The East Boston casino campaign will be a benchmark in the emergence of Boston’s Latino community. But as the race nears the finish line, the casualties and accusations are piling up. Opponents are ripping down each others’ campaign signs with abandon while each side tries to catch the other on video doing it; a casino supporter suffered a broken nose at a contentious rally, and pro- and anti-casino advocates regularly malign each other in Spanish on Facebook.
The animosity may be on the verge of going international, for there are calls to remove the Salvadoran consul for meddling in a local political matter.
That there’s no love lost between the two sides is the understatement of the year, and even though no one knows how the vote will go down, on one level, an ingrained bitterness means the community overall already has lost.
“I think the root of that is that this is such a fundamental issue,” says Ernani DeAraujo, a casino opponent and former East Boston liaison for the Menino administration. “It’s going to impact both sides greatly, it’s going to change our way of life. Whether you believe it’s a negative or a positive impact, the stakes are high.”
Casino supporters maintain that it’s Eastie’s turn to enjoy the economic benefits that have come to so many other parts of the city.
“Here we have an opportunity that the casino is going to bring great resources for the community,” says Felix Bezeredy, a community activist. “I know they’re going to improve our roads, but I believe this business will generate new sources of revenues. The economy will be stimulated; people will invent new ways of making money.”
Like many in this battle, Bezeredy is outraged by the tactics of the other side, particularly the involvement of the Salvadoran consul, José Alemán, an unabashed casino opponent.
“Diplomatic protocol does not allow him [the consul] to do these things,” Bezeredy claims. “I did not confront him personally until maybe a month ago or so. I saw him on Maverick Street and he had these voter registration sheets and I told him, what do you think you’re doing? He says, knocking on doors. I said, you know you’re not supposed to get involved in this? . . . He was very defiant. I took pictures. He should not be involved. Period.”
It was yet another dramatic moment in the casino battle, and one Alemán does not deny. He has no qualms about engaging in the escalating campaign. In fact, he seems to relish it.
The Consulate of El Salvador is the only consular office located in the heart of East Boston and, as such, places Alemán in the middle of the neighborhood’s political life. Plus, Salvadorans have become the largest Latino group in East Boston, the neighborhood with the highest concentration of Hispanics, 53 percent.
“As consul, I don’t have an office in Park Plaza, instead I’m in the barrio,” Alemán says, adding that if the casino comes, the consulate will end up displaced because of the higher rents. “What I hear and the people I see, they walk by my street and they invite me and encourage me and they ask for help. And I can’t simply say, ‘Sorry, it’s 4 p.m. we’re closed,’ and then go on with my private life. I can’t hide.”
I had come to Alemán after I heard on the street he had been summoned back to El Salvador. He tells me he is just going there on vacation, and that his contract expires on Dec. 31. Still, he’d be willing to give up his career rather than stay silent.
“I’d rather be morally clean than keep my diplomatic career knowing that the price is to hide and to refuse the obligation to guide and to be with the community,” he says.
Such righteousness can go overboard with some people who oppose the casino. When I contacted an anti-casino source I had quoted in an earlier column, he castigated me for being a casino sympathizer, helping “mobsters” and their misguided local supporters.
Finding people in East Boston who see both sides of this issue is becoming increasingly rare. And the bitter feelings won’t go away quickly.
“I know that as a community, we’ll try to heal,” said DeAraujo. “Even if it’s a yes vote on Tuesday, the gaming commission won’t decide until spring next year, so we might still have hard feelings for a while.”