In September of 1994, a 40-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant named Manuel Aucaquizhpi was beaten to death by a group of neighborhood teenagers in Brooklyn after a confrontation in Dyker Heights Park. At the time, Walter Sinche, who is now the executive director of the Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional (the Ecuadorian International Alliance) was struck by the absence of a group in the city's Hispanic community to denounce the incident as a hate crime. Aucaquizhpi's death motivated Sinche, who emigrated from Ecuador in 1988, to begin a career as an activist. After working alone for several years, he founded the Queens-based Alianza in 2005, and focused the group's efforts towards raising awareness of the racism experienced by Ecuadorians and other Latin Americans in New York City.
Ecuadorians have since grown to make up the fourth-largest Latino population in the city. And since the Alianza's founding, two more Ecuadorian immigrants have been murdered in the New York metro area in high-profile hate crimes: José Sucuzhañay in Brooklyn and Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, Long Island, both in 2008. Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional organized marches and symposiums to denounce the murders. To help acquaint the mayor of Patchogue with his town's growing minority population, Sinche says the Alianza gifted him with an airplane ticket to Ecuador. (According to Sinche, he used it.) With the help of New York City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, the Alianza also led the successful effort to rename Kossuth Place at Bushwick Avenue, the block where Sucuzhañay was killed, José Sucuzhañay Place. The group has also aimed to provide the city's Latino population with a safe space to report hate crimes and openly discuss racial intolerance in New York.
Starting this year, the Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional has broadened its scope. Using part of a $50,000 grant it received last year from the Union Square Awards, it recently inaugurated a community center in Corona, Queens. So far that space has offered practical seminars on public education, domestic violence, and deportation. It has also begun to host a series of weekly "Walks for Dignity and Tolerance," intended to draw attention to the human rights violations suffered by immigrants facing deportation charges in the United States. The walks, which take place every Sunday, begin on the Long Island City side side of the Queensboro Bridge, cross into Manhattan, and end at the United Nations Headquarters in Turtle Bay.
Earlier this month I went to Queens Plaza -- less a plaza than a plot of concrete sliced apart by multiple levels of decaying transit infrastructure -- to accompany the Alianza on one of the walks. There I met Sinche, who arrived alone. He told me that week's march would be a small one. Shortly thereafter we were joined by Martha Gualotuna, who owns and runs an auto-body shop in the doomed Queens neighborhood of Willets Point. She had brought her husband Roberto and their three children. The children were carrying bright construction paper signs with entreaties handwritten in English and Spanish. This was the group.
Sinche didn't seem disappointed by the low turnout. "If I have to walk by myself," he said, "I will."
Sinche told me that the first walk ("walks," rather than "marches"), three weeks prior, had drawn between 30 and 45 people. Since then, several participants had bowed out, saying their undocumented status made them wary of public demonstrations. Nevertheless, he had high hopes that the final walk, scheduled for May 1, would bring together other like-minded community groups. During the final walk, the Alianza plans to read and distribute a formal declaration regarding the rights of immigrant detainees.
As we took off over the bridge in the intermittent sunshine and persistent wind, Sinche explained that, in terms of the conditions of their imprisonment, immigrants occupy a category shared only by terrorists and highly dangerous criminals. He noted that the private prison system that handles many of the immigrant detainees in the United States profits with every day it keeps a prisoner; as such, it is rarely in a hurry to expedite anyone's release, and immigrants are frequently held for months longer than the complexity of their cases warrants. As we walked, Sinche enumerated some of the violations immigrants suffer in the custody of the American government or the private companies it hires. Immigrant detainees are shackled like violent criminals, despite the fact that administrative detentions are supposed to be non-punitive. They habitually suffer from malnutrition. They are heavily medicated, ostensibly to prevent self-harm, but otherwise receive substantive medical treatment only in severe, near-death cases -- if at all.
Sinche expressed some cynicism about the political future of immigrants' rights in the US. He is disappointed, for one, that the political capital of voting immigrants was harnessed to elect a president who, so far, has failed to deliver anything of substance to those communities. This is largely why he chose the UN as the destination of the walks: to bring to the attention of its relevant member states (including the Latin American countries that supply the bulk of the U.S.'s immigrants) that the universal rights to which they have professed a commitment are violated daily under their auspices. He sees the walk over the Queensboro Bridge as a metaphor made literal: he would like the Alianza to bridge the racially and socioeconomically diverse population of Queens with the seat of the power responsible for representing it.
"All we want is to continue to work in peace," he said. "This is in the country's own interest."