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Blacks & Mexicans scrap in S.I.


The men who attacked Staten Island day laborer Leobardo Rojas must have wanted him dead: They stabbed him in the face, back of the head and his neck.
The vicious Sept. 7 murder left Port Richmond's growing Mexican immigrant community of landscapers, housecleaners and day laborers shaken and angry. Many immediately blamed Rojas' death on the morenos, the African-Americans who live alongside them.

"There was a lot of tension that night on the streets, it could have easily exploded," said Jesse Taylor, an organizer at Eye Openers, a new youth group that addresses the simmering tensions between blacks and Hispanics. "People were pretty quick to blame a specific group: African-Americans."

Within 24 hours, however, arrests were made and all the suspects were Hispanic, alleged members of the Latin Kings. But the strained relations among Port Richmond's Mexican immigrant and blacks go beyond Rojas' death.

In a neighborhood where the unemployment rate was nearly 9% in 2004, ethnic tensions have been simmering since Mexicans began settling in huge numbers in the 1990s. The newcomers have dramatically transformed Port Richmond, a historic North Shore neighborhood of Victorian-style homes with a small-town atmosphere that has seen better days.

Mexican-owned businesses - from carnicer√ɬ*as (meat markets) to joyer√ɬ*as (jewelry stores) - have replaced the boarded-up, rundown storefronts along Port Richmond Ave. Hordes of men assemble each day on the sidewalks waiting to land construction work.

"[The African-Americans] watch the day laborers get work every day and they come home with money," said Robert Turbiak, chief detective investigator with the Staten Island district attorney's office. "There's frustration in this community because the area is changing."

The Mexican population of Port Richmond is six times larger than it was a decade ago, according to the Department of City Planning. The 2000 census counted 1,250 Mexicans, an increase of 471% from 1990 when there were only 219.

"It's been a huge cultural shift," said the Rev. Terry Troia, the executive director of Project Hospitality, and a leading advocate who has tried to bridge both communities by creating an anti-violence task force. "When you have such a radical shift like this with a new ethnic group, it can feel like an invasion. It's just an amazing thing to watch."

What's happening in Port Richmond has been happening all over the city and the country. From Los Angeles' Compton to Chicago's South Side, some black residents have watched with unease the influx of America's now largest minority group.

Black and Latino coalitions may appear to work on a political level, with mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer enjoying the backing of many of the city's black leaders. But those alliances are harder to build on the streets.

"The blacks have been here for a long time, but we can't get the grants to open up businesses, and the Mexicans have been here for like two years and they're opening up businesses all over the place," said longtime resident Ada Hollomon, 57, an African-American. "That is frustrating."

At times, the frustration can spill into violence. And day laborers, who usually walk around with their cash earnings, are among the most vulnerable.

Undocumented and hesitant to contact authorities, they are commonly targeted for verbal harassment, random beatings and petty robberies.

José Guadalupe, 35, was hospitalized last year when a group of black teens pummeled him with fists on Port Richmond Ave. He was a day laborer at the time.

"I walked by them and I felt someone hit me on the shoulder. When I turned around, I didn't get a chance to see him but one just punched me, loosened my teeth," said Guadalupe, who is a janitor at a grocery store now. "There were two or three other times this has happened to me."

He reported last year's crime, but the suspects were never caught.

"Sometimes, we feel inferior because they see you as inferior," said V√ɬ*ctor Gonz√ɬ°lez, 27, another laborer who came to Port Richmond nine years ago. "When they pass us, they say [expletive] Mexicans and we respond [expletive] monkeys."

The Rev. Tony Baker, the pastor at St. Philips Baptist Church, Staten Island's oldest black church, said he was shocked to learn of the regular attacks Mexicans endure. "If what was happening on Port Richmond Ave. involved whites attacking black people, there would be a backlash all the way to Borough Hall. Al Sharpton would be here in a heartbeat," said Baker, who hosts meetings of the Port Richmond Anti-Violence Task Force at his church every month. "They would want me to lead a march."

Community members complain that police officials have been slow to classify the beatings of Mexican day laborers as bias attacks. NYPD officials declined to discuss the issue.

Ramone Carreón, 55, a Mexican, and a leading organizer among the day laborers in Port Richmond, said he is convinced the solution lies in dialogue. He recently signed up for the neighborhood's new citizen's patrol group comprised of black and Mexican residents.

"We don't speak the same language, and that is our main problem," Carreón said. "We all have to try to integrate. Talk to each other."