Updated: May 1, 2022
By GLYN VINCENT
ON SUNDAYS, at a baseball field in Amagansett in the late 1980s, Oswaldo Palomo bided his time on the bench waiting for a chance to play. He was 24, recently arrived from Costa Rica, and was working as a beach attendant and bellhop at the Panoramic View hotel in Montauk.
He and his brother were the only Latinos on a local adult softball team, rubbing shoulders with fishermen and firemen, artists and businessmen.
“They didn’t expect me to know how to play ball,” Palomo said. “The first year I had to wait until the second game of the doubleheader. I was sitting there (thinking), ‘Those guys are going to get to know me.’ ” Palomo knows what to do with a bat and a mitt. He’d grown up playing baseball. His great-grandfather had introduced the game to Costa Rica. His father played baseball for the Costa Rican team at the Pan-American games in Chicago in 1959.
Eventually, Palomo got to demonstrate his abilities — even as a pitcher. “I was on the starting team. It was great.” He eventually became lifelong friends with some of the locals on the team.
Years later, when his two sons entered East Hampton High School, Palomo volunteered as an assistant coach for the school’s baseball teams. By then, with steadfast support of his employers during a seven-year application process, Palomo had become a U.S. citizen.It was a significant moment, a way to cement the bond with his adopted hometown. “One time I told someone, ‘I am a Latino Bonacker!’ ” he said.
“I am a Latino Bonacker.” Oswaldo Palomo on third base at East Hampton High School’s baseball diamond.
The desire to be recognized as Latino and also be fully counted as American is familiar to the thousands of Latinos who have arrived here in the last few decades and made this their home. It’s not difficult to see why they came to the East End, with its immense prosperity, good schools and jobs, and idyllic landscape. Many have since found rewards and opportunity — they are the first to say so. But for almost every one of them, getting here, adapting, and proving themselves has been a personal struggle, a struggle that’s been exacerbated in the past year by a presidential election that made immigration, and Hispanic immigration in particular, a centerpiece. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, went so far as to cast Latino immigrants as criminals and an economic burden.
All this comes as many Latinos have worked their way into the middle class. Many have arrived at a crossroads where their identities and fears as immigrants diverge from their desire and their right to be American.
Compounding the tension are pressures everyone who is not rich faces here: The South Fork has become so expensive it’s now squeezing out all the working and middle classes, Latinos included, the very people it depends on to survive as a year-round and summer community.
Things were different in 1995 when Miguel Morales first saw East Hampton’s main street. Prodded by his wife, Nelva, he’d saved money for months to pay for a flight from Venezuela to New York to visit his sister-in-law. Sitting in her car one spring morning, they made the turn into the village. It seemed like a movie: the grand houses, the old windmill, swans floating in the pond. Morales, whose grandmother sold eggs in the streets of Caracas, decided then and there to make East Hampton his family’s home. “It was the perfect place,” he said. His story, like that of so many others, is one of perseverance, success, frequent setbacks, and many helpful hands along the way.
Latinos began trickling into this area in the 1970s. In 1980, according to the census, there were 293 Hispanics in East Hampton. It’s not quite clear which nationalities can claim to be the original pioneers — the early arrivals were mostly Mexicans, Costa Ricans, and Colombians — but most, like Morales, were lured by accounts from relatives and friends of a bucolic seashore resort where people were friendly and you could find endless work at a decent wage.
“Your family, your friends always would find a job for you,” said Morales, sitting at the stone counter of his newly redone kitchen in Springs, wearing a T-shirt with “Life Is Good” printed on it.
Within a few days of his arrival, Morales found work spackling and painting for a construction company.
“I started at seven days a week,” he said.
Finding a place to live with his wife and their two sons wasn’t as easy. Rents were high, and there were waiting lists for the most affordable options. For all the hardships recent immigrants have faced and continue to face, examples of generosity and kindness from employers, church groups, school staff and new friends abound. Carolyn Snyder, who runs Round Swamp Farm, took a liking to Morales, he said. Snyder leased his family a cottage on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton and didn’t raise the rent for seven years. By that time, Morales had become foreman, and his American employer had sponsored — and paid most of the costs of — his application for U.S. citizenship.
