Following up on a tip from a neighbor, a team of East Hampton code enforcement officers paid a surprise visit to a modest house in a working class neighborhood halfway between the harbor and the town dump. A caller had reported that the house seemed overcrowded and unsafe, and what the officers found confirmed it. The basement was haphazardly divided into separate rooms rented by recently arrived Latin American immigrants. There was only one way out. A fire would be disastrous.
The owner of the house, a Costa Rican, was unapologetic, telling the officers he had to make at least $3,000 a month from his renters or he would lose the house. And his tenants, who came to the area in search of work, but with no documentation and a poor command of English, paid without complaint. What were their choices? There was work to be had and they had to live somewhere.
While much of the year-round population struggles to afford the high cost of living in the Hamptons, when the summer season comes, the jobs are plentiful. And when they are not, undocumented workers line up at the East Hampton train station across from the building supply yard waiting for a contractor, a painter, a landscaper, or a homeowner to pull up and offer them a day’s work.
To many Anglos in the Hamptons, these workers define the area’s Latino community. Though most visible in some ways—and an easy target for anti-immigrant vitriol—Latinos often are hidden from view. They are packed into basements, squeezed into hotel rooms, and ride their bikes to work at the crack of dawn seven days a week. They struggle at the poverty line and transfer most of their earnings to relatives in their native countries.
Many of the Latinos now firmly established in the Hamptons, with businesses and homes of their own and children and grandchildren in the local schools, started their lives here on similar footing. Decades ago Costa Ricans, Colombians, and Mexicans were the first Latin American immigrants drawn to East Hampton. Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Ecuadoreans, and others were to follow. Whether these groups will unite as “Latinos,” and if that identity will alter the political landscape of areas like the Hamptons, remains to be seen.
If the United States is the promised land, the Hamptons, with its wealthy second homeowners and their multitude of needs and desires, are the pinnacle of that promise. Many people who live here make comfortable livings serving the rich in one way or another. Some have made their own fortunes at it. And without immigrant labor they would be unable to do it. In the Hamptons, Latino workers are the fuel that drives a robust service economy. “There is a deep, enduring, almost recession-proof demand for immigrant labor,” noted Marcelo Suarez-Orozco of the Harvard Immigration Project during a visit to East Hampton earlier this year.
Like the rest of the country, East Hampton is being transformed by one of the largest waves of immigration since the turn of the last century. Latinos from nearly 20 countries who are either immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants make up 15 to 20 percent of the town’s total population and more than a quarter of East Hampton’s public school population. In 1980, census figures showed just 293 Hispanics living in East Hampton Town. In the last two decades, the town’s Latino population grew tenfold to 2,900, according to the 2000 census. Even those figures, as dramatic as they are, are considered a radical underestimate.
Many believe that the 2000 Census merely hinted at the numbers of Latin Americans living on Long Island’s South Fork and that the real story of who is here, where they are from, and what their lives are like, has not yet been told. “The very fascinating story of new immigration is really how small rural areas are confronting the challenge, how they are facing and embracing the kind of diversity that will be a defining feature of the new millennium,” says Suarez-Orozco.
Contrary to the Hamptons self-image, in this respect at least, the area is far from unique. Indeed, “This is part of a process being repeated in hundreds if not thousands of communities around the country,” observes Carola Suarez-Orozco, who is married to Marcelo, and who co-directs the Harvard project with him. By the middle of this century, they note, 25 percent of the U.S. population will be Hispanic, making Latin American immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren an ever more powerful political, economic, and social force. Already there are more Latinos living in the U.S. than in any Spanish-speaking country but Mexico.
Historically, immigration has been largely an urban phenomenon, but the 2000 census showed that more and more immigrant families are coming to suburban and small-town communities, says Laura Anker, an East Hampton resident and history professor at SUNY Old Westbury. “Everybody’s focus is on immigrants coming to cities and nobody knows very much about immigrants coming to rural areas.”
Much of what is known about Latin American immigrants in East Hampton is anecdotal. A trip to the grocery store, a visit to the bank, or a walk through any of the South Fork’s schools is enough to confirm that the Hispanic population here is significant. Yet no one has been able to quantify just how significant it might be.
If the true numbers are still unknown, so too are many of the stories they can tell. Are East Hampton’s Latin American immigrants from war-torn El Salvador or impoverished Honduras? Are they from Argentina, which despite its economic crisis still enjoys a relatively high standard of living, or from Ecuador, an already poor nation further devastated by its own economic implosion in the late 1990s?
Why are they here? What are their needs, their aspirations? “I don’t think we really know what Latinos here in town are thinking,” said Chini Alarco, a Peruvian living in East Hampton.
Part of that is because the legwork has not been done, but part too is that the Latino “community,” is really a conglomeration of people united by language and geographic location, but divided by national and socioeconomic backgrounds. Before coming to the U.S. they were Mexicanos, Ecuatorianos, Costarricenses, Dominicanos. Now they are called Latinos. Does that make them a single community? A lot of people say no.
Tensions between Mexicans and Costa Ricans, or between Colombians and Ecuadoreans, for example, are fairly common on the South Fork. Only in the past year have Spanish-speaking immigrants on the South Fork have begun to organize as Latinos. And one thing they are calling for is a local demographic study that will begin to paint a true picture of their community.
“A lot of these issues we deal with out here, we end up not having facts about who’s here and what they need. This would provide information in a practical format that would be useful to decision makers,” said Katherine Hartnett, a former social science researcher for Fordham University, who now directs the SoLA Latin American Outreach Center in Bridgehampton. The study would offer, for the first time, a glimpse of “where the community sees itself going and how they survive now,” Ms. Hartnett says.
One of the most significant Latino groups to emerge is the Organizacion Latino Americana, or OLA (which means “wave” in Spanish), an advocacy group focusing on empowering Latinos and helping them assimilate into the community. About 40 people from around the South Fork attended the group’s first meeting last fall. By January, there were over 100 people coming to the meetings.
OLA’s goal is to be a unified voice for a Latino population that includes people from some 20 countries and a range of backgrounds. Only by transcending the usual friction can a group like OLA be effective, said Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon, the group’s president. “One of our goals is that here we’ve got to be Latinos. When I’m with my Chilean friends, I’m Chilean. I’m always Chilean, but here we have to unite. All of us together can make a difference.”
If it is successful, the group could become a formidable force on the South Fork. That point is not lost on local politicians, government agencies, and business leaders, a number of whom have attended OLA’s meetings or met privately with its board members in recent months.
It seems that many are looking to OLA to act as a kind of ambassador to the Spanish-speaking community at large. “The Hispanic community is probably the fastest growing community on the South Fork, but who do you talk to?” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. asked this winter. “Historically they haven’t been plugged into the political and governmental process on the East End.”
OLA has charged itself with a daunting task, but in the Hamptons, the time may be right. Can one group represent the desires of settled middle and upper middle class immigrants, while also advocating for newly arrived immigrants living in a basement in a room made of sheets? “It’s good to have a united front, but at the same time we have a multiplicity of backgrounds,” said Esperanza Leon, an OLA member whose family is from Venezuela.
If nothing else, the group has helped to start an important dialogue, one that already is, or soon will be, taking place in small communities across the country. The reception that OLA has received suggests that in the Hamptons at least, Latinos are emerging as a political force to be reckoned with.
CARISSA KATZ, a senior writer at the East Hampton Star, has written about East Hampton’s Latino population for the past eight years. This article was adapted from a series of stories that appeared in the Star this past winter.