[State of the Valley]

Desert Divide

Recent murder case raises questions of racism

The 20-year-old woman walked into Rick Aco’s restaurant, a sad look covering her face. It had been almost two weeks since Zulma Yessenia-Pena lost her boyfriend to an apparent gang shooting, leaving the young woman to raise the couple’s three-year-old daughter. Las Vegas police had not found the killer. A newspaper story about the shooting sat atop a nearby table as the young widow walked by. She didn’t see it.

Yessenia-Pena and the late Jose Gilberto Guerrero are—and were—the sort of people who largely pass unnoticed through this region. She works as a dishwasher at Aco’s Samosa Factory restaurant and speaks little English. The 25-year-old Guerrero was a marble-cutter and landscaper, a hybridized job that demanded long hours until the economy slowed.

Police believe that the native Salvadoran might have been shot in one of those senseless rituals of street life, an out-of-town gang looking for a victim to kill as part of a barbaric initiation. He died May 17 after being shot in the chest while standing with five friends near Decatur Boulevard and Twain Avenue. Two of his buddies also were wounded.

Aco is trying to raise $7,000 to send the body to El Salvador for burial. The former sous chef at the Venetian’s Tao nightclub typically speaks softly, but there’s a noticeable poignancy to his voice as he reflects upon the death and some of the six online postings written in response to a Review-Journal story about the shooting.

One person, Narcissa, writes: “First of all, I would [like] to know if ANY of these people are/were here legally. Second, after years in this country, will someone PLEASE explain to me why this gal can’t or won’t speak English?

“I just wish these impoverished illiterates would go home. When we start getting invaded by 20 million nuclear scientists, lawyers, physicians and college professor(s), I might change my point of view, but until that happens …”

Similar postings appear. Joe C. adds: “My question is are they here legally? If so, it’s a decent thing Rick Aco the restaurant owner is doing. If they are illegally here I’m sorry for [the loss], but then Mr. Aco should be arrested for hiring an illegal immigrant. We are forced to deal with a huge upswing in crime partly because of illegal immigration, and I have a hard time giving if they are part of the problem.”

Granted, the anonymity and random nature of web postings makes them questionable as sources, but it raises an interesting social issue nonetheless.

One of every four Southern Nevadans, or about 500,000 people, is identified as Hispanic. That number could be larger. Demographers say 50,000 Latinos could be here illegally.

It’s difficult to find accurate figures, but you know the story. They build and renovate our homes, cut our lawns, wash our cars, clean our dishes, watch our children, dry clean our clothes. What’s often lost in this conversation is the emotional anguish that comes with the immigrant experience. Take the time to talk with undocumented workers, and you’ll find that a large number would rather return home.

They’re away from family, friends, their ancestral land. Many speak of the alienation of knowing that they are hated and resented by many Americans.

Some are profesionals—just the sort of people “Narcissa” wishes would move here. But their college degrees and professional credentials are not accepted in this country, so they fill jobs that often go unfilled. Economists note that the large army of the unemployed does help drive down wages, and that’s created a great deal of the tension in the anti-immigrant story.

The Samosa Factory’s Rick Aco shakes his head in amazement at the online anger over Guerrero’s death. Aco’s lived and worked in New York City, Oklahoma and Colorado. He’s traveled throughout Central America. His world is filled with long days and the challenges of hiring hourly wage workers to cook and clean, all while competing for labor with the better-paying giants of the Las Vegas Strip.

Aco recognizes that many Southern Nevadans are caring people; several of the online postings reflect that attitude. But the restaurant owner asks: Where’s the compassion? The sense of shared danger? A Christian sense of caring?

Aco asks, “Do these people realize that someone was murdered?”


Previous Discussion:

  • The sex educator and owner of Detroit's Spectrum boutique brings her humor and expertise to AVN.

  • “Compared to my Ohio life, people are more positive here, more responsive to literary things.”

  • “We break down all the barriers that led them to become homeless, so they can become self-sufficient and sustain on their own.”

  • Get More As We See It Stories
Top of Story