As rumors divided blacks and Latinos, teens joined forces

When a Hispanic man was stabbed and beaten to death in Staten Island's Port Richmond neighborhood, rumors circulated that an African-American did it. Five Hispanics, alleged gang members, were arrested within hours and later convicted, but reports of a hate crime persisted.

The EyeOpeners - a group of mostly black and Hispanic teens trying to ease ethnic tensions in this working-class borough of New York - didn't buy it. In the wake of the September murder, they scrambled to quell the rumor. One became an interpreter between media and the victim's Spanish-speaking family.

In a neighborhood roiled by demographic change, the teens' reconciliation efforts are one small sign that familiarity can ease contempt. They also send a message to others about the possible benefits of diversity, activists here say.

"Two years ago, we never would have seen a Mexican and African-American youth walking side by side," says the Rev. Terry Troia of Project Hospitality, a social services agency in Staten Island. "Now they are arm-in-arm."

Port Richmond is not unlike other African- American communities transformed as Hispanics surpass blacks as the nation's largest minority, a shift that has brought new foods, new words - and new conflicts.

Blacks gravitated to Port Richmond in the 1970s, but in the past decade or so the Mexican community began to boom here, growing by 600 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the New York City Department of City Planning. But it was after 9/11, with tighter border restrictions, that families began to settle permanently and the community began to really change. The main thoroughfare, long a stretch of abandoned storefronts, is today lined with Mexican restaurants and music stores.

In many ways that has been good for a community that has watched jobs disappear, says Ainsley Carrington, a manager at the all-purpose store CH Martin, which has begun selling clothes in brighter hues to attract Latino customers. "The neighborhood is on the rebound. It can't go much lower than it was."

But it has also caused some tension. "There is a little black-Spanish friction," he says. "You can feel it."

Preconceived notions abound on both sides, say local leaders, but Mexicans have fallen prey to violence in part because they tend to be undocumented immigrants. "The Mexican community is perceived as having the least power, as being the least likely to report to the police," says Roy Pingel of the Staten Island field office of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which has been involved in teen antiviolence efforts in Port Richmond.

Neighborhoods in flux often experience strain, though it can take different forms depending on demographics. In the black-Latino dynamic, ethnic struggles are tightly connected to economic competition, especially when existing residents feel squeezed by new arrivals. "You get more tension as a neighborhood gets closer to transition," says Gary Segura, a political scientist at the University of Washington.

From Boston to Los Angeles, cities have looked to foster alliances between blacks and Latinos. Strides have been made at the political level. But common ground can be harder to find on the streets, experts say, especially where jobs are scarce, housing limited, and services strained.

EyeOpeners got its start in 2004, when community activists grew concerned about a sharp increase in attacks against illegal immigrant day laborers. Because much of the violence was connected back to area youths, they formed a group so youths could simply sit down and learn how to live with one another.

"Like a lot of adults, youth stick to their own racial and ethnic groups," says Mr. Pingel. "They don't outreach that much."

The effort met fierce resistance at first. "That first conference we had, some people ran out of the room. Parents had to drag their kids back," says Project Hospitality's Ms. Troia.

Guadalupe Alvarez was one of them. All he wanted that day was to be at the mall with his six brothers, or anywhere else, he recalls. "I was an ignorant person."

But during weekly conversations on race and social issues, volunteer work, and outings with dozens of teenagers from many countries, races, and religions, the high school sophomore came to see they all had much to learn from one another. The group has also taken part in cultural festivals and an annual Martin Luther King Jr. conference. "Before, I used to be with other kinds of people," says Guadalupe, "but I never worked with them."

In many ways, the EyeOpeners are just like other teens. At a recent local production of "Die Fledermaus," one of their many trips, they groaned between acts. One teen pulled out a pocket videogame.

But the group's very existence is a positive sign for the rest of the community, many say. After the murder this fall, while Guadalupe translated for a press conference, the EyeOpeners stood behind him during a divisive time. "We were all standing together," says Jesse Taylor, the group's adult facilitator. "You could feel eyes on us. It was a powerful sight to see."

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