By the late 1990s, with the local economy on fire, the South Fork was being transformed by a new, larger wave of Latino immigrants that many, even the earlier Latino arrivals, felt was overwhelming.
“The town changed a lot since 2001,” Morales said. “The new immigration was different. They went into town, into the streets, to the train station to look for work. There were too many. People started to complain, because it changed the look of the town.” Census figures are notoriously defi- cient when it comes to counting heads in a seasonal community, especially one where a sizable number of residents may not be living in traditional housing. But the official tally indicates that between 2000 and 2007 the Latino population in East Hampton doubled to about 5,500, or more than a quarter of its full-time residents.
It was a prosperous — and tumultuous — period. Construction and landscape work was booming, jobs were plentiful, and banks were offering lowinterest loans. Many Latinos became skilled stonemasons, painters, carpenters.
They thrived, and bought houses and new pickup trucks. Emulating local tradition, they drove their pickups onto the beaches to fish, or picnic, or watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
But they weren’t always welcome at the party. Not wishing to sound like victims or complainers, most of the people we interviewed for this piece were loath to describe specific incidents of xenophobia and racism, though many said they’d encountered it.
Morales, too, benefited from the economic boom of the early 2000s. He acquired an ’86 Camaro Z-28 and, in 2005, bought his house. In 2007, he invested in his own construction company, Waterside. He bought a new truck and obtained a home-improvement contractor’s license, workers’ compensation, and liability insurance. It was an expensive risk, and, as luck would have it, poorly timed. The economy tanked by early 2008, and for nearly three years there was little work. Life turned bleak. Many Latinos left the area.
“I didn’t have the money to feed my family,” he said.
Business eventually returned, and Morales and his family persevered. They are now part of Long Island’s growing middle class. Their youngest son, Luis, a college graduate, is about to join the police academy. Their eldest, David, works in the pool business. Their house in Springs is worth a substantial sum.
On weekends, Morales tends his garden or takes one of his classic cars for a spin.
“My neighbors think I’m a rich man,” he shrugged bashfully.
“What Latinos have to do . . . is find a way to be American. demonstrate that we can work for the country, not just for me.” Miguel Morales at home in Springs
Latinos now constitute more than 18 percent of the population of Suffolk County (which was around 1.5 million in the 2010 census) and, as a group, contribute more than $3 billion a year to the local economy. Although Latinos trail other immigrant groups in median income, two-thirds of Latino households on Long Island have an income of $40,000 or more, and a quarter of Latino households earn more than $100,000.
You can still see lineups of Latino men on corners or at the train station, waiting for day jobs, but they comprise less than one percent of the community, according to a Fiscal Policy Institute report issued last year.
The Morales family’s experience belies the stereotype of Latino immigrants coming here just to work and send cash home before heading south again. Latinos here are investing in their own businesses, paying property taxes, sending their children to public schools, volunteering with community organizations.
These investments — time, money, passion — are transforming their identity. They speak Spanish and follow soccer teams from Guatemala or Mexico or Ecuador. But many, like Morales, now consider themselves Americans. Americans who desire to give back.
“Some Latinos tried to make East Hampton like their country,” Morales said. “I am here because the system here is better than the system in Venezuela. . . . What Latinos have to do . . . is find a way to be American.
Demonstrate that we can work for the country, not just for me.”
Getting immigrants to engage politically and socially in the larger East End community is Minerva Perez’s daily challenge.
One morning in late August, between planning sessions for a voterregistration drive and organizing a Latino film festival, Perez arrived for a meeting in Sag Harbor on her red Ducati motorcycle. Sitting down in a crowded cafe, she put her black helmet on the floor and started talking about her life. Perez’s father was Puerto Rican. She was born in Manhattan and raised in Miami. She graduated from New York University and spent several years working in theater in the city.
In 2002, at the end of a marriage and with her 5-year-old daughter in tow, she arrived in Sag Harbor to start a new life.
Having lived in cities where Latinos have long been part of the fabric of urban life, Perez was taken aback by the division she found here between Latinos and locals.
“I was struck by . . . this brutal and unbalanced way of viewing of the Latino community,” she said. At the time, 2006, local county officials were targeting the immigrant community. Perez began volunteering for the non-profit Organizacion Latino- Americana of Eastern Long Island, known as OLA. She lobbied against proposed anti-immigrant measures being considered by the County Legislature to criminalize the hiring of undocumented workers.
