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From One Guatemalan's Journey, A Whole Community Rises In Long Island

A house in Riverhead, home to much of Long Island's remaining farmland.
A house in Riverhead, home to much of Long Island's remaining farmland.

For four decades, San Raymundo in Guatemala has been a source of workers for Riverhead, home to much of Long Island's remaining farmland. Riverhead is also home to the area's fastest growing Latino population.

Danilo Garcia came to the U.S. in the 1970s. Like Garcia, many others heard about Riverhead from friends and relatives in San Raymundo and made the journey to work in Long Island's sod, grape and vegetable fields.

Garcia started as a farm worker 30 years ago. Now he trims trees across Long Island, including estates in the Hamptons. He's made enough money to build a house, a pool and a basketball court for his three sons who are living with their mother in Guatemala. Garcia splits the year, spending a few months working in Long Island and a few months with his family back home.

Danilo Garcia outside his home in San Raymundo, Guatemala, with a tractor he bought in Riverhead, N.Y.
/ Will James/WHSU
Danilo Garcia outside his home in San Raymundo, Guatemala, with a tractor he bought in Riverhead, N.Y.

"We work sometimes seven days, we work 14 hours," he explains.

Garcia says it's all thanks to Trancito Perez, a relative who told him about Riverhead, and the first man from San Raymundo to stumble upon Long Island. Perez still lives Riverhead, not far from the farm where he made his start 40 years ago.

"In that time, it was very, very quiet," Perez says. "Not too much noise."

Perez left Guatemala when he was 27 years old and got a factory job in New Jersey. He started to miss farming, which he had done back in San Raymundo.

When he heard there were farms on Long Island, he found a job with a farmer in Riverhead. Perez ended up working side by side with Bill Nohejl, the farmer's son, for years.

"We came to an understanding," Nohejl says. "Look, try and remember as much English as you can, and I'll try and do as much Spanish. So half the sentence was in English and half of it was in Spanish, just back and forth. We kind of taught one another."

Nohejl and Perez became as close as family. The Nohejls eventually hired three of Perez's relatives from Guatemala. Other farms hired Perez's relatives as well, and eventually, a connection was born.

Immigration from Central America is quickly changing parts of Long Island, and experts say networks of family and friends are linking one town to another. It's not by chance that immigrants settle in where they do. They arrive through established connections between towns in Central America and towns on Long Island.

"That's exactly how it is with my family," says Hansel Perez, Trancito Perez's son. "I feel it's incredible and bizarre."

Hansel Perez is a video producer for Bloomberg LP in Manhattan. Trancito Perez's other son, Byron, became Riverhead's first Latino police officer in 2014.

Hansel Perez grew up watching his parents nurture a young Guatemalan community in Riverhead and help many navigate a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the 1980s.

"These were boys," he says. "No matter how tough they are, they're still children and they're over here. And my mom kind of became like a mother to everybody."

Trancito Perez is 68 years old now. He cares for his adult daughter, who has cerebral palsy. He worries about where she'll live after he dies.

"You know, I'm very happy," Trancito Perez says. "I don't know how long I be in my life. But I'm very happy for my kids."

He says that when he retires, he'll stay close to those kids in Riverhead.

In the meantime, he'll continue to work on a farm.

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