NEW YORK–The recent wave of attacks on Mexican immigrants living on Staten Island has led to increased law enforcement activity, as well as increased examination of the causes of the attacks among residents and government officials.
Some of the best reporting on this issue has appeared in ethnic media. New York’s leading Spanish-language paper, El Diario/La Prensa, has covered the assaults closely. Over the past week, the paper published three in-depth articles written by Manuel E. Avendaño, investigating the motivation behind these ugly crimes.
Last week, a Staten Island grand jury indicted Derrian Williams, 17, on four counts including hate crime charges, for assaulting, robbing and yelling racial slurs at 18 year old Christian Vasquez while he walked home after working a night shift as a busboy in Manhattan. It was at least the 10th attack on a Mexican immigrant since April that police in the New York City borough have treated as a hate crime. But it was the first in which a grand jury indicted a suspect on hate-crime charges.
Though many residents say hate crimes have been occurring for years on Staten Island, the involvement of the Mexican Consulate and recent media coverage has finally led to action on the part of authorities. In July, 130 police officers were dispatched to patrol Port Richmond, the neighborhood where most of the attacks have taken place, in addition to an FBI team. Even the Guardian Angels sent a group to patrol the area.
Most of the attacks have been committed by young African American men. (The New York Times reports that Derrian Williams is actually originally from Liberia, and is now an American citizen.) It’s unclear what their motivation has been–in a number of cases it seems that violence was the main objective, since the victims were left carrying cash and items of value.
The first installment in the El Diario series, “Se destapa el odio racial en Staten Island” or “Uncovering hate crimes on Staten Island,” looked at the many different theories about the reasons for the attacks: a belief that undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs; the fact that many undocumented Mexicans on Staten Island are easy targets because they are paid in cash and are reluctant to call the police; and racism towards Hispanics, possibly connected to the national controversy surrounding SB 1070 in Arizona and rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the nation.
In Avendaño’s second article, he looks at the changing demographics of Staten Island. Mexican immigrants are the largest immigrant group in the borough, with a population of 8,682 (9%) recorded in 2008. But they are newcomers–most have arrived over the past decade, attracted by the low cost of living and jobs in gardening, construction and restaurants. The immigrants tended to move into neighborhoods that were predominately African American, inciting racial tension.
In the final article of the series, Avendaño explores how Mexican immigrants have revitalized the economy of Port Richmond and other neighborhoods that were in crisis in the 1970s. He interviewed Mexican small business owners who are firmly established on the island, and say they will not budge in reaction to the recent wave of hate crimes. María Morales, whose restaurant was vandalized two years ago in a spate of attacks on Mexican-owned businesses, told Avendaño, “Nadie nos mueve de aquí. Esta es nuestra comunidad y no nos van a meter miedo.”
“No one will move us from here. This is our community and they’re not going to make us afraid.”