Patchogue Theatre buzzed with excitement as the community came together April 20, 2009, for an evening of performance dedicated to unity and inclusiveness, five months after a violent hate crime shocked the small community in Suffolk County, New York.
The Working Group’s Not In Our Town Project has been following the story of the town’s response to the killing of local resident Marcelo Lucero. Seven high school students were charged in the case. Our film crew traveled to Patchogue to capture the “Raising the Curtain on Unity” line-up of local musicians and dancers, including high school students, and a guest appearance by a leading cast member of the Broadway production In the Heights, that performed to a sold-out house despite torrential rain.
“This whole event tonight gives me a lot of hope.” – Olga Merediz, cast member of In The Heights
The event was organized by the Unity Coalition, a local group started by the New York State Division of Human Rights after the Lucero murder. Coalition members had been brainstorming ideas for a larger community event, and local resident Mary Garrote thought of the production of In the Heights she had just seen on Broadway.
When the coalition reached out to cast member Olga Merediz to participate, she didn’t hesitate to volunteer her time and talent. “I’m Hispanic and I’m an immigrant,” Merediz told us backstage. “It was horrifying to me that that could happen. [But] this community has responded amazingly, and this whole event tonight gives me a lot of hope. I was glad to be a part of the whole thing.”
The variety of acts highlighted the diverse cultural heritage of Patchogue, from a traditional Ecuadorean dance to an experimental theater piece about the identity struggles of immigrants; a song by a local acoustic folk, blues and rock group to numbers by Patchogue-Medford High’s step and Latin dance teams.
“We’re trying to show the community that our school is strong,” said Melissa, a member of the high school Latin dance team, “that there’s a lot of different cultures, and that we all came together [because] of the bad stuff that has happened in the past couple of months. But we still continue with our clubs in order to express our feelings.”
“The thing I am most proud of is that perhaps, indeed we did learn from it.” — Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri
Mayor Paul Pontieri, who has been a leader in taking action to make Patchogue safe and inclusive since the killing of Marcelo Lucero, addressed the audience. In his speech, he reflected on how the village has changed and grown since the tragic incident. Quoting Robert F. Kennedy, he said, “‘And the task of leadership, the first task of concerned people, is not to condemn or castigate or deplore—it is to search out the reason for disillusionment and alienation, the rationale of protest and dissent—perhaps, indeed, to learn from it.’”
Pontieri continued, “Tonight we must all commit to Bobby Kennedy’s challenge [...] For me, [I feel] the disillusionment and disappointment that this could have happened in the community where I grew up and the place I love. Now there is a heightened feeling of alienation by our Latino community. But the thing I am most proud of is that [...] perhaps indeed we did learn from it.”
The Latino community was well-represented in the diverse audience, and Galen Kirkland, Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights, praised the event’s organizers: “Tonight is wonderful because it reflects the work of dozens of volunteers who were determined to send the message that we are all brothers and sisters who must stand up for acceptance and love.”
The show ended with a standing ovation and spirits were high as performers and community members mingled in the theater lobby. Students sold the red “Patchogue-Medford Cares” shirts that high school senior Kaleigh Nolan created after the killing to raise money for Lucero’s funeral.
Patchogue resident and Unity Coalition member Mary Garrote summed up the evening’s spirit of celebration and commitment to continuing community engagement: “It was the best! Now if we could only just keep this going on every day, day in and day out, it would be wonderful.”
In addition to the performance, The Working Group also visited the high school, the library, local shops, and churches, where community members opened about their ongoing healing process and their efforts to make Patchogue safe and inclusive. Though November’s tragedy still weighs heavily on residents, we were struck by many people’s self-reflection and positive community action.