The people we pass

11220859_10207499265028701_1802981245041717710_nHis name is Santiago López. On Labor Day morning, he was playing the accordion and singing in front of a shuttered storefront on an otherwise quiet block of 4th Avenue in Sunset Park; I was halfway through an easy 6 mile training run along the NYC marathon course.

Accordion music is a weakness of mine. After passing him (his improvised lyrics referred to “una mujer bonita”), I jogged to the next street, hesitated there, and turned around (“regresa la mujer bonita”).

“I love accordions,” I burbled, fumbling for a dollar in my hardly-sweaty-at-all plastic bag. A dollar, a photograph, a thank you, and an attempted riff of my own, in bad Spanish, about the next time I return, I’ll be running the marathon.

El maratón! He told me how that was him, in 1992, no, 1991. How he went to the United Nations. (We were speaking half in English, half in Spanish, and I was having a hard time following. I guessed he was referring to the pre-marathon event for international runners, which starts with a ceremony at the UN.) Here, he had a picture to show me.

He fumbled around and produced, out of somewhere, a cheap plastic portfolio – the kind that ties shut. He undid the tie, opened it up, and showed me his newspaper clippings.

Except they weren’t about the marathon. There was the front page of El Diario, dated October 22, 1991, with the screaming red headline, “Un charro armado en la ONU” and a picture of a much younger man wearing a cowboy hat and shiny black glasses. And there was the corresponding article from the inside pages, providing the details (a gunman “armed to the teeth” with an automatic weapon and 100 bullets, detained after setting off the metal detector at the entrance to the United Nations building).

“Take a picture!” he urged me, proudly, pointing to the article. And so I did. And then I thanked him, wished him well, and went on my way.

Back home, I read as much of the El Diario article as I could from the photo I’d snapped and then went online to see what else I could find. I learned that the case against him was eventually dismissed. And from a searing column by Jim Dwyer (then writing for Newsday), I learned a little of his story.

It’s a story worth retelling this Labor Day, and so here’s a capsule version.

Santiago López was born in Mexico, one of 16 kids. After a stint in the Mexican army, he found his way to Florida, where he started out picking tomatoes and later found work as a roofer in Miami. One day in 1989, his boss ordered him to operate the tar machine. When he poured the cold tar in, it steamed and splattered his face and back. His skin peeled off from the burns and, over a period of weeks, he lost most of the vision in both eyes.

He also lost his job and his home, moving into a one bedroom apartment with five other farmworkers and eating at church soup kitchens. His workers’ compensation claim took a year to wend its way through the system (Dwyer doesn’t say, but my guess is the employer contested it) and at the conclusion, the system offered him a grand total of $15,000 — $7,500 per eye.

López, outraged, rejected the settlement and started a campaign for justice. It fared about as well as you’d expect a campaign for justice by an immigrant worker with a third grade education and no union or organizational backing to fare.  His letter to the editor of the Miami Herald went unpublished. The Mexican Consulate shrugged.

Another year passed, and López surrendered (who wouldn’t?). He accepted the $15,000, sending a big chunk of it to the sister in Mexico who was caring for his children, and using another big chunk of it to pay off the loans he’d taken to stay afloat during two years of unemployment. That didn’t leave very much, but other people didn’t know that, and friends warned him that as a disabled man who’d come into money he was an easy target. “Get a gun to protect yourself,” they advised. He might not be able to fire it, but he could at least wave it.

The gun seller in Florida didn’t have any qualms about handing over a 22-caliber handgun to a vision-impaired customer in exchange for $180.89. As López told it to Dwyer, it was the gun seller who suggested 100 rounds of ammunition and an extra clip.

López may have accepted the insulting workers’ comp settlement, but he hadn’t given up his quest for a greater measure of justice. He’d heard Miami Cubans talking about the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and imagined it as a kind of international court of last resort for those whose own governments had oppressed or failed them. And so, on October 19, 1991, he boarded a train in Miami and headed to New York City. He arrived the evening of October 20 (and in one more injustice, paid someone $38 for a ride from Penn Station to 43rd St.). The next morning, carrying the suitcase that held his possessions (unused and unloaded gun included) in one hand and the documents that told his story in the other, he entered the UN building with a line of other visitors. What he thought was a coat and bag check turned out to be a security checkpoint and metal detector. Alarms, handcuffs and tabloid headlines followed.

As Dwyer concluded his column: “It [was] the first time in his full history of trouble in the United States that Santiago López [had] ever been accused of causing any.”

So that’s the person I passed on 4th Avenue this Labor Day morning.


I wish I could link to Dwyer’s column, but Newsday doesn’t seem to have an online archive (at least not for nonsubscribers); the version I found was through some weird Google cache that’s basically a hard-to-read photocopy.

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