Three years after Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death in a racially motivated attack in New York, residents and religious leaders commemorated his life in a celebration intended to start the healing of a divided community.
Lucero, 37, was walking to a friend’s house when he was assaulted by seven teenagers in a Patchogue, Long Island, train station parking lot on November 8, 2008. His violent death shocked New York and thrust the issue of anti-Hispanic sentiment on Long Island into the national spotlight.
Jeffrey Conroy, one of the attackers, was convicted and sentenced last May to 25 years in prison for "manslaughter as a hate crime."
Last Sunday, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders gathered with about 200 community members at San Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Patchogue for a day-long event calling for unity and peace in the community. During the ceremony, a handmade healing quilt crafted by residents of Patchogue in memory of Lucero was exhibited. According to Rev. Allan Ramirez, pastor of Brookville Reformed Church, the quilt "is a symbol of the community's solidarity."
"We embrace the idea that we are all one family, and in that spirit we have gathered to remember Marcelo Lucero," Ramirez said.
The tribute also included the exhibit "Embracing Our Differences" ("Abrazando Nuestras Diferencias"), featuring essays by middle school students from the district where Lucero lived.
“The city is working to re-establish harmony for all residents," said Jack Krieger, deputy mayor of Patchogue in his opening remarks. "By taking all precautions to live peacefully and united as one big family, we will erase the past.”
The public tone is a change from the past.
In 2009, Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors hate groups and crimes, issued a report that found Latinos in Suffolk County were "regularly harassed" and "taunted." Statements by local politicians and law enforcement officials about immigrants fueled the hate, the report found.
The Latino Justice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization that requested an investigation into Lucero's death by U.S. Department of Justice, maintained that anti-immigrant policies by Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy contributed to the hostility against Latinos.
After an investigation that took more than two years, the Department of Justice released a 28-page letter recommending improved procedures for investigating hate crimes in Suffolk County. It said the Suffolk County Police Department often failed to investigate prior reports of attacks on Latinos.
In the letter, the Department of Justice criticized the police for dismissing attacks on Latinos by white youth as "just kids being kids," and its failure to identify hate crimes altogether by filing racially-motivated assaults as "Youth Disturbances." Several of the young men accused of participating in Lucero's assault had been cited by police for shooting at a Latino with a BB gun just hours before Lucero was murdered. The police report listed the incident as a "disturbance."
Suffolk County Police Assistant Chief Patrick Cuff told WNYC News that since Lucero's death, the department implemented a number of changes, including making Spanish translators available and teaching Spanish to recruits. In addition, a Spanish-speaking investigator was assigned to to the internal affairs bureau and police officers held meetings with day laborers.
Marcelo’s brother, Joselo Lucero, described Sunday's event as a "cultural act for peace and hope." He announced that the county legislators had designated a week to promote understanding and respecting cultural differences that will be celebrated annually around the anniversary of his brother's death.
"The resolution was passed to honor the memory of Marcelo Lucero and all of the positive things about his life," said Suffolk County legislator Edward Romaine said. "It is not meant to highlight the hate, but the tolerance and social justice needed for a multicultural perspective."
"The legislature wants to make sure that such a tragedy never happens again in Suffolk County," he added. "Tolerance is the key, and crimes motivated by hate will not be allowed.”
Manuel Ordoñez, Lucero's cousin, remembered him as someone who was beloved by his mother, brothers and family.
"It has been three years and it's still hard coming to terms with the fact that Marcelo is not here," he said. "What we want now is to live in peace, without racial prejudices. We are all the same before God and before society."
Last year, Joselo Lucero helped establish the Marcelo Lucero Scholarship fund to support students at Patchogue-Medford High School, the same school Lucero's attackers had attended. It is open to anyone "regardless of race or academic achievement."
In September, a PBS documentary titled "Not In Our Town: Light In The Darkness," gave an account of the events that lead to the death of Lucero, including a look at the legal case against the young men who committed the crime and community efforts to come to terms with racial tensions.
Contributions to thefund can be made by mail to the Patchogue-Medford High School (181 Buffalo Ave., Medford, New York 11763), with checks payable to the Marcelo Lucero Scholarship.