Column: Waking from the nightmare


Just three years ago, Lupita Gadeas was a student in my investigative reporting class at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury.

Following an internship at Adictivo, a TV program shot at studios in Hauppauge and Long Island City and aired on Telemundo, Lupita landed a job with Adictivo as a reporter.

In April, Lupita and two other journalists at Adictivo received an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

I was thinking of Lupita in recent days as the horror unfolded of more than 2,000 children being separated from their families who were seeking refuge in the United States, mostly from Central America, with many of the kids put in cages.

Lupita is from El Salvador. In 2008 she left the violence in her homeland for the promise of the United States. She is now, happily, a U.S. citizen.

She told me, proudly, on the phone last week of having just interviewed Nayib Bukele, a candidate for president of El Salvador, on a visit he made to Brentwood, historically a center for Latinos in Suffolk — Latinos are now in all parts of the county.

In addition to being an associate producer at Adictivo, Lupita is a banker at Chase Bank. She also worked at Chase while a student at Old Westbury.

Lupita’s energy, as a student and today, is boundless. Since graduation, she told me, she’s bought a house and gotten married to a young man from Guatemala.

“In the United States, you work hard and you can succeed,” she said.

Watching the children in cages on TV was “heartbreaking.” she said.

Lupita is an example of what immigrants now and since the founding of the United States have brought to this country. My late father used to say “hybrid vigor” was a key to how the U.S. won World War II against powerful enemies, how it built nearly 3,000 Liberty ships and 300,000 military aircraft, many of these on Long Island at the Grumman and Fairchild plants.

We overwhelmed the Nazis and Italian and Japanese fascists. Hybrids have great strength and the diversity of people in this nation have given it enormous strength.

Lupita doesn’t want to go back to El Salvador. “Not even to visit,” she said.

It isn’t that she doesn’t love her homeland. She told of interviewing Mr. Bukele, a former mayor of San Salvador, the nation’s capital, and asking “what his plan is to help the country. He said he wanted to make El Salvador ‘a better place so people would want to stay.’”

Crime in El Salvador is intense. “People are killed every hour, an average of 23 every day,” Lupita said. The root cause: poverty and gangs and they connect. She told me about her aunt who works in a market two days a week and gets $3 a day — “$6 a week! You can’t make ends meet on $6 a week.”

Poverty causes people to become gang members and “be pickpockets or get involved in the protection racket.” And if you don’t pay money for protection, “you or your children can get killed.”

“You can get killed in El Salvador for $20,” said Lupita. If you want someone murdered, she said, you can go to a gang member and pay $20. “It’s a nightmare.”

But she woke from the nightmare by getting out. She came to America with a Green Card because her father had come here earlier and became a U.S. citizen. Like many Latino newcomers, he has a landscaping business “and during the winter does snow removal,” Lupita said.

I have many Latino students at SUNY Old Westbury. Indeed, the college in its now more than 50 years has been committed to diversity as a central part of the educational experience and it’s proven by diversity on the student, faculty and administrative levels.

The story of Lupita isn’t unique.

Newsday this month featured on the cover of its “LIlife” section a story headed: “Best in class. It’s the first time East Hampton’s valedictorian and salutatorian are both Latino.”

It was about Nicolas Sigua Pintado, the valedictorian, and Christopher Gomez, the salutatorian, the top students in a class of 215 graduating from East Hampton High School this year.

“Sigua will be the first in his family to obtain a college degree and both will attend Ivy League institutions come fall — Sigua at Harvard University to major in political science and Gomez at Cornell University to study astronomy and physics.”

The article quoted Adam Fine, the high school’s principal, as saying: “These kids, whether Latino or not, are two of the best young men I’ve encountered in my career.”

And, said the piece, “In addition to excelling academically, Gomez is senior class co-president and goal-keeper on the varsity soccer team. During his junior year, he traveled to Malawi with the BuildOn Club to help construct a school. Sigua is captain of the swim team … and works during the summer as a lifeguard. This year he and students created a debate club.”

“Sigua was born in East Hampton to parents who emigrated from Ecuador … Gomez moved from Guatemala with his single mother when he was 7.”

All these extraordinarily intelligent and highly active young people will bring great credit to the United States.