Diego Sucuzhanay has a choice to make. He can try to go back to life as it was last year, when he would wake up every morning, drive to his real estate office in Bushwick, spend his day selling apartments and return home to his wife and his new-born child. Sucuzhanay can try to be the man he was until one year ago. Or he can continue being the witness for his brother Jose, killed in a hate crime on December, 7, 2008.
That day, at 3 in the morning, Jose, 31, was coming home to Kossuth Place, Bushwick. He was walking, arm in arm, with another one of his brothers, Romel. It was cold and they were tired. Two men emerged from a car, shouting slurs against gays and Hispanics. Then, they attacked. Jose was hit over the head with a bottle, kicked and beaten into unconsciousness with a baseball bat. He died five days later at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, one day before his mother, Julia, who was flying in from Ecuador, could reach him.
Diego Sucuzhanay, four years younger than Jose, lost his brother, his business partner, and the person he trusted the most. From the very beginning he felt that that crime wasn’t just against his brother, or his family. Rather, it was a crime against an entire community. “I understood immediately,” he says.
A few weeks before Jose’s death, Sucuzhanay had read about the attack against Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian, who was stabbed to death, in Patchogue, Long Island, by a group of teenagers who were looking for a Latino to beat up. “I told my brother that it was unacceptable,” he said. They spoke about the violence against Hispanics. They considered attending some rallies against hate crimes; they thought it was necessary to act. But they never followed through; they had their busy lives, and their business to take care. “I couldn’t believe it was something that could happen to my family,” said Sucuzhanay.
From Ecuador to New York
The Sucuzhanay brothers were born in the region of Canar, a rural area of Southern Ecuador. Their father, Florentino Hidalgo, and their mother, Julia, were farmers. The land didn’t feed all their 13 children. In the Nineties, Florentino moved to New York in the 1990s. His sons would soon join him. Diego left his hometown on 2001. “I came looking for a better life,” he said.
For six months he worked as a bartender while also attending the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Degree Program in Computer Science. “Time goes fast and sometimes you can’t accomplish all the things you wanted to do,” he said. “Education has been one of my priorities. It has always been in my family. But I didn’t have the opportunity to finish. I dropped out of college because I had to work and this is how I ended in real estate.”
He was then living in Bushwick with his brother Jose, who was working as a waiter also. They saw other immigrants struggling with salaries as low as $12,000 a year, sometimes even less. They wanted something more.
Sucuzhanay replied to an announcement for a real estate agent agent at Kings County Reality in Bushwick. He was hired. It was the period when everyone wanted to buy and the bank credit seemed unlimited. “It was just a matter of finding the right houses,” he said. And he was good. He quickly doubled his income. He enjoyed the flexibility of the new job. He also had the opportunity to study again. He attended courses in order to understand the market.
The younger brother’s example inspired the elder who decided to follow in his foot step. Jose Sucuzhanay was hired at Kings County Realty too. The clients and the money started to roll in quickly. He specialized in the Brooklyn market, while the younger brother worked in Queens.
Jose had even much more ambitious plans than Diego. In 2007, they opened their own company, Open Passport Realty. Jose decided to bet on Bushwick; Diego however, didn’t like it. “I lived in Bushwick for the first three years with Jose and I didn’t feel safe,” he said. “But Jose strongly believed in this area.”
“Danger,” Jose would say, “is an opportunity.”
At the beginning, it was just the two of them, in the basement of Jose’s house. Both 2007 and 2008 were good years for the Sucuzhanay brothers. New investors arrived, and Bushwick was considered a hot market. In August 2008 they were able to open a real office. Furnished in white and green, it was new and it was theirs. It was located at 320 Linden St., near Myrtle and Knickerbocker Avenue, two of the busiest streets of the neighborhoods. It was face to face with the Kings County Realty where Jose had started his real estate career only a few years before. The Ecuadorian farmers’s sons had become businessmen. Other brothers, Pedro, Marcelo and Romel, joined them.
Diego’s wife gave birth to their first child that August. He had everything he had worked for.
Diego was at home with his family, in the early morning of December when the phone rang in the early morning of December,7, 2008. Their brothers had been attacked. He ran to Kossuth Place at 5 in the morning. Romel was there, speaking with the police. Jose was already at the hospital. Diego went to work, as usual. He reassured the employees. He was sure that Jose would survive. “We tried to be optimistic about him getting better,” he said. “He was a fighter, he could always overcome all the problems.”
When the doctors spoke to his family about brain injuries, he didn’t want to listen. It was impossible. He had always thought that Jose was able to do everything. Sucuzhanay remembered when the owner of a six family home in Bushwick asked them to manage his property, because he wasn’t able to collect any rents. “As soon as Jose covered it, he collected 100 per cent of the rents,” Diego said. “He was persuasive, able to speak and to provide the service. Jose was able to fix fast things that weren’t working.”
On Tuesday 9, Jose was declared brain death. The family had to face the decision of whether to take him off life support. That day, Sucuzhanay spoke publicly on a press conference outside the hospital, saying that was necessary to act on behalf of victims of hate crime. “Today my brother is the victim,” he said. “But tomorrow it could be your brother, your mother, your father.”
Two days later, Jose died. City Council members, civil rights groups and state officials condemned the assault and expressed condolences. His family brought Jose back to Ecuador, where he was buried in a funeral attended by hundreds of people.
Meanwhile in Bushwick, Sucuzhanay tried to make the business work even without Jose. At the beginning he and his other brothers, tried to work with his clients. In February they closed temporarily the office of Linden Street. “I didn’t have the strength to work,” admitted Diego. “And even if I would had wanted, I couldn’t. In those moments you just can’t focus on work.” Before December 2008, business was Sucuzhanay’s priority. Then, he had to deal with his brother’s legacy, to take care of his investments. He had to think about Jose’s children. Brian, 10 years old, and Joanna, 5, live in Ecuador with their grandmother, Julia, an energetic 53 year-old woman who had raised 13 children alone, after her husband had left to the U.S. But now they needed all the family’s help.
At the beginning Sucuzhanay spent himself completely in taking care of the family’s business. “I was out, I didn’t have time to work, I couldn’t focus on anything,” he said.
At the end of last winter he finally had time for himself, he surfed the Internet where he discovered expressions of solidarity: posts remembering his brother, organizations speaking about hate crimes and Jose’s murder. He felt that he could not forget. He remembered all the times he had seen Latinos discriminated against in the job hunt. All the people he knew who were suffering discrimination and were just too scared to talk.
“I wanted to understand why this happened.” He said “Latino didn’t even exist before. Latino is a multicultural and multiethnical expression. I educated myself about the problem, started to think about possible solutions.”
On February the police arrested two Bronx men, Hakim Scott and Keith Phoenix, in connection with Jose’s murder. Their trial is set to begin on January 19. “Of course I want the killers of my brother TO spend the rest of their life in jail, but we also have to do something so it doesn’t repeat again and again.” Sucuzhanay said.
During the last year he has met other families, and shared his experience when attending rallies against hate crimes. “If you don’t get through you don’t understand. You think that this is only happening to one family, it is just another death,” he said.
Last fall, another attack was reported in Bushwick. On September 23, Mario Vera, a 37-year-old Mexican immigrant, was riding his bicycle near Broadway and Lafayette Avenue, one block away from Kossuth Place. Three men stopped him. They shouted anti-Hispanic insults. They hit him on the head, the police said. Vera survived. He was able to reach his home, but was later brought to the hospital with traumatic brain injuries. His wife Ana Maria Gallardo only reported the attack to the police on October 9. Vera has still not completely recovered from the assault and the police have offered a $12,000 reward for anyone with information that could lead to the arrest and conviction of his attackers.
Sucuzhanay met Gallardo. “She was confused, and this is exactly how you feel. I advised her to stick with a person she trusted and with just one organization that could help her.”
Sucuzhanay is sure that these attacks are not isolated cases. “The problem is that most of the victims are new comers and don’t have legal status. Therefore they are afraid. So we don’t really know how many victims there are.”
Last November 23, the FBI released its 2008 reporting on hate crimes. In New York 570 hate crimes were reported through the year, while just 493 were reported in 2007. Nationally 792 attacks against Hispanics were reported, while they were 775 the previous year. But Sucuzhanay is sure that the numbers are much higher.
“It is like a disease. The only way to solve it would be by offering the victims a chance to legalize their status if they have been victim of hate crimes. It would be a motivation to denounce” such violence, he said.
Last month, Sucuzhanay was among the 500 people who gathered at Saint Francis de Sales Church, in Patchogue, to remember Marcelo Lucero, on the anniversary of his death. He listened to many speeches, but he thought that speaking isn’t enough anymore. “I don’t see a big change. There has not been a big change in the legislation that could have an impact. It needs a long-term solution, to prevent the crimes. Now there is an attack, they put someone in jail and then the next thing you know it is that there has been another attack.”
The office on Linden Street reopened last August. As it is for everyone in real estate, business is much slower, but Diego Sucuzhanay is always busy. His phone rings constantly. Every other call is related to his brother. He donates his experience to a long list of local-based organizations: Make the Road, International Ecuadorian Alliance, Latinos Americanos Unitos, New Immigrant Community Empowerment. He meets other victims, and he is planning for the anniversary of his brother’s death. Saturday 12, at 11 in the morning, a gathering for Jose’s death anniversary will be held in the office of Make the Road, at 301 Grove St., Bushwick. For Sucuzhanay it won’t be just a moment to remember Jose, but also to reconsider the choices in his own life.
“I understand clearly that I have to make a decision,” he said. “A decision whether I have to be more involved, showing my ideas, working to solve the problems, coming up with solutions. Or being something else, as a witness for the families that have suffered the same.”
He has a third option, “I could forget about this and go back to work as I did before.” He silenced just a moment. Then he spoke again, “But I already know that to forget is impossible.”