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Holidays a lonely time for migrants

N.Y. Times News Service


FARMINGVILLE, N.Y. - In a clean but heavily used kitchen where the window was labeled "window" and the lamp was labeled "lamp," five men from the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, planned their Christmas party. One, a former police officer, was wondering how it would feel to spend the holidays away from his children, ages 1 and 4, while others argued the merits of tostadas de tinga (fried tortillas with beans, lettuce and chicken) versus tostadas morelianas, avocado and beans for their holiday meal.

The men had come here to find more profitable work than had been available in their mostly rural homeland. They were not here, they said, to threaten anyone else's way of life. And they were staying the winter because it was easier, cheaper and safer than trying to get back for the holidays.

The majority of Long Island's Mexican day laborers head south for the winter, while the Salvadorans who come for work are more likely to spend the winter here, as their trip home is longer, more dangerous and more expensive - $4,000 to $5,000, compared with $1,200 to $1,500 for Mexicans, according to the Rev. Allan B. Ramirez, pastor of the Brookville Reformed Church, who has provided coats and other assistance to immigrant workers.

For people used to country living and warmer weather, winters in the Northeast can be cold, isolating and not nearly as profitable as the summers. But the workers make do, relying on one another, waiting for the work and the warmth to return.

Juan Cornejo, 39, one of the Christmas party planners, is spending his first Christmas on Long Island.

"On the one hand it's sad, but on the other hand I'm really happy and feel fortunate to have a group of fellow co-workers, fighting for the same cause," fair treatment, he said through a translator.

Like the others who will spend Christmas together for the first time in the United States, he said he would miss his family and home cooking.

But, he said, he had been lucky to find steady jobs.

After the brutal September attack on two day laborers by two men posing as contractors, the men have been mindful of how people in this small town react to them.

"We haven't been physically attacked, but we've experienced youngsters who say bad things and vandalize our mailbox," said Antonio Galvez, 21. "We're here to do what we're here to do; we're not here to hurt them. I don't understand. We don't go to their house and do things like that."

"We're not here to undermine them or any of their customs," said Marco Antonio Mera, 22, a roofer. In the winter, he said, he is generally able to work two or three days a week. On other days he stays at home and chats or watches television.

Philip Robilotto, chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, who used to head the precinct that includes Farmingville, estimated that of the 2,000 to 2,500 day laborers in the area during the summer, only about a quarter spend the winter there. He called the immigrants "the most law-abiding people we had."

In Glen Cove, where two men from El Salvador froze to death several winters ago, and where a Salvadoran worker was robbed and beaten to death in August, a group of about 15 men waited for work at what is known as the Shape Up Center, a gathering place in the parking lot of the Glen Street train station.

Some wore paint-splattered outfits and others wore secondhand clothes with incongruous logos advertising Osteopathic Medicine or Galaxy Funds. Before 8 a.m. on a recent chilly morning, men in sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and Mercedes drove in to take their pick of the workers.

"The cold weather is very hard on you here, it makes you suffer a lot," said Jesus Zavalas, 41, from El Salvador. "When the weather is good, at least you can find work, even if it's for a small period of time."

"We need to make just enough money," said Carlos Henriquez, "to get through the time when there is no work." Henriquez, 27, who sends money home to his mother in El Salvador every month, said, "Up until it begins to snow, I can work four or five times a week."

Santos Gonzalez, 59, who was Henriquez's neighbor in Santa Ana, El Salvador, lives with his wife and two sons nearby, and sends $400 a month home to his five other sons.

"What we do is try to economize, so we have enough money for rent in the winter," he said.

Mayor Thomas R. Suozzi of Glen Cove hopes to relocate and improve the Shape Up Center, so it can include a place for men to learn English and work skills on days when they cannot find jobs. The center was set up several years ago, and having one central place for day laborers to gather to find work has reduced the residents' resentment of them, he said.

Back in Farmingville, Luis Bernal, 24, who lives where the workers gathered, expressed an American dream that applies in both Central and North America.

"I would like to someday see my family not have to worry so much about basic needs," he said. In Suffolk County, he said, he could earn twice what he earned in Mexico, as a driver for his father, who sold fruit.

"I want to support my family and give my family maybe what I couldn't have."