Last winter, she took over as the executive director of OLA, which was founded in 2002. An essential role of OLA is to encourage Latinos to find their common bonds and cultural connections, and to encourage others to recognize the value of a thriving Latino community here. It also seeks to improve communication between the Latino community and various authorities — police, school administrations, and town officials.
“There is so much more to the Latino conversation than immigration and affordable housing,” she said. “It’s an important time to not just be here to counter the horrible rhetoric on a national level,” but also, she said, to encourage leadership and engagement. “I wanted to see more of the Latino community come forward and be part of that dialogue. But there is a lot of fear.” The reluctance to engage is complex.
Language is a hurdle, as is an ingrained wariness and distrust, and the view that any engagement with bureaucracy (getting a license, enrolling in school, buying insurance) is seen as the first step to being found out, and to deportation.
Oswaldo Palomo is now the pastor of the Vida Abundante church in Wainscott, whose congregation is made up mostly of recently arrived, Spanish-speaking immigrants. Many, separated from their country and their families for the first time, are in a state of shock, having arrived here by any means possible, much of the journey by road and on foot, a few dollars in their pockets.
Sitting in his sparely furnished church office, a few baseball trophies and plaques on the shelves, Palomo speaks of the mothers who can’t get their children into school, of immigrants being arrested and facing deportation because they don’t have a driver’s license. His church staff, primarily himself and his wife, Ester, and a few volunteers, are a kind of one-stop community center, providing English and music classes; tax information, and financial and legal advice, to say nothing of spiritual and emotional comfort.
A good deal of Palomo’s life, though, has been dedicated to finding common ground with the mostly white American community around him. It hasn’t always worked out.
Now 52, Palomo no longer plays baseball with the locals. The atmosphere soured, he said, as more immigrants arrived in the early 2000s, moving into the last remaining local working-class neighborhoods in parts of Springs, North Sea, Three Mile Harbor. “Some people didn’t like the Latinos. We were too noisy, we talked too much . . . the loud music.” Complaints to town officials began: overcrowded houses, raucous weekend ballgames and gatherings.
Things got heated not just here, but all over Suffolk County. Authorities began to crack down. Deportations, police shakedowns, and anti-immigrant legislative initiatives followed. Latinos were assaulted and beaten.
In local schools, where Latinos were approaching 30 to 40 percent of the student population in some areas, school board–Latino parent confrontations occurred over the lack of language programs, Spanish-speaking counselors, and available supplies. Bullying of Latino students came out into the open in 2006 in East Hampton when a skinhead and his friends cornered three teenage Latino students in a shed and threatened them with a chain saw.
Palomo, who established his church that same year, felt the widening cultural rift and hostility. He found himself straddling the line, chiding his parishioners both to turn down the volume and stand up for their rights, to pay their taxes and fight injustice. Unease increased with the political impasse in Washington, D.C., which blocked any attempts at immigration reform. Paths to citizenship became fewer. Requirements were contradictory and selfdefeating, local Latinos said. At the local level, however, school districts began better relationships with bilingual teachers and programs.
In February 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, staged a series of nighttime raids that shook the South Fork Latino community.
One of the houses belonged to Adriana Leon, then a 30-year-old Ecuadorian house cleaner, and her family.
Federal agents arrived at 4 a.m., pushed their way into the house in Springs and burst into bedrooms.
“When I woke up they were right beside my bed, telling me, ‘Get up! Get up!’ I was so scared. I thought there was a fire in the house.” The agents had guns. They pointed lights in Leon’s face. They pulled her out of bed and rounded up everyone in the house. Her daughters were half-dressed, screaming, and covering themselves; her 4-year-old son, left in the bedroom, called out for her.
ICE agents were looking for Leon’s ex-husband, who hadn’t lived in the house for many years. But they didn’t have a warrant, and all of Leon’s extended family were naturalized U.S. citizens living in a house that they had bought jointly in 2000. The agents eventually realized their error, but outside, in the dark, Leon saw other Latinos rounded up and taken away.
