By Claire Walla
The Latino community has had a strong presence on the East End for many years, yet despite the fact it is now an integral part of the local economy and culture, misunderstandings about the immigrant experience persist.
It’s not that there haven’t been meetings geared toward learning more about the East End’s Latino community, or local events that celebrate Latin culture — there have. But for Eunice Vaughan, President of the Eastville Community Historical Society, the issue is that “we walk away and say, ‘that was interesting.’”
And then it’s back to business as usual.
“To me, it’s more than that,” Vaughan continued. “What can we do to improve the life of the immigrant person who’s coming here? How can we start something?”
That was the impetus behind an event held last Saturday, November 5 at the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor. Organized with Witness for Peace — a national grassroots organization committed to promoting nonviolence — a group of seven East End residents sat down in a ring of folding chairs and listened to Jacqueline Garcia as she spoke about the perils of immigration, and the hardships that plague migrants both here and at home.
“It’s really about telling the human story,” said Eastville Community Historical Society Director Georgette Grier-Key.
After participating in a delegation made up of Long Islanders who went on a trip to Mexico early last month, Grier-Key has been empowered to make the issues that affect migrants right here in Sag Harbor more prominent in the community. So, in conjunction with Witness for Peace, she made sure Garcia’s East Cast speaking tour made a stop in Eastville, hoping her story might spark a dialogue.
Above: The delegation of Long Islanders who traveled to Mexico in October. Grier-Key is second row from the top to the far left. Sag Harbor resident and former school board member Dan Hartnett is third row from the top to the far left.
Garcia discussed the gang violence many immigrants face as they try to pass through Mexico; she spoke about the “highly protected” wall that runs along the U.S. border, which she said “visualizes a young person as a criminal”; and she went into the roots and motivations behind many immigrants’ journeys north, which are complicated and numerous.
“It’s like a big octopus,” she said.
But the perils of immigration extend beyond extreme poverty back home, and are longer-lasting than the hazardous journey north.
“In Mexico, we have our own way of living,” Garcia explained, so life in the U.S. brings major culture shock.
Above: Grier-Key (second from left), Dan Hartnett (far left) and members of the Mexico Delegation visited a church in the town of Matias Romero, in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Imagine the stress and the emotional weight that these migrants have carried with them,” she went on. “And because they’re undocumented they have a lot of fear; often times, people don’t want to even leave their house to go to the store. There’s usually a great amount of loneliness.”
Audience members asked Garcia about the harsh conditions in Mexico and intellectualized the root of the problem before Vaughan once again brought the issue back to the East End.
“The important thing is … what can we do here?” Vaughan asked. “We pass each other on the street and we say ‘hello,’ but that’s not enough. I don’t know how you feel, and you don’t know how I feel. There’s no communication.”
Jim Marquardt, a Sag Harbor resident, agreed with Vaughan, and added: “Language is a huge barrier. When you talk about better communication, that’s just basic.”
Sag Harbor resident Kathy Tucker wondered whether there was a way to engage the Latino community through the local library, or through the churches.
“You’re right on when you talk about libraries and churches,” said Sandra Dunn, a resident of Hampton Bays who is the immigration program officer for the Hagedorn Foundation, which organized the Long Island delegation to Mexico. “[Integration] has to happen on a really local level. You can’t just support immigrants rights, you have to support the people in your community.”
For Dan Hartnett, a former Sag Harbor School Board Member and a social worker in the East Hampton School District, working to improve the lives of Latino immigrants who have moved to the East End has been a priority for nearly 30 years.
“In terms of the schools, we have an uneasy mix: North American, white, Latin American, African American… “ he began. “The issue is very complicated. I have heard many, many times, especially from African American families, ‘We’ve been here for many generations and we’ve never had social workers.’ Now, here’s this new population and their needs are getting addressed.”
Finding a way to integrate the diverse communities of the East End is not easy, Hartnett continued. But he agreed with those who pointed to local organizations like churches and libraries to bring the community together. In fact, he said several years ago church leaders throughout the East End did coalesce in an effort to open up more of a dialogue on the issue.
“Those clerics have since moved on,” Hartnett continued. “But I hope there will be a new group there. We should go talk to our ministers and our priests and say, ‘It’s time to look at this again.’”