The explosion of violence against the Mexican community on Staten Island is as shameful as it is intolerable in a place like New York with its long and proud tradition as a city of immigrants.
It is also a potential powder keg.
"I am worried because, as any community, Mexicans can passively take the violence only for so long," said Ana María Archila, executive director of Make the Road New York, with offices in Staten Island and Brooklyn. "But if the attacks continue Mexicans will defend themselves – and the situation could become even uglier. We have to act decisively to avoid this happening."
There have been 10 bias attacks in the Port Richmond area since April targeting Mexican men and one involving a gay couple.
The latest victim was Christian Vázquez, an 18-year-old student and restaurant worker, who was brutally assaulted last Saturday around 2:30 a.m. while returning from work. The assailants punched and kicked him and robbed him of $10 while allegedly yelling insults about Mexicans.
Vázquez was assaulted just days after the NYPD substantially increased its presence in the area. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who has said the NYPD is not an immigration agency, assigned six Mexican-American officers to the area. The measure is an attempt to reassure the community that crime victims and witnesses have no reason to fear coming forward – clearly indicating how difficult it is to quell racial violence.
"In the short run, it is urgent to guarantee the safety of the residents, but this surge in police presence fails to address the root causes of the violence, Archila said. "In the long run, the city has to invest in Port Richmond that has been neglected and abandoned for years."
Joel Magallán, executive director of Asociación Tepeyac, a Mexican community group in Manhattan, said that anti-Mexican violence is nothing new in Staten Island.
"I remember that a couple of years ago there was this guy who crashed his car against the doors of several Mexican businesses in the area,"he said.
But Magallán also believes that much more than an increased police presence is needed.
"We need coalitions of Hispanic and African-American community groups, and churches of all denominations working together to educate and open lines of communication between the different ethnic groups. We did this in East Harlem and the Bronx and it worked very well to bring the people together," Magallán said.
There are those who want to deny that hate is behind the attacks. They claim that it is a matter of gang rivalry, or simply that Mexicans are easy marks for robbers because many of them are undocumented and are afraid to report the crimes.
But the fact is that in every single vicious attack against defenseless Mexicans the assailants have allegedly hurled racial epithets. The NYPD is investigating these attacks as hate crimes.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-S.I.) and several community leaders have announced a 10-point plan to counter the bias attacks.The plan includes educational programs and outreach in the religious community, the expansion of the "I Am Staten Island" public service announcement campaign and the posting of "Safe Zone" signs in local businesses where people in danger can get help. It also calls for improved street lighting and new recreational programs for children and teens.
All of them are welcome measures. The powder keg must not be allowed to explode.