Port Richmond confronts racial tensions

Lourdes Cuesta, 37, works the register at a small grocery store she and her husband own in Port Richmond, a neighborhood on the northern tip of Staten Island. Cuesta came to the neighborhood 21 years ago, one of the first of many Mexican immigrants who flooded the area. Photo by Jonathan Walczak

Twenty-one years ago, Lourdes Cuesta, then 16, ran across the border separating Arizona and Mexico, guided by a smuggler and protected by a blanket of darkness.

The pair navigated the desert terrain for three hours until they reached a car that would take Cuesta to Port Richmond, a neighborhood on the northern tip of Staten Island.

The trip took only eight days, Cuesta said. Now, it takes illegal immigrants at least a month, if not more, to make the same journey.

Cuesta, who grew up in Puebla, Mexico — a large city east of Mexico City, with a population of about 1.5 million — arrived at a time when Hispanics, mainly Puerto Ricans, made up only 15 percent of Port Richmond’s population. Blacks constituted about a quarter of all residents, U.S. Census data shows.

“In that year, there weren’t a lot of Mexicans here,” said Cuesta, 37, who runs a small grocery store with her husband on Port Richmond Avenue. “When you saw some Mexican here, you’d feel comfortable and happy.”

By 2000, Hispanics made up 23 percent of the population, while blacks made up 20 percent, a five percent drop from 1990. The trend has only accelerated since then, neighborhood residents and business owners said, as Mexican immigrants continue to flow into the area.

The changing racial demographics of the neighborhood has led to tensions between blacks and Hispanics, some say, culminating in a series of attacks on immigrants this year. The most publicized attack took place in April, when four teenagers beat and robbed Rudolfo Olmedo, a 26-year-old Mexican man, as he walked home from work at 4:30 a.m.

The attack, which was caught on camera, took place about 500 feet down the street from Cuesta’s store.

“Everybody is scared of something happen, but me, no,” Cuesta said. “Maybe if you work midnight.”

Cuesta said she thinks some of the attacks that have been described as hate crimes can better be explained through the prism of alcohol.

“Sometimes people drink and something happen, and then everybody say, ‘Oh, no. It’s because he’s Mexican — that’s why it happened to him,’ ” she said.

Barber says business is down

Shortly before noon on a recent weekday, the owner of Pop’s Barber Shop sat gazing out the window of his shop, a few blocks from Cuesta’s store.

David Fowle, 44, who opened the shop in 1999, said business has dramatically slowed in recent months, dropping about 50 percent.

“There was news truck all over the place, police on every corner,” Fowle said, describing the aftermath of several high-profile attacks on immigrants. “You can’t walk. It slowed business down. Nobody wanted to come into Port Richmond.”

David Fowle, 44, the owner of Pop's Barber Shop in Port Richmond sits in his store as he waits for customers. Business dropped 50 percent after a series of attacks on Mexican immigrants this year, Fowle said. Photo by Jonathan Walczak

Now, with business so slow, Fowle helps pass the time by watching “The Price is Right.”

While some people are afraid, Fowle, who is black, said he hasn’t personally witnessed animosity between blacks and Hispanics here, something Cuesta echoed.

“I see the blacks interact with the Mexicans. Everybody speaks,” he said, still gazing out the window. “I don’t see a lot of the racial tensions they say there is. I don’t see it.”

A Mexican man walked by as he finished speaking.

“See, here goes my Mexican friend right here,” Fowle said, waving and calling out to the man.

Immigrants scared of police, residents say

Fowle and Cuesta both said they think the threat to immigrants has been exaggerated by the media, and the increased police presence has scared immigrants just as much, if not more, than the attacks.

“They scared because they immigrants, and there’s a lot of police,” Cuesta said. “Sometimes, someone asks me if the police going to take him, because the TV comes on and says something about police taking immigrants, or something like that. It’s just because they don’t know exactly what happens with the police.”

Jack Ryan, a Staten Island priest who helps run several nonprofits and affiliated groups that assist immigrants and work to alleviate racial tensions, said a “significant number” of immigrants have not reported attacks in recent months because they are afraid of the police.

But the NYPD and the district attorney have worked hard to foster trust with the immigrant population, and community efforts to address the underlying cause of the attacks seem to be working, Ryan said.

“In terms of publicly known incidents, it seems as though in the last six or seven weeks, the number of incidents has gone down,” he said.

Tensions do exist, Ryan said, but they are just as likely to arise because of tough economic conditions as racial differences.

“The major cause right now is you have a longstanding, severe economic downtown, where a vast number of people, especially working-age and young working-age males from different groups, are unemployed or underemployed,” Ryan said. “And that always creates tension and problems.”

Ryan moved to Staten Island in 1994 from Upstate New York. For the past nine years, he has worked for El Centro de Hospitalidad, now known as El Centro del Inmigrante, a nonprofit that offers various types of assistance to immigrants and day laborers.

The organization’s office is directly across the street from Fowle’s barbershop. “I have no problem with them, me personally,” Fowle said. “I know everybody over there.”

About a dozen day laborers and two mothers with young children in strollers milled about the center as Fowle sat in his shop about 100 feet away. Three young men sat watching a movie on a large-screen television while another man strummed a guitar in the corner. Some just sat staring at the walls.

When national political leaders and pundits use inflammatory rhetoric in arguments against illegal immigration, these are the people who really suffer, Ryan said.

“If you have a verbal climate that dehumanizes any group, when you have language or rhetoric that puts these people seemingly beyond the pale or less than another group, this type of rhetoric can destabilize our society,” he said. “And (the attackers) somehow manage to take comments and, at times, form a rationale why it’s OK to beat up people.”

Like Cuesta and Fowle, Ryan said too much has been made of racial tensions and the attacks, and too little has been said about the majority of residents who get along and interact on a daily basis. Most here were repulsed by the attacks, he said.

“Any attempt to blanket Staten Island as Archie Bunker land,” said Ryan, referring to the bigoted character from the old TV show ‘All in the Family,’ “is untrue. It’s categorically untrue.”