Recently my husband and I were stunned by a comment made at a party by a fellow guest. We were discussing the congested lines of daily traffic bringing tradespeople — working people — to the East End, known locally as “the trade parade.”
The guest called it “the parasite parade.” He was specifically referring to the mostly Hispanic immigrants who work all over the Hamptons but can’t afford to live here. They drive for hours in horrendous traffic every working day to support their families, here and back home.
How could this person not see what seemed so obvious to me? That no ethnic or cultural group should be collectively labeled in that ugly way. How could he not see how much this immigrant population supports the life we live and how hard these individuals work?
Because of the lack of low-income housing, most of these workers live 30 to 40 miles or farther away. With the traffic here, their commute can take hours. Many awaken at 4 a.m. and are on the road by 5 in order to start work at 7 or 7:30. Without these workers, the Hamptons could not function. They support every aspect of our life on the East End.
Lately, I see more and more trucks with Hispanic names on them representing privately owned companies — plumbing, electric, landscaping, and construction firms, just to name a few. There is also a growing presence of store ownership among the Hispanic community. These companies are often owned by people who rose up from very little through sheer hard work. How are these individuals parasites? They are not looking for handouts. They want to work and often work 10 to 15 hours a day. They also want to be seen and appreciated for their work.
I never had to leave my country, my family, and my home to make it in a foreign land where I did not know the language, had very little money, and had to find work to support myself and my family. I have great respect for those who triumph over such difficult odds.
My appreciation for Hispanic people began when I was in college. I studied the Spanish language and Hispanic culture. The program I was in sent students to isolated mountain communities in Puerto Rico to experience the culture firsthand.
At age 19, I arrived in Puerto Rico, and a local resident named Andres drove me up a rocky mountain road to Indiera Fria, a poor barrio in the city of Maricao. On the way, Andres stopped at different homes to introduce me to the local jibaro people (subsistence farmers). The homes were modest and rustic. Families graciously invited me in and proudly served food from their land: oranges, bananas, boiled green plantains, pigeon beans and rice. The coffee was strong. My stomach was not.
When we arrived at our destination, my stomach was churning. Though they spoke no English, my host family was very welcoming. They lived in a corrugated metal shack with no electricity or running water. I unpacked a few of my belongings and was led to the cot where I would sleep.
I fell asleep to the sound of the coquis, wild birds, and the creaking sounds of the floors and tin siding. It was probably only 8 in the evening, but it was dark, with just the faint glow of light from candles.
At around 5 the next morning, I awoke along with the roosters. I stumbled to the door, stuck my head out, leaned over, and puked. The sun was just coming up. I saw red blazing fires in the distance. The air was thick with the smell of smoke.
When I lifted my head, a tall and slender man with deep dark eyes was walking toward me. He was carrying a machete. We looked at each other. Then my head dropped, and I puked once more.
I soon found out that this man was Hector Rivera, the head of the house, and the blazing fires were the sugarcane fields being harvested. Hector was returning from the fields after over 16 hours of work. He was a gentle giant of a man, and, with a caring smile, he helped me up.
Over the next two months, through dancing, singing, playing games, and helping with the tasks of daily living, I began to build relationships with the families of Indiera Fria.
I fell in love with these families and the language. The people showed great pride in all that they did. They loved sharing their customs. They were hard workers. They were warm, playful, and respectful. The environment that they had to survive in was harsh and required constant upkeep.
While in Puerto Rico, I found a part of myself, a spirit I had not experienced before, and I am forever grateful to the people there for that experience.
At the end of my two-month stay, I left Indiera Fria and realized that I had changed. As we drove away, the families waved to me from their homes. “No te vayas, Franci. Por favor, no te vayas!” (Don’t go, Franci. Please don’t go.)
Today, though I am far from fluent in Spanish, I can speak enough to reach out and connect to the local Hispanic community, and it brings me great joy.
I teach English as a second language to a small group of hard-working students from Ecuador, Spain, and Colombia. We meet once a week and we speak in English and Spanish. The students ask me why I volunteer my time for them. I explain that I deeply appreciate all that they do and how they make the Hamptons a better place to live. I appreciate their skill, their warmth, and the great care they bring to their work. I explain that our lives are deeply entwined and will continue to be more and more, and I am grateful for that.
I say this from my heart, partially in Spanish. I touch my heart and the students touch theirs. There is a gentle nod, a knowing. We smile. The feelings are mutual. We teach one another and while learning we share the lessons of human kindness.
If you would like to get to know the Hispanic people of the East End better as a volunteer, there are many services being offered. I began by apprenticing and then teaching for a program called Ruta 27. You do not need to speak Spanish to volunteer. This valuable program has been teaching English to adult Spanish speakers in the Hamptons for over 10 years and has grown from 60 to 200 students.
Fran Levy, a clinical psychotherapist and expressive-art therapist, is the author of “Dance Movement Therapy.” She lives in East Hampton.