The presidential campaign comes to Hempstead today. The second debate between Romney and Obama is being billed as make or break for the president. What is not certain is whether immigration will be mentioned tonight. Hempstead is really the heart of immigrant Long Island, and it will be sad if the questions inside the hall don’t reflect the diversity out on the streets.
I have been working in downtown Hempstead since 1985, and boy, has it changed. When CARECEN opened there Hempstead was a depopulating village with a deserted business district. Today, it is the home of 53,000 Long Islanders and a wide collection of immigrant businesses.
Most of you know about the village’s “Little El Salvador” district. Stores, restaurants, and nightclubs serve not just Salvadorans who live there; they also serve immigrants from as far away as Glen Cove, Westbury, and Long Beach. Hempstead is the hub of Nassau County’s Salvadoran community, the best place to go for a pupusa or a cold tamarindo.
Latinos make up 44% of Hempstead’s population, and they are not all from El Salvador. Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans have moved there in large numbers. Because Hempstead is Long Island’s Latin metropolis, immigrants from virtually every country in Latin America live there. This is also the place where many of the region’s Latino organization are headquartered. Nassau’s Latino festivals, parades, and concerts are focused here.
Hempstead is also the center of the region’s Afro-Caribbean community. Haitian stores sit down the block from restaurants selling Jamaican jerk chicken. A Caribbean newspaper keeps the community informed about goings-on in Barbados, Trinidad, and a half-dozen other countries.
The Asian immigrant population is smaller, but still visible. Worshipers can attend a Hindu temple, a Sikh Gurudwara, or Korean church. The presence of a huge Asian food market makes Hempstead a Sunday shopping spot for Nassau’s Chinese and Koreans.
Over the last couple of days I’ve heard the pundits talking about the site of the debate as though it was “Jersey Shore North.” They need to get out of the time-warp they seem stuck in, go beyond the bar at the Marriott, and look around Hempstead.
The presidential candidates need to speak to the people of Hempstead, the new suburbanites. When they have dinner in Hempstead tonight, they need to talk to the people serving them about what it will take to make their lives better.