EAST HAVEN — The reality might be more complicated than the offensive remarks made by Mayor Joseph Maturo after the dramatic arrest by the FBI of four cops accused of abusing Latino residents.
Certainly, things are far worse than Maturo's flippantly distasteful "I might have tacos" comment to a reporter who had asked what he was doing for the Latino community. One Ecuadorean business owner told me of routine harassment of customers who are afraid to leave their homes because of local police.
"I've been here all my life. My kids are half-Spanish. We never have any problems,'' said Sharon Demetrio, who told me that her husband is Mexican. "This is a really nice town."
Indeed, there are Korean, Italian and Chinese restaurants, Latino grocery stores, La Bamba café, and shops selling handmade pasta and cupcakes. Local police might be surprised to know that 25 non-English languages are spoken in the homes of students attending local schools.
But just a few blocks to the south, Benjamin and Rosa Barrionuevo paint a much more frightening picture of East Haven, where they have operated a variety store, M & R Variedades Latinas, since last winter.
The Ecuadorean couple — who have lived in the United States for nearly two decades — told me how they have watched police frequently stop cars with minority drivers at the wheel.
"I've lived here for only a few months. I've seen it in the streets. The police stopped people many times,'' said Rosa Barrionuevo, a mother of two daughters who attend local schools.
"People are afraid. Many people tell me and say they can't come in. They can only go out once a week,'' she said. "It's like with Martin Luther King with the blacks and whites. It's like that time again.''
As we spoke, a customer came in. Luz Fajardo was there to wire money to her family. A widow, she works atMcDonald'sand Wendy's and sends money home to Ecuador, where her five children live. She said she has paid more than $2,000 in fines for the numerous times she has been stopped by local police.
Speaking through the Barrionuevos, Fajardo said she was often afraid to go out for fear that police would target her again.
"I go from home to work and work to home,'' she said. "I hope it will be better now."
Bruce Palmer, who has run a Main Street jewelry store for 35 years, agreed that it was "a shame what happened'' when the FBI swooped in to arrest four police officers and called them "bullies with badges.''
"But you can't label this town. I've never had a problem with the cops in question,'' said Palmer, who added that as a businessman, he wants customers of all backgrounds to feel welcome. "If I don't have customers, I don't have a living.''
"We mind our own business,'' Palmer said. "Nobody looks for trouble in this town."
Trouble they have. The federal investigation is continuing, with more arrests possible. Gov.Dannel P. Malloycalled Maturo's comments "repugnant," and political leaders throughout the state blasted the insensitivity of East Haven's mayor. Late Wednesday afternoon, TV trucks from Connecticut and New York clogged the street in front of the town hall, where the mayor was fending off justifiable calls that he resign.
On a side street, Jean Kober took advantage of the January sunshine to sweep her sidewalk. Kober, who grew up here and returned last year to care for her ailing mother, said she's leaving it up to a judge to decide whether the police are guilty. However, she confessed to me that "there's a lot of negativity here."
At the senior center, longtime residents Liberto and Theresa Zito seemed to hold Maturo accountable for the latest incident in what has been a long-running controversy in East Haven, with years of allegations about police harassment of Latinos.
"Things may change now,'' said Theresa Zito, who is 89.
For the Barrionuevos, that change can't come fast enough. The couple hope that their variety store, which sells everything from clothing and DVDs to perfume, will survive.
"The people in town are scared and it's why we are scared. We are just starting out,'' said Benjamin Barrionuevo, who added that they moved here from New York with their two young daughters because it was quiet and the schools were good. "We pay taxes like everyone else does."
Rosa Barrionuevo said she wished East Haven understood that they are no different from scores of immigrants who have come to America for generations, hoping for a better life.
"We like to work. We like to pay for the things we need with money earned from our jobs,'' Rosa Barrionuevo said. "We don't want anything from the government.''
Except, that is, to live without harassment from the police.
Dumb 'Tacos' Remark Distracts From Deeper Worries In East Haven