Eighth-graders quickly and noisily filled the bleachers in the Riverhead Middle School gymnasium Monday afternoon, bursting with the energy and excitement of young teens near the end of the school day during a short holiday week.
The students were obviously unaware of the sobering message they were about to hear.
Before them stood a middle-aged man in a dark business suit, two large screen monitors positioned at both sides of a podium.
Middle school principal Joseph Pesqueria, before introducing the guest speaker at the school assembly, reminded the students crowded onto the bleachers of the importance of embracing diversity accepting each other’s differences.
The speaker, “a community activist,” the principal said, will share a message focused on “the belief that everyone needs to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Joselo Lucero stepped forward, smiling broadly, greeting the crowd in both English and Spanish. He got right down to business. “I want to have a really good conversation with you guys,” he said. “Obviously, you know, I’m Hispanic. But also, you guys don’t have no idea who I am. And what is the purpose of my presentation? Only you know is I’m a community activist. And my name is Josepo Lucero.”
He showed them his native Ecuador on a map of the western hemisphere, followed by scenic photos of his homeland, the village he grew up in, pictures of his family, pointing himself out in group photos. “You see I was your age, right here,” he said. “This is my brother, my sister, my nephew.” More photos and a video followed.
“Now you guys know who I am. Now you have an idea,” Lucero said. “I want to show you — “ An image goes up on the screens, a boy and a young man. “This is my brother and myself. This is when I came to this country in 1995,” he said. I came to this country at a really early age. I don’t have no family here besides my brother and myself.”
Then there are images in a row of five youth on the screen. Beneath each image is a number and the word years: “5 years,” “7 years,” “8 years.”
“As you see here, there are five teenagers like you, kid that look like you,” Lucero said. “Each kid here was involved in a crime. Each one of them went to 5, 8, 7 years to jail. I want you to pay attention to the next part,” he continued.
A video starts, showing a distraught man breaking down in a crowded hallway. “This part is very important because that happened right here, right here in Riverhead. A courtroom. A father crying and screaming ‘my son, my son,’ Somebody who can be your father or mother. The reason why he was crying was that his son was sentenced to 25 years in jail,” he said, unsettling his audience.
“The reason why is because he killed my brother.”
Lucero’s words hung in the air of the gymnasium for a split second before his young audience erupted in audible gasps.
“My brother was Marcelo Lucero. He was killed in November 2008 and the reason why is because he was Hispanic,” he said.
Another shocked outcry reverberated in the gym.
“I want you guys to listen to this because I’m giving you my time. I’m giving you my story. Because I want you to learn and to prevent something like this to ever happening to you and to your family,” Lucero told them.
Bullying is a hate crime, Lucero said. He next showed images and told the stories of teens who were bullied and committed suicide as a result. Another image: social media apps on a phone screen.
“This is the new weapon you have right here,” Lucero said.
More photos go up on the screens, young people who were bullied or beaten and other youths who went to jail for bullying or beating them.
“If you want to be famous like this,” Lucero said referring to the youth who went to jail for their actions, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep making jokes, be disrespectful to your teachers or your classmates. You end up in the wrong place,” he said.
Lucero pointed out that his family was not the only family devastated by the actions of seven teens on a street in Patchogue on Nov. 8, 2008. “Yes they killed my brother,” he said, “but they went to jail. And the other families also lost, for something so stupid, or something because you think it was a joke, because your parents, they don’t know about it. Definitely they will find out like this, when you are in the news.”
The crowded gym grew absolutely silent.
His mother, widowed when Lucero was just 6 years old, was never the same after Marcelo’s death. She lived the last three years of her life in deep depression, Lucero said.
His older brother, four years his senior, was “my best friend,” like a father to him after their dad died. Lucero followed him to the U.S. Eventually Lucero became a welder and worked as a welder for 20 years until he felt he needed to spend all his time raising awareness about the consequences of bullying and hate.
“Believe me,” he said, “it’s not easy for me to talk about my brother or my personal story. “But if I touch one of you to make the right decision, that’s a win for me,” he said.
“After my brother died I realized my brother’s story can make a difference. I can teach something.”
Lucero said he gives presentations in schools because he wants young people to understand what happened to his family as a result of the tragedy.
Marcelo Lucero and a friend were surrounded and attacked by seven teenage boys on a Patchogue street the night of Nov. 8, 2008, in a “sport” the youths called “beaner hopping.”
Police, prosecutors, and ultimately the court called it a hate crime.
Marcelo Lucero was 37 years old.
In May 2010, the teen who stabbed Marcelo Lucero was sentenced to 25 years in prison after his conviction on a charge of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime.
The six other teens all received sentences of from five to eight years.
“You don’t want to be here like me, standing and talking about how was my life — how difficult was to find out what my brother was killed. how difficult was when the detective come over to my house to say your brother was killed and find out the reason why he was killed,” Lucero told the students.
“In this time when we have so much division, I want you to understand something. You have to embrace diversity. And I want you to understand that your behavior, your choices, has so much to do with your future,” Lucero said. “I want you to do one thing,” he said. “Think before you act.”
The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.