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Sat November 23, 2013
Author Interviews

'Hunting Season' Examines Racism And Violence In An All-American Town

Originally published on Sat November 23, 2013 6:07 pm

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.

Interview Highlights


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.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West.

November 8, 2008 started like any other day for Marcelo Lucero. He went to work at the dry cleaners, then called his best friend, Angel Loja, to hang out in the small town of Patchogue, New York. They went shopping then got some dinner. It was already dark when they decided to go out for a walk.

MIRTA OJITO: That's when the problems started. 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.

RATH: Mirta Ojito tells the story of what happened next in her new book, "Hunting Season." That night, a group of seven teenagers was roaming the town doing what they called hunting beaners - looking for Hispanic people to harass.

OJITO: I don't know what Marcelo thought, but I do know that Angel Loja immediately realized that they were in trouble. They had heard the stories. They knew that immigrants were routinely attacked in this town, and he was very afraid. And so he managed to run away to an alley and to call for his friend. But by then, these young people had already surrounded Marcelo.

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. Loja managed to call the police, and these young people were immediately arrested about three blocks away. Marcelo bled to death on the sidewalk.

RATH: Lucero's murder shocked Patchogue and made national news. What had driven the kids to kill? Where did their hatred come from? Ojito says it likely began at the town's high school.

OJITO: 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, you know, dumb in a can for Dominican, or go back to Mexico or es-speak, I mean, 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.

RATH: Something else that was kind of wild is that one of these teenagers involved in the attack himself was Hispanic.

OJITO: Yes. Jose Pacheco was - his mother is African-American and his father is Puerto Rican. A lot of people are thrown by that. I was not, though, because I think it is possible to assign humanity to people we know and like and not so to the rest of the people that we don't know.

RATH: That old, like, you're one of the good ones, that thing?

OJITO: Exactly. You know, we hear a lot with black people and with - also with the gays, you know, I have a good - my best friend is gay, but I don't necessarily like gay people, you know, that sort of thing. It happens all the time.

RATH: The young man who stabbed Lucero that night was 17-year-old Jeffrey Conroy. He was a senior in high school, and the other kids seemed to look up to him as a leader. It's hard to imagine what would drive a boy like that to that kind of violence.

OJITO: 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 next to my desk during the three years I was working on this book.

RATH: So Jeffrey Conroy was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime and gang assault. You spent a lot of time in that community. How has the murder changed the town?

OJITO: 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, is 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.

RATH: Mirta Ojito's new book is called "Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town." Thank you very much.

OJITO: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.