On a chilly night in November 2008, an Ecuadorean immigrant named Marcelo Lucero was attacked and murdered in the Long Island town of Patchogue, N.Y., where he lived and worked. His attackers, a group of local teenagers, were out "hunting for beaners" — an activity that had become part of their weekly routine.
Lucero, then 37, and his childhood friend, Angel Loja, were out for a late-night stroll when they saw a group of seven young people approaching them.
"They had heard stories. They knew that immigrants were routinely attacked in this town, and they were afraid," says Mirta Ojito, journalist and author of Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town.
Ojito's book paints a complex portrait of Patchogue in the aftermath of Lucero's murder, and examines the town's struggle with hatred and racism despite its idyllic appearance.
NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Ojito about the fateful attack, and the impacts it had on the town of Patchogue and its residents.
On the attack that led to Marcelo's death
The streets were deserted, it was close to midnight. The train had already left the station, and they were walking near the tracks when all of a sudden they saw a group of seven people approaching, seven young people. ...
Marcelo stood his ground, and took off his belt, and tried to defend himself. And then, apparently the buckle of the belt hit one of them, Jeffrey Conroy. And Jeffrey, enraged, lunged forward and stabbed Marcelo in the upper chest on the left hand side. And they ran away. ... Marcelo bled to death on the sidewalk.
On the climate of racism in Patchogue
In the high school, the Hispanic kids complained that they were constantly harassed. They were physically separated from the other groups. So therefore when the kids who were not Hispanics had to walk through to the gym, for example, that's when they came in contact.
And they would push them out of the way, or they would say derogatory things like 'dumb in a can' for Dominican, or 'go back to Mexico,' or 'es-speak.' All kinds of derogatory terms — really, really ugly — that made them feel bad. And apparently, even at the school level, no one knew this was going on.
On her interactions with Marcelo's attacker, Jeffrey Conroy
It is hard, particularly because I've met his family. I've met his father. His father is completely broken by this. There was nothing in my dealings with the father and with the rest of the family that would indicate to me, 'Oh, I get it.' There was no 'Aha!' moment. I did not get the sense that he had come from a particularly violent or racist home.
On the contrary, he was extremely nice — and his father in terrible, terrible pain. I don't know what went through his mind. My only communication with Jeffery Conroy was a letter he sent me from prison in which he said he didn't want to talk to me, he did not want to relive that time. But he asked me, he wanted my work to be balanced and respectful. And fair.
And I kept that note on my desk during the three years I was working on this book.
On how the racial climate in Patchogue has shifted
I think it's changed it in profound ways. People are a lot more aware of their words. A lot more aware of what they say. Not everyone, and there are still incidents going on. In fact, I heard that in March or April of this year, two or three immigrants were again attacked. It's unclear whether or not they were hate crimes.
But the mayor of the town, Paul Pontieri, at least satisfied that the immigrants, instead of going home and not saying anything about it, went to see him. That was not happening before. The lines of communication are a lot more open now than they were before. And I think the community has learned its lesson.