Improving Multi-cultural Cooperation

Looking to heal wounds

Farmingville group aims to improve relations with Latinos

Newsday Staff Writer

November 13, 2006

Dave Garutti was as concerned as many of his neighbors about the influx of Mexican day laborers into Farmingville.

But one day last winter, when he was riding his all-terrain vehicle in the snow, it got stuck at the bottom of a hill in the community. Two Latino workers came out of nowhere and, without being asked, helped him extract the vehicle.

The encounter helped change Garutti’s outlook and send him along a new path.

Today, he is a member of a new group that is reaching across the ethnic divide in a community whose often tense relationship with Latino day workers was the subject of an acclaimed documentary, simply called “Farmingville.” He hopes to heal long-standing wounds over the issue of illegal immigration and, in so doing, change his community for the better.

“I was a fairly angry resident,” said Garutti, 39, who lives around the corner from Woodmont Place, where authorities last year closed down a 900-square-foot, single-family house jammed with up to 64 day laborers.

What he came to realize, he said, was that anger “doesn’t work. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Let’s get this hatred out of the town.”

The new group, Farmingville Residents Association, is forming as the community tries to rebound from reams of bad publicity that peaked with the 2000 beating of two Mexican day laborers by two avowed white supremacists. They were later convicted of attempted murder. The unwanted attention continued with a crackdown on overcrowded housing in 2005.

The group’s founder, Louise Scarola, said it is intentionally not addressing issues of illegal immigration because that is a federal government responsibility and well beyond the group’s control. Instead, it is seeking to address what it can – from overcrowded houses to men gathering on street corners.

“This has nothing to do with immigration,” she said. “This has to do with neighbor to neighbor.”

The group has about 20 members and is drawing both longtime residents concerned about Farmingville’s seemingly intractable problems with its day laborer population, and Latino immigrants themselves, many of whom consider the community home. After meeting out of the limelight for six months, the group held its first public event Oct. 15 when, with an eye toward helping Farmingville present a better face, about 100 people spent the day cleaning up trash in the Horseblock Road area. They collected 1.4 tons.

The group is contemplating setting up a block captain system to resolve disputes among neighbors on streets where single-family homeowners have an uneasy relationship with residents in overcrowded houses. It also wants to have the town housing code – which spells out what can and can’t be done in a residence – translated into Spanish so that the immigrants are clear on local regulations.

Beyond these ideas, the group is also thinking of conducting cultural awareness classes so that the newcomers recognize that customs that may be acceptable in their home countries – like whistling at women, for example – are frowned on here.

So far, the group has generated a positive buzz. It’s “a good way to bring the community together and to heal some of the wounds of Farmingville,” said Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Connie Kepert, who is assisting them. “We are trying to make Farmingville one community again.”

Scarola started the group after receiving several telephone calls in response to a Newsday article in March about her and her hopes to do something concrete to improve the community. She was the voice of aggrieved residents in “Farmingville.” Another star in the film, Latina activist Matilde Parada, also has joined the group.

“It’s something positive,” Parada said in Spanish, although so far the group’s goals do not include addressing issues such as affordable housing for day laborers. “The men don’t have a decent place to live because everyone rejects them.”

The group’s formation coincides with efforts by a new administration in Brookhaven Town to enforce local housing codes but at the same time not exacerbate ethnic tensions, Kepert said.

“We are making great headway” on the housing enforcement, she said. “We also need to make progress in not demonizing any population.”

Scarola and Garutti said one of their principle goals is to transform Farmingville into a community where newcomers and longtime residents live in harmony.

“To turn it around would be such an achievement,” Garutti said. “Heads would spin.”

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.


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