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Brown's tragedy builds cultural bridges
By Diane Dungey and Wilson Medina | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/4/2009 5:03 PM | Updated: 8/4/2009 9:52 PM

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Originally published Jan. 31, 1993

Although he didn't know any of the victims in the Jan. 8 massacre at the Brown's Chicken & Pasta restaurant, Ped O. Ramos received the condolences of neighbors who knew that the two teenage victims were, like Ramos, of Filipino descent.

"They said, 'I'm sorry about the tragedy.' They know I am Filipino. They know we are a close community," he said.

And when Ramos passed a hat at the Palatine postal facility, where he works as an acting supervisor, he targeted the appeal to the 140 fellow Filipinos who work there. Employees of other ethnic and racial backgrounds saw the note and asked to chip in, raising $1,300 for the victims' families.

With such touching gestures, Palatine's minority communities - always close-knit within their own ranks - felt the compassion of a town deeply distressed by the deaths of the seven restaurant workers, three of whom were part of cultural minorities.

Three weeks after the deaths of the Brown's workers, those feelings of solidarity seemed to temper any lingering dismay at police, who initially were accused by two families of succumbing to racial typecasting and failing to take seriously their concerns that victims were late returning home.

In Palatine, the unimaginable horror of the crime and the intense news coverage of the victims' lives and dreams pierced all stereotypes.

Guadalupe Maldonado was revealed not simply as a Mexican cook, but as a man who moved to the United States only in December with his wife and three sons, finally ending the separations the family endured while Maldonado worked in this country to