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 carnicerías (meat markets) to joyerías (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.
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 Víctor González, 27, another laborer who came to Port Richmond nine years ago. “When they pass us, they say [expletive] Mexicans and we respond [expletive] monkeys.”