In the days following the raid, Palomo’s church helped free from detention most of those swept up in the raid and organized meetings with advocacy groups. At one meeting, a group of 22 decided to file a federal class-action lawsuit against ICE, and Leon agreed to be the lead plaintiff. “I wanted to fight for our rights.” Taking on ICE and the U.S. government was daunting, but, almost six years after the case was filed, the court in 2013 ruled in favor of Leon, requiring a restitution payment of $1 million and that ICE follow specific guidelines when conducting home searches, such as having a Spanish-speaking agent ask for “valid consent” before entering a resident’s house.
The decision was groundbreaking. It established certain immigration enforcement policies nationwide.
“They were trampling on the rights of Latino families,” said Foster Maer, the senior litigation lawyer at LatinoJustice.
Leon carries on now, helping with Bible study classes at the Vida Abundante church in the evenings after her housecleaning work is finished. Her main concern these days is familiar to anyone: She finds it increasingly difficult to live here, with housing prices pushed ever higher by summer residents and wealthy urban expats. “People, not just Spanish people, but many Americans too, are begging just for a place to live,” she said.
Acceptance of Latinos and the pace of assimilation is slow, those interviewed for this article agreed, but it has accelerated among the second and third generations.
Palomo’s own two sons are college-educated adults now, with families of their own, living thoroughly Americanized lives — one, in real estate in Miami, the other a lobbyist with a firm in Boston.
Charting Their Own Future
Maritza Guichay and her younger brother, Juan Carlos, arrived in East Hampton from Ecuador in the late 1990s when they were 8 and 9 years old, having heard only rosy stories about America from their aunt. Their father, Ricardo, who had attended military college, traveled overland to America in 1988, coming first to Montauk, where he had cousins, and finding a job as a dishwasher.
Juan Carlos Guichay and his sister Maritza Guichay at home in Springs
During the first 10 years, Ricardo became a mason and went back and forth to Ecuador three times to visit his wife and his growing children. But it wasn’t until 1999 that the family was permanently reunited in Springs. They arrived at night at their uncle’s small house where there was little room to spare.
It was not the pretty picture their aunt had painted. “When you first arrive those are not the beautiful things that you see,” said Martiza, now 30, wearing small pearl earrings and sipping water at Starbucks in East Hampton.
Thrust into this new world with no English skills, Maritza and Juan Carlos struggled to adapt. Maritza said her first day in school, not knowing anyone, not wearing a school uniform as she had in Ecuador, was “the worst experience of my life.” Juan Carlos, whose 10th high school reunion was this fall, remembers being isolated. “I was bullied a lot,” he said. He got into fights.
One boy singled him out for constant harassment for being Latino, making Juan Carlos’s life hell.
Juan Carlos and his sister have since reached goals unimaginable to their parents. Today, Maritza is an accountant with a degree in business administration from Stony Brook University and Carlos has a degree in architecture from the New York Institute of Technology.
Both are members of the East Hampton Town Latino Advisory Committee, which was set up earlier this year with a broad mandate to improve communication and relations between the town and the Latino community.
“Before, the people who came didn’t think about education,” Maritza said.
“They needed to feed their family. They thought they were going back home. But now our community has a well-educated generation who knows exactly what’s going on, and they’re the ones who are going to make a difference for the other people.” Maritza continued: “This is my hometown. My family is here.
My life is here. This is my community.” In 2012, the East Hampton School District succeeded in bolstering Latino involvement in the schools and local education by hiring a Spanish-speaking liaison, Likewise, as co-chair of the town advisory committee, Maritza is leading a charge to boost town-Latino communication by holding direct meetings with Latinos in Spanish. Additionally, the committee is working with other organizations like OLA to get Latinos to the polls for local and national elections.
Perez likens Latinos to the Irish, German, and Italian immigrants who came before them, and who made vital contributions to American culture.
“I see the Latino community right now as a breath of fresh air,” she said, “through its work ethic, its faith, and a real strong desire to make sure their children are educated.” This story went to press before the presidential election of Nov. 8. Undoubtedly, the Moraleses, the Palomos, the Guichays, and the Leons will have watched uneasily as the returns came in. Whatever the outcome, they, like all American families, will celebrate on Thanksgiving.
“I believe in Thanksgiving,” Leon said, in the garden of the East Hampton Library, where she sometimes reads. “It’s something for all the immigrants, and we are one of them.”