sister Margaret said. “The country is your soul.” Immigrants leave their homes and come here because they are dying of starvation in their home countries and need to fight for their families, she said.

“We need to get those doors open so the people have a chance to do something with their lives,” Sister Margaret added.

Immigrants are told to get in line but there are 11 million to 12 million immigrants here seeking green cards or citizenship, he said.

Assemblyman Philip Ramos of Brentwood, a former police officer, said it’s necessary to put a human face on day laborers.

“Nobody wants the law broken,” Mr. Ramos said. But the “illegal” label put on immigrants needs to be eliminated with legislation to provide workers with a means of gaining fair employment.

To those who argue that earlier immigrant groups had to fight similar battles, Mr. Ramos said that no visas were required for immigrants to come to the United States between 1890 and 1924, when many made their way to this country.

“We’ll live by the same rules,” he said. “Give us the same rules.”

Mr. Ware, an African-American, drew a laugh when he said his ancestors were the only immigrants who came here and didn’t have to look for a job.

While legislation lags, there are ways residents can begin to break down barriers, Sister Margaret said. She pointed to a flea market in Greenport’s Mitchell Park a few years ago that brought Latinos and whites together. In small groups, people have an opportunity to get to know one another, she said, and it’s hard to fight with neighbors when you know them by name.

Washington, which seems to find money to fight wars, has its priorities upside down, Dr. Valenzuela said. Money should be filtered to schools to teach students about diversity, he said.

“Hatred spreads faster than tolerance,” Greenport Mayor David Nyce said. His community, with his encouragement, stood up to protest a 2007 raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on a village house where undocumented immigrants were said to live.

To encourage people to get to know one another better, Marjorie Day of the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force announced during the question and answer session that there will be an Aug. 28 picnic at Laurel Park aimed at bringing people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds together.

The Suffolk County Legislature this week is discussing a proposed “Lucero’s Law” that would cover bias-related violent crimes and make them subject to civil penalties.   Click for slide show.

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