There's no doubt in Christian Vazquez's mind why he was beaten up as he headed home from work late one night, and it wasn't for the $10 the attackers stole from him.
"They were after me because I was a Mexican," the 18-year-old said, his left eye still swollen shut from the assault July 31 while he was walking through Staten Island's Port Richmond neighborhood. As his attackers punched him, they yelled, "Go home!" and anti-Mexican slurs, according to the police report, which had a familiar ring.
That's because Vazquez was the 10th Mexican victim of a suspected hate crime in the neighborhood since April. "Why this is happening? If you ask 10 different people, you might get 10 different answers," said Ed Josey, president of the Staten Island branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, during a march Aug. 6 led by religious and civic leaders to condemn the violence.
"The impression that Staten Island is a place of hate and violence — that's just not true," said state Sen. Diane Savino as marchers stood in a small Port Richmond park.
Borough President James Molinaro has attributed the violence to criminals looking for easy prey, not ethnic violence. "It could have been anybody," he said of the victims.
But police say that of 11 assaults on Mexicans in Port Richmond since April, 10 are considered bias-related, and those 10 involved blacks attacking Mexicans.
Citywide so far this year there have been 222 suspected hate crimes, compared with 125 by this time last year, according to the New York Police Department. The Borough of Staten Island has accounted for 26; there had been 11 by this time last year.
Ana Maria Archila said the officials' comments point up the challenge of tackling an ugly issue that some in the so-called forgotten borough, where leaders have been struggling to increase tourism, would rather see played down.
Archila is a co-director of Make the Road New York, one of several groups involved in efforts to resolve the problem. "It's extremely insular and it's extremely isolated," she said of Staten Island, a mostly suburban island of 491,000. Best known for the orange ferry that carries commuters and tourists the five miles between Lower Manhattan and the borough, its population is overwhelmingly white — 75% — but it has a growing Latino population now estimated at about 15%.
Archila and Jacob Massaquoi, a leader in Staten Island's African immigrant community, said tensions had grown along with anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, something they blame on Arizona's crackdown on undocumented residents and conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. "Their rhetoric is very personal, very inflammatory," Massaquoi said.
It probably doesn't help that some of the people leading reconciliation efforts have sparred publicly. In a Wall Street Journal interview last month, Josey said Mexican-owned businesses in Port Richmond were failing to hire blacks, sparking a retort from Molinaro, who accused the black leader of being biased himself. When the Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., led a march for black-Latino reconciliation through Port Richmond earlier this month, Assemblyman Matthew Titone and Savino accused him of using Staten Island for personal publicity.
And after the Aug. 6 rally, Josey questioned why the Mexican consul general felt it necessary to weigh in on the situation. "Historically speaking, black-on-black crime has been something that happens and doesn't raise much attention. Now it's blacks attacking others, and a government representative from another country shows up," he said.
So far, Archila said, the official response has been focused on "very short-term solutions." These include putting 130 additional police in Port Richmond, a working-class district in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge linking Staten Island to New Jersey, with a population that includes roughly equal numbers of blacks and Latinos. Watchtowers have gone up, police vans and cars sit on most streets, and police on horseback clop down the main drag, Port Richmond Avenue.
But the attack on Vazquez occurred despite these measures.
And on Wednesday, in a Staten Island neighborhood a few miles from Port Richmond, a Mexican teen-ager was robbed by a young black man armed with a knife who used racial slurs, police said. A 17-year-old was arrested.
Despite some leaders' attempts to paint Port Richmond as having no more problems than other economically distressed neighborhoods, local residents say it's not that simple.
Port Richmond has long been a gathering spot for Mexican day laborers, who would spend part of the year here before returning to Mexico. The tightening of borders after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted many to settle permanently in Port Richmond, changing the neighborhood's face, said the Rev. Terry Troia of Project Hospitality, a nonprofit community service group.
"That was a German bakery last year," she said, pointing at the Cafe Con Pan bakery on Port Richmond Avenue, one of several businesses with signs in Spanish. The elementary school's Latino population has boomed to nearly 70%. Meanwhile, the recession has closed recreational outlets for young people and slashed opportunities for summer jobs, increasing chances that teens will take to the streets to blow off steam, said the area's City Council representative, Debi Rose. The nine people arrested so far in the suspected bias cases are all 18 or younger.
Troia said with rising numbers of other immigrants — the area just got a Halal pizza joint catering to Muslims — thugs could find new scapegoats if the current tensions are not tamped down. "If people can get angry at Mexicans coming here, people can get angry at the next group coming here," Troia said, "and then, nobody is safe."