Two Towns, 3,000 Miles, One History

Apr 7, 2016

A house in Riverhead, home to much of Long Island's remaining farmland. Like many towns across the U.S., Riverhead has felt the impact of immigration, particularly from the town of San Raymundo, Guatemala. The Central American town has in turn felt the influence of eastern Long Island.
Credit Will James

Trancito Perez was working in a New Jersey factory in 1975 when he asked a friend where he might find a job on a farm.

Perez had spent his childhood growing corn and beans with his father in his hometown of San Raymundo, Guatemala. After a year crisscrossing the United States, he longed to work in the open air.

“Long Island,” the friend said. So Perez went, settling in the Riverhead area on Long Island’s North Fork.

Four decades later, hundreds of people in and around Riverhead are connected by birth or blood to Perez’s hometown of San Raymundo, 3,000 miles away. They are winemakers and office managers, tree trimmers and police officers, medical students and sod growers.

Perez, now 68, helped forge a link between two communities that has lasted for generations.

As he tells it, the journey was propelled by a desire for adventure and gainful work, a knack for making friends and impressing bosses.

But the Guatemalan community that has grown around him on the North Fork, experts say, reveals something deeper: the mechanics of immigration, how it moves along networks of family and friends and binds communities across continents.

“This is not new. This was true 100 years ago,” said Peter Salins, director of Stony Brook University’s graduate program in public policy. “This was true with Italians, with the Jews, with the Irish.”

A Shared History

A mural outside the headquarters of the East End Arts nonprofit organization in the heart of Riverhead.
Credit Will James

Immigration from Central and South America has ignited fierce debates on Long Island over policing, housing, education and prejudice for more than a decade. Guatemalans make up five percent of Long Island’s Latino population but are among the fastest growing subgroups, according to Census data.

Guatemalans have a special connection to the Riverhead area, where many immigrants found work cultivating grapes, vegetables, trees or sod before they or their children branched into other professions.

Many carry memories of the same place: San Raymundo, a hilly maze of brightly-painted houses where neighbors greet each other in the streets and children help their parents in the fields before school.

They remember the lime green birds that flock overhead and the marimba music that fills the air during the annual festival every January. They remember their parents conversing in Kaqchikel, an ancient Mayan language still spoken in that part of Guatemala.

“Growing up in San Raymundo was the best part of my childhood,” said Seferino Cotzojay, 31, who worked for five years as an assistant winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue.

A street corner outside a church in downtown San Raymundo.
Credit Will James

“It’s a small town,” he said. “The people are very friendly. Kids, we’d just go to school and play around, play soccer. Most of my childhood that’s what I did.”

But 40 years of cross-pollination have changed both places.

The downtown area of San Raymundo today.
Credit Will James

San Raymundo today is a mid-sized town, approximately 27,000 residents, about an hour’s drive from Guatemala's capital. Remittances from Long Island and elsewhere in the United States -- Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago – have helped to modernize the area.

Meanwhile, North Fork communities like Riverhead and Mattituck have grown more Guatemalan since the early immigrants like Trancito Perez arrived in the 1970s and ‘80s. Back then, they couldn’t find stores that sold tortillas; some believed themselves to be the area’s only Spanish speakers.

A deli on Main Street in Riverhead sports the name "Chapin," an affectionate slang term meaning "Guatemalan."
Credit Will James

Now delis and shops cater to Guatemalan workers. Some have “Chapin” -- an affectionate slang term for “Guatemalan” -- on their signs. On Riverhead’s East Main Street, a business specializes in shipping packages to and from San Raymundo.

Census records show that between 2000 and 2010, Riverhead had the fastest-growing Latino population of Long Island’s 15 towns and cities. Town Supervisor Sean Walter said his administration has worked to open communications between immigrants and police.

Walter said he was unaware of his town’s link to San Raymundo and may look to build relationships within that community.

“We’ve been looking for some of the natural Latino leaders,” he said. “If they’ve been coming here since the ‘70s, I’m sure there are a fair number of them who are legally in this country, and it would be great to see them step up.”

The Only Guatemalan

Trancito Perez left Guatemala at age 27. He still lives in the Calverton section of Riverhead and works at Delea Sod Farms, his employer for the past 30 years.

Frank Beyrodt, part of the family that owns the East Northport-based company, called Perez “the epitome of the American dream” because “he came here only with his hands and his talent to use his hands.”

Since Perez’s wife died five years ago, he has had sole responsibility for his adult daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Most days, he drives her to and from a school in Calverton.

“Still to this day, every time he gets home from work he has the biggest smile,” Byron Perez, one of Trancito’s sons, said. “Not once did I ever see my father in a bad mood when he came home.”

Trancito Perez’s first job on Long Island was at a family-owned sod and vegetable farm in Wading River that is now the site of a King Kullen and CVS.

“He just wound up on our doorstep one day, looking for work, and we invited him in,” said Bill Nohejl, Jr., whose father Bill Nohejl was Perez’s first boss on Long Island.

Perez worked with a group of five or so other laborers, including members of the Nohejl family. They nicknamed him “Ricky” after Ricky Ricardo. The older Bill Nohejl died in 2008. Perez still calls him “Mr. Bill.”

“We worked side by side,” said the younger Nohejl, 68. “I would not say that he could outpace my father, but he did outpace me. You want a compliment from a farmer, it’s that he’s happy to work side by side with you.”

Nohejl said he and Perez taught each other bits of their native languages. “We became family quickly,” Nohejl said.

For six years, Perez said, he knew no other Guatemalans on Long Island.

Then the Nohejl family began hiring his relatives: a brother, a nephew. More followed, and some found work on other farms.

One of them was Danilo García, who still remembers the chance encounter that changed his life and provided his link to Long Island.

A Path Out Of Poverty

Danilo García grew up in San Raymundo with eight siblings and no shoes. He left school after sixth grade and traveled from sugar farm to sugar farm, cutting cane.
Credit Will James

Danilo García grew up in San Raymundo with eight siblings and no shoes. He left school after sixth grade and traveled from sugar farm to sugar farm, cutting cane.

In the mid-1970s, when García was a teen, Trancito Perez visited San Raymundo and talked about life on Long Island. García said he glimpsed a path out of poverty. “I’d like to go to the United States,” he recalled telling Perez, a distant relative.

García said he paid human smugglers -- or “coyotes” -- about $450 to guide him across Mexico. On July 17, 1978, he crossed illegally into Arizona.

García spent seven years in the Los Angeles area before joining relatives in Long Island in 1985. In Los Angeles, he said, he could find eight or nine hours a day of work. But on Long Island, he could work 12 to 14 hours a day.

In 1999, he said, he found his niche: scaling and trimming trees across Suffolk County, including on sprawling estates in the Hamptons. He works about 80 hours a week. Between April and July last year, he made $10,000, he said.

Those who have stayed in San Raymundo find farm work that pays $8 to $10 a day, residents said.

García, now 55, became a U.S. citizen in 2000 and for years has split his time between the two countries, trimming trees for a few months and spending the remainder of the year with his wife and three sons in San Raymundo.

Danilo Garcia outside his home in San Raymundo, Guatemala, with a tractor he bought in Riverhead, New York.
Credit Will James

Income from Long Island has transformed his life in Guatemala. In 1994, he bought land in San Raymundo and began building his family’s home. Parked in front is an old white and yellow tractor he bought from a Riverhead farmer and trucked across three countries to Guatemala.

Danilo Garcia in the basketball court he built for his three sons in San Raymundo.
Credit Will James

Down the road, Garcia bought two acres and created a park with a pool, two water slides and a basketball court.

A Changing Town

Wages sent to San Raymundo over four decades have elevated the local economy above the dismal conditions common elsewhere in Guatemala, residents say. People who worked years in the United States have been able to build new homes and start businesses.

Motorized carts, known as tuk-tuks, line the streets of downtown San Raymundo.
Credit Will James

Cement houses have replaced metal shacks with dirt floors. Banks have opened. Sewage systems and drainage have modernized. Dirt roads have been paved. Once-sleepy streets are now filled with fleets of motorized carts called tuk-tuks.

For all of San Raymundo’s success, it has not fully escaped the troubles of Guatemala, a country with some of the worst levels of violence and malnutrition in the world. Medical care is hard to find, and residents said the town relies heavily on foreign doctors brought in by nonprofit groups.

San Raymundo is also known in Guatemala for manufacturing the fireworks that citizens of the country set off for special occasions. Some families manufacture fireworks illegally in their homes -- a trade that has killed and disfigured children when the powder ignites.

A public bus in San Raymundo.
Credit Will James

Marcel Arévalo, a professor who studies poverty and immigration at the Faculty of Latin American Social Sciences in Guatemala, said the causes of immigration from Central America vary from person to person, and are not easily summed up by common explanations such as violence or poverty.

“It’s not only a lack of a job,” Arévalo said. “It’s a lack of a good living, lack of a promising future, a good life.”

Gerber Perez, Trancito Perez’s nephew, cited a mismatch between what he earned manufacturing cement blocks and what it cost to live in Guatemala.

“You make $18 a week,” he said. “If you want to buy a pair of shoes, it’s $25, $30. You want to buy pants, it’s $15. So how are you going to?” He said those economics drove him to join a small group of relatives on Long Island in 1982.

Gerber Perez still works as a foreman at Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel, which has employed members of the Perez family for more than 30 years.

Seven of his relatives work alongside him. Laura Perez, the oldest of his five daughters, is the company’s office manager. Another daughter is a medical student at Stony Brook University.

“Whatever I’ve got in my country there, I got it from here,” Perez, 51, said in an interview at his Laurel home.

A Two-Way Road

Libby Avalos grew up in Mattituck, on Long Island, and moved to her husband's hometown, San Raymundo, Guatemala, with her four children.
Credit Will James
Sometimes the channel flows in reverse.

Libby Avalos, a North Fork native, moved to San Raymundo with her four children in 2013. She said she relocated to Guatemala for the same reason many Guatemalans travel to Long Island: Wages back home didn’t match the cost of living.

Avalos, 34, grew up as Libby Bufkins in Mattituck. In 2007, she married a San Raymundo native who worked with her father and brother. Her husband continues to work in heating and air conditioning on the North Fork, she said.

“We don’t like to live in any debt,” Avalos said. “The cost of living just got so astronomical and we just said, ‘Why are we knocking ourselves out when we have a nice house in Guatemala?’”

Luis Corzo, 52, returned to San Raymundo three years ago after working for nearly 30 years in the United States, primarily at a marina in Aquebogue, a part of Riverhead.

In San Raymundo, he owns two properties and a few horses. He manages a gas station, makes his own hours and has two employees.

On a shelf in his girlfriend's living room sits a photo of his daughter, who graduated in May with a degree in psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Corzo said his daughter enjoys visiting Guatemala. His son is less amenable. “He doesn’t speak Spanish,” Corzo said.

Corzo found Long Island through García, whom he met in Los Angeles. He calls Riverhead his second home and remembers playing soccer with other Guatemala natives at Stotzky Memorial Park in Riverhead or Strawberry Fields in Mattituck.

But not all the memories are happy. His friend and co-worker at the marina, Mirian Yohanna García Mansilla, 29, of Flanders, was murdered by a fellow Guatemala native in 2012. Guillermo Alvarado Ajcuc, 23, was convicted in the case in 2014.

Corzo said nearly all immigrants come to Long Island simply to work and earn money. But the crimes of a few, he said, have hurt their reputation. “Not all of us are the same,” he said.

A Mother To Everybody

The Perez family at Hansel Perez's wedding in 2011. From left: Byron, Kali, Hansel, Roselia, Trancito and Glenda.
Credit Jesse and Whitney Chamberlin / Our Labor of Love

If Trancito Perez is the accidental father of the North Fork’s Guatemalan community, its mother was his wife, Roselia.

Eager for money after she joined her husband on a visa in 1980, she cooked dozens of meals in her kitchen -- rice, beans, meat, tortillas -- packed them in her van and delivered them to farm workers each day, said the couple’s oldest son, Hansel.

Around Christmas, she would cook into the early morning, filling orders for hundreds of tamales.

“My mom was very pragmatic. She wasn’t into buying us toys, just the essentials. She decided she needed to make money,” Hansel said. “Now, people talk about these underground immigrant economies. That’s exactly what this was.”

In 1986 when the United States government offered amnesty to immigrants in the country illegally, Roselia and Trancito helped dozens in the Guatemalan community navigate the application process for residency, Hansel said.

“My dad is very social,” he said. “He’s very good with people. He’s not shy. He’s like a brave, kind man. My mom was kind of like his complement with that. She was very practical. She saw that all we had to do was fill out paperwork.”

Hansel said that when Guatemalan workers fell ill, Roselia would brew traditional remedies: fumes from a burning plate of whiskey and lemon for a cold, boiled Coca Cola and ginger for a sore throat.

“These were boys,” he said of the immigrants who came to Riverhead. “No matter how tough they are, they’re children and they’re over here. And my mom kind of became like a mother to everybody.”

Roselia, who died in 2011 at 58, used her income from selling food to help send her son to the School of Visual Arts. Hansel, now 37, is an animator for Bloomberg L.P. in Manhattan. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and 2-year-old son.

Meanwhile, Roselia and Trancito’s son Byron became Riverhead’s first Latino police officer in December 2014.

Byron says that Guatemalans he meets on the street are often surprised to find an officer who shares their San Raymundo roots.

“I love that my father came to this town and not another town,” said Byron Perez, 32. “I’m very, very courteous to everybody because that’s how the town was to me.”

He acknowledged that immigrants in the town face challenges, including a wave of robberies targeting immigrants over the past two years and a perception that they are criminals.

“These people aren’t bad people,” he said. “They’re hardworking people. There’s always a bad apple. And once that bad apple falls from the tree, everybody thinks the whole tree is bad. It’s not.”