Bookshelf: “Village of Immigrants” Tells Greenport’s Universal Story

By the dock, Greenport
By the dock, Greenport

Like many bustling port cities on the edges of American seas, Greenport has always had a special relationship with the immigrants who sought safety on its shores, and the recent influx of Latino residents to Greenport is part of that tale.

Political scientist Diana R. Gordon’s new book, “Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America,” published over the winter by Rutgers University Press, puts the latest wave of U.S. migration in a historical context, while examining how social institutions ranging from schools to businesses to government and health care, affect the lives of people who’ve made Greenport home.

Ms. Gordon’s thesis, that Latinos “are participating in a national experience that may help to arrest the “hollowing out” of the American small town,” is a thoughtful and innovative lens through which to view this current wave of immigration.

While Greenport shares little in common with midwestern towns whose Main Streets have caved to vast expanses of shopping malls and interstates, what it does share with these small towns is a need for laborers, and for people who believe strongly in their ability to become business owners and pillars of the community, regardless of their ethnic origin.

The book does a fine job putting this current wave of immigration in context, beginning with historical chapters highlighting waves of European immigration to Greenport in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the voyage of Manuel Claudio from Portugal aboard the Greenport-built whaler Neva in the 1850s. Mr. Claudio would become the patriarch of one of the most successful business dynasties in Greenport’s history — Claudio’s Restaurant.

As of the 1980 census, just 36 people of Latin American origin lived in Greenport, but that number had doubled by 1990 and the 1990 number had quadrupled by 2000.

But when then-mayor David Kapell attended a Spanish mass at St. Agnes R.C. Church in the mid-2000s, he was sure that the 2000 census was “a significant undercount.” He asked the Hagedorn Foundation to fund a private census in 2006 that corroborated his anecdotal observation.

By 2010, when the U.S. Census Bureau hired Spanish-speaking census workers, people of Latin American descent made up fully one-third of the village’s population of 3,200 residents.

As a port town, like Sag Harbor on the South Fork, Greenport’s urban environment always had more contact with the outside world than the surrounding farming communities — leading to an understanding of different cultures among its populace that is a rarity on the East End.

In this way, Greenport is not quite representative of large swaths of middle America. But it is a good place for a social scientist to observe a melting pot.

Ms. Gordon’s book branches out into current social conditions that challenge the village’s new Latino immigrants, providing glimpses into the lives of some residents (some of whose names have been changed to protect their identities) as they struggle with education, housing, health care and legal issues.

The statistical research here is thorough and intriguing, but the case studies vary in their ability to bring the reader into the lives of her subjects. Ms. Gordon seems to have the most success in speaking with members of the Acero-Pinzón family, well-educated, with an established leather goods business in Colombia, who don’t face as much of a struggle with paperwork, legal issues or educational deficiencies as do many of her sources from poorer countries in Central America. This is thoughtfully acknowledged in the book.

What strikes me the most is the universality of many of the issues Ms. Gordon addresses. Economic forces that face the entire East End — from lack of affordable housing to lack of well-paying jobs to poor access to health care and educational resources — affect people born here as well as immigrants.

“For small communities that depend on manual labor, whether performed by foreign or native-born, struggles over land use and housing are existential,” Ms. Gordon acknowledges.

While the answers to these existential questions are beyond the scope of this book, it does a fine job laying out the questions in a thought-provoking manner. It’s a worthwhile addition to any East End bookshelf.

 

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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