Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an all-American Town by Mirta Ojito and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

In Hunting Season, Mirta Ojito tells the horrific story of the killing of an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, in Patchogue, Long Island at the hands of a group of brutish teenagers. It is a small-town story with international reverberations. At first blush, it is an investigation of American intolerance for the other run wild. Lucero was a poor, hard-working man, searching for a better life. His attackers are themselves lost souls, largely unknown to one another prior to the evening of Lucero’s killing. Each kid seems to lack the basic human understanding that there is something wrong with beating up a man simply because he is a ‘beaner.’ Patchogue is or was a community where the blood sport of attacking random Latinos goes unremarked. It is a dreadful story Ojito presents, and Patchogue appears as a dreadful place.

So what has happened in Patchogue? What does the killing of Lucero constitute? The knife-wielding 17-year-old points to his Latina girlfriend to demonstrate his open mind. Another attacker is both Puerto Rican and black -- the kids embrace him as their friend. Our American experience with racism -- and hence hate crimes -- largely involves victims from established and permanent communities (including the native community). Nativist violence may fall into a different category. The Patchogue 7 conceded they identified and attacked Lucero because of his ethnicity -- but there seems to be more that drew Lucero into their trap. They also understood that Lucero was a foreigner -- and likely one with a shaky immigration status. Lucero’s vulnerability invites this community reprisal.

The reader is tempted -- indeed, Ojito is tempted -- to read the killing of Lucero as standing for more rather than less. Hopeless and unguided teens are inclined to antisocial acts, and teenage males in particular are prone to violence. One of the attackers explains that he simply “likes to fight.” The Patchogue 7 may have acted like English football hooligans, who play out rituals of violence against supporters of the other team. The difference here lies with the identity of the ‘other team;’ the convenient if not scripted antagonist is the lonely immigrant, trudging home late at night following a double-shift of work. And Lucero was the perfect victim: he did not cower and endure a beating; he fought back. And once a knife is drawn, death becomes a possibility.

There is more in play, however. The Ecuadorians in Patchogue were largely invisible to the town authorities, but in the minds of the Ecuadorians, Patchogue is an extension of the village of Gualaceo. Through the happenstance of migration patterns, most of the Hispanic population of Patchogue was composed of former residents of Gualaceo. For someone like Lucero, who was from Gualaceo, Patchogue was strange and cold and forbidding, but it was also home -- and there is a sense of rightfulness of place which attaches to one’s home.

Ojito relentlessly attacks Steve Levy, the former (and once immensely popular) Suffolk County Executive, for his consistently incendiary remarks concerning undocumented immigrants in Eastern Long Island. And it is not difficult to read Levy’s code. But the hostile climate could not be the creation a single politician; more likely Levy (like a George Wallace) simply spewed out the racist poison he found around him.

The established community is woefully inarticulate. (That the Ecuadorians should be sent “back to Mexico” is a bitter running joke.) They would like the migrants to stop playing volleyball late at night, to curb public drinking and to take better care of their lawns. But these of course are just signs of submission to a particular order. And the "white picket fence" residents are frightened by the rented houses packed with dozens of foreign young men. Similar immigrants would simply disappear at night in New York City (to where?), but in Patchogue, these invisibles were in fact seen.

And more. Perhaps it is a sign of Tea Party America (Steve Levy hated taxes), but the emergency response service in Patchogue is dismal. Ojito does not wince as she describes the long, pointless death of Marcelo Lucero. While Lucero bleeds, the cops and part-time and ill-trained medics take their time in finally getting him to the local trauma center. Ninety minutes after his stabbing, Lucero is DOA. But this is a separate shame.

The killing of Marcelo Lucero contains an irresistible irony: the killers were a generation or two (or less) removed from their poor and hard-working immigrant forebears. The father of the killer suffers -- he denies he is a racist and denies he taught his son hatred (others disagree). He encounters Marcelo Lucero’s brother and asks forgiveness. He knows his son did a horrible thing, but sees the death of Lucero as much the result of hazard. He feels his son is harshly sentenced. The father challenges Ojito as to whether his 17-year-old son deserved a 25-year prison term and she replies: I don’t know.


By the strangest of accidents, I read John Steinbeck’s final novel The Winter of Our Discontent in parallel with my reading of Hunting Season. Steinbeck’s world is fictional of course, and he warns the reader not to search his specific American town (for he sought to write about all America). That said, Steinbeck’s 1960 Baytown in The Winter of Our Discontent is unmistakably Sag Harbor, Long Island. Steinbeck spent the last years of his life in Sag Harbor; it is located not so terribly far from Patchogue.

The Winter of Our Discontent is a study of the moral decline of America. The protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, is the only honest man in town (or so it seems): a descendent of a proud Yankee family brought to ruin through the perfidy of others and their own naive belief in virtue. Ethan is a clerk in the grocery store his family used to own; it is now owned by Marullo, an immigrant from Sicily who has prospered in Baytown. It is Steinbeck’s treatment of this foreigner in Eastern Long Island that strikes the reader of Hunting Season.

Alfio Marullo is well integrated into the Baytown community -- but not, in the end, well enough. In addition to the store, Marullo has various investments. But these stakes are viewed with suspicion by Ethan and the other ‘pillars’ of the Baytown community: they whisper “Mafia” (which Marullo laughs off). Marullo has no family with him in Baytown; like Marcelo Lucero, all his family remain in the old country. And Marullo is unrelentingly despised -- by the mayor, by the cops, by the banker, by Ethan’s wife -- for no apparent reason. True, his business practices may be sharp, but so are those of every single other character depicted in the novel.

Marullo is not invisible the way Lucero might have been; he is well-known in town, yet no one seems to know him well. His fortune is envied and resented; that he should prosper in Baytown defies the expectations of the established, like Ethan.

Ethan betrays Marullo: he comes to suspect that Marullo arrived in the United States later than claimed -- that is, after passage of the 1921 Emergency Immigration Act. (Ethan’s suspicion arises from Marullo’s superior command of Latin; this could only come from an advanced education in Italy.) Ethan surreptitiously calls in Federal authorities and Marullo is deported. On his departure, Marullo, the detested immigrant who “looked out for Number One” deeds the store to Ethan. In a sad irony, Ethan the betrayer, the establishment Yankee fallen to ruin, is the heir of the despised and ejected Marullo.

In his youth, Steinbeck wrote movingly about single men who drank too much and spoke Spanish (perhaps perceived not terrifically unlike the Patchogue Ecuadorians in the eyes of the established community nearby Tortilla Flat). But he knew (as a Californian) that such men were present long before the Steinbecks. Not so on Long Island: Marullo’s 40-years in Baytown is extinguished by a deportation order that issues like clockwork from Ethan’s tip. And no one (not even the narrator) objects.

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