Ethnic Mysteries Revealed

Locked out of the political system, Central Americans turned to business. They've played a key role in rejuvenating Hempstead's ailing downtown. It can still be a grim and gritty place, but the downtown has been brightened by dozens of Hispanic diners, travel agencies, real estate offices, beauty parlors and nightclubs. In addition to three regional Spanish-language newspapers that circulate in the area, Hempstead boasts its own weekly, La Tribuna Hispana.

Shopkeeper Ben Henriquez remembers that the commercial district was pockmarked with vacant storefronts when he opened Ben's Video in 1986, across Franklin Avenue from the oldest Salvadoran restaurant in town, Rincon Tropical. Henriquez has expanded his own empire to include tax preparation and Spanish-language music. Tucked in among the baladas, romanticas and salsa are racks of greeting cards and glass cases offering deodorant and cologne. At Ben's, you can even outfit a soccer team, from cleats and shin guards to country flags.

"We started with a few customers— very hard," says Henriquez, who left El Salvador for Far Rockaway, Queens, in 1973. As more Hispanics moved into Hempstead, Henriquez's cash register started to ring and his inventory grew. "A lot of people say, 'Why you don't sell soccer balls?' We say, 'OK, we'll get it for you.'"

By small steps, Hispanics are making a place for themselves in Hempstead. The village now has not only a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce but a Salvadoran chamber as well. A few landscape laborers have started their own services. Scores of former tenants have been able to purchase homes. The annual celebration of Central American Independence has grown into a festival featuring live music and a parade, slated to start this year at noon on Sept. 12 at the corner of Stowe Place and Main Street.

The responsibility for giant leaps rests with young adults like Rhina Ramos. Now 30, Ramos came of age in Hempstead, and she carries the burden of dreams long held by its Central American immigrants.

Ramos, a labor rights attorney with Hempstead's Workplace Project, knows her Salvadoran elders expect young adults to make life better for the immigrant community. They expect her generation to strengthen the Spanish-speaking business district. They expect them to advocate for better schools, health care and working conditions. Above all, they expect them to step into civic leadership roles that were once out of reach for Central Americans.

"We're working on getting into the political arena, getting a space for us," says Ramos, who moved here from El Salvador in 1983. "There are many expectations for people like myself to remain here, to remain connected to the community, to give everything you can."

Since many undocumented immigrants face the constant threat of arrest and deportation, getting newly arrived Hispanics to stand up for their rights has been difficult. By some estimates, nearly 200,000 Central Americans call the Island home, and Hempstead is the new capital— even if they don't have much clout here.

In 1997, a federal court ruled the Town of Hempstead's at-large system of electing the town board put black and Hispanic voters at a disadvantage, and ordered the creation of a minority-controlled district. While the town appeals that decision, little has changed on the street or in the voting booth. Short on political muscle, the village's Latino community waits and watches and grows.

"If we get to be in numbers that can vote, we will change things," says Picon. "We are not faithful to the two-party system. We are more faithful to ideas."

No one has enjoyed the triumphs of the Spanish-speaking community more— or felt its shortcomings keener— than Cuban-born Max Rodriguez, who in 1995 was appointed a Hempstead village trustee by the Nassau GOP machine. Rodriguez, a Republican, was the first Hispanic trustee in either the village or county. He won election to a single term, then was defeated in March by an anti-machine coalition of Democrats and the Working Families Party.

"The more people you have in government and top jobs is the only way you're going to get ahead and be recognized," he says. "It's important to have somebody there to represent you." —Laura Conaway

Riverhead's History in the Making

While the original settlers of Polish Town were drawn here by farming opportunities nearly a century ago, today's new and steady stream of immigrants to Riverhead— from Poland, as well as Russia, Lithuania, the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe— are becoming housekeepers, construction workers and retail or restaurant employees.

They choose Riverhead because it's a solid, ready-made community where they can operate with relative ease.

"It's basically because many people don't know how to speak English," says Marcjanna Stolarziewicz, owner of the Pulaski Polish-American Agency, who gets to know almost every new arrival.

Through her agency in a storefront office on Pulaski Street, Stolarziewicz, who came to join her already-working husband, an engineer, in Port Jefferson 12 years ago, offers translation service, money transfers, job-seeking assistance and discounts on bulk shipments to Eastern Europe.

She says the "flood of new people" are drawn to the area because it makes their transition easier. Many attend services at St. Isidore's, the Catholic church that holds mass in Polish every Sunday morning.

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