Margarita Espada, Artist and Activist


Long Island Wins’ Margarita Espada will be honored on Nov. 15 by CARECEN. I spoke to the artist and playwright recently to ask her about the development of the arts in immigrant communities.

The arts on Long Island have thrived in places like Huntington and the Hamptons, but in Brentwood? Margarita Espada says that Long Island government had traditionally seen the arts as an element of tourism instead of cultural expression.  When she settled in Central Islip after growing up in Puerto Rico, Margarita dedicated herself to organizing through the arts.

First Margarita had to give immigrant artists a place to display their work. “There weren’t venues for them”, she says. She would meet factory workers and landscapers who told her that in their home countries they had been actors or painters. Here there was no space for them to find a public. The galleries catered to elite tastes and rarely displayed the work of local Latinos.

With the support of elected officials like Rick Montano and Phil Ramos, Margarita was appointed to the Suffolk County Advisory Board for the Arts. One of the first things she did there was to initiate the revisal of grant guidelines which mandated that art be for the promotion of tourism. This change opened up funding for arts programs in immigrant communities.

The creation of the Brentwood Cultural Street Festival was just one result of this change. The festival brings together Latino, African American and other artists in a variety of disciplines where they can learn from each other and display their work to the public. “It allows Latino artists to learn from other art forms they may never have been exposed to before”, Margarita says. It also means that the working class artists can at last have a Long Island audience. “They are no longer invisible”, she told me.

Margarita has become best known for her play “What Killed Marcelo Lucero”. Reviewed favorably by both the New York Times and Newsday, Margarita says that she tried to condense “ten years of our community’s history into a one hour play.”

Margarita told me she began thinking about writing “Marcelo Lucero” almost as soon as she heard of the murder. “The name ‘Marcelo Lucero’ has become a symbol for the community,” she says, “and I wanted to show the social aspect of the crime”.

Margarita recalls the difficulty she and the actors had in developing the play. “I was very, very sad sometimes when I was writing it”, she recalls. But emotions were not the only obstacle.  She remembers getting a call from a Suffolk County government office right before the play’s first performance, and she recalls recent attempts by officials to prevent the play from being presented in Patchogue, the village where Marcelo was killed.

A key component of the play is a discussion by the audience of the question “What Killed Marcelo Lucero?”.  The discussion sometimes involves community leaders and hate crime victims as well as the general public. Long Islanders seem to open up about what they hear and see in the community that helped contribute to Marcelo’s death.

Margarita hopes that the arts provide a path around the walls that have been constructed between communities on Long Island. She is also trying to build a culture of welcoming with a new project called Welcoming Long Island. She told me that the group does not debate the immigration issue. Instead it is made up of Long Islanders who want to reach out to newcomers. Part of Long Island Wins, Welcoming Long Island is active in Port Jefferson and several other village.

If you would like to help honor Margarita, tickets for CARECEN’s gala are still available. Call 516-489-8330 Monday through Thursday between 9AM and 5PM.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.