NEW YORK (AP) — When Rodolfo Olmedo was dragged down by a group of men shouting anti-Mexican epithets and bashed over the head with a wooden stick on the street outside his home, he instinctively covered his face to keep from getting disfigured. Blood filled his mouth.
“I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t because of the beating they were giving me,” said the 25-year-old baker. Nearly five months later, he is still taking pain medications for his head injuries.
Recorded by a store’s surveillance camera, the assault was the first of 11 suspected anti-Hispanic bias attacks in a Staten Island neighborhood, re-igniting years-old tensions between blacks and Hispanics in New York City’s most remote borough.
Residents of Port Richmond — where an influx of newcomers from Latin America over the past decade has transformed the community — alternately blame the attacks on the economy, unemployment and the debate over Arizona’s immigration law.
And although most of the suspects were described as young black men and investigated for bias crimes, a grand jury has indicted only one of seven people arrested on a hate-crime charge.
But Isaias Lozano, a day laborer, said he knows why he was attacked and robbed in December by “morenos” — the Spanish word he uses to describe his black neighbors.
“They hate us because we’re Mexicans,” he said while sitting at El Centro del Inmigrante, a center for immigrant day workers. “They aren’t robbing just anybody.”
Across the United States, the immigration debate plays out in suspicion of outsiders and sometimes escalates into violence. Port Richmond, tucked in a corner of New York City that most visitors never see, is wrestling with the perennial question of how people from different backgrounds can live together and get along.
Some community leaders here blame the attacks on hoodlums preying on day laborers, who are perceived as easy targets because they often carry cash home from work. Others say the Arizona law is stirring up a climate of intolerance, even these thousands of miles away.
“It’s a cascading effect,” said the Rev. Terry Troia, a board member of El Centro del Inmigrante. “There are negative impulses being put out there both nationally and locally. People on the fringe catch a piece of that, and they are acting on it.”
Some of Port Richmond’s black residents assert that newcomers’ presence touches a nerve. Mike Mason, 47, a teacher who works in New Jersey, said the arrival of Mexican immigrants had changed the texture of the community.
“America has got to do something as far as immigration goes,” he said. “In the morning you can see the streets lined with undocumented workers … That’s always in the back of people’s minds.”
Staten Island is a relatively isolated, suburban-like borough of New York City. It is home to nearly 500,000 people, most of whom live in detached homes instead of apartments, need cars to get around and a ferry to get across New York Harbor to Manhattan.
Between 2000 and 2008, the number of Hispanics living on the island grew roughly 40 percent, according to Census bureau statistics analyzed by City University of New York’s Latino Data Project, with much of that growth coming from the Mexican community.
Many of those began to coalesce around the Port Richmond neighborhood, which had long been predominantly black and low-income. The neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare, once marked by empty storefronts, suddenly came alive with Mexican businesses selling pinatas, bars playing Spanish-language heavy metal, and grocers stocking chilies and tomatillos. The neighborhood developed a new nickname: “Little Mexico.”
Mexicans soon began reporting that they were attacked by their black neighbors.
One organization documented 21 assaults against day laborers one summer in 2003. When a day laborer was viciously stabbed and killed two years later, neighbors quickly blamed the black community, until reputed Latin Kings gang members were charged with the man’s death.
In recent months, police have deployed additional foot and mounted patrols, a command post and Mexican-born officers to distribute bilingual fliers with safety tips. The FBI joined in creating a task force to look into civil rights abuses in the neighborhood. Residents have aired grievances at numerous town hall meetings.
On a recent summer day, Nicomedes Rocha said she was afraid of being targeted by blacks while walking on the street.
“I have to watch on both sides,” said the 33-year-old dishwasher at a local taqueria, who was on her way to work carrying a shoulder bag. “They think I carry money.”
But some black residents said it was wrong to talk about bias as the main motive for the attacks.
David Johnson, an amateur boxer who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years, blamed the incidents on drug addicts looking to rob people for cash to feed their habits. “They would do that to anybody,” he said. “To jump toward bias issues is out of whack.”
Rodolfo Olmedo was beaten and robbed of his cell phone and wallet on April 5. Four suspects have been arrested and charged; police investigated it as a bias crime, but a grand jury indicted the suspects only on robbery and gang assault charges.
William Smith, a spokesman for the Staten Island district attorney’s office, said the attack on Olmedo was retaliatory. The suspects, he said, believed Olmedo had been involved in an earlier altercation.
Olmedo, who was hospitalized for five days and was briefly in a coma, contends he was targeted because of his ethnicity, not because he had been involved in a related incident or because the suspects wanted to steal his belongings.
After all, Olmedo said, they didn’t take an expensive watch that he was wearing.
“It was,” he said in Spanish, “a hate crime.”
Associated Press Writers Ana Azpurua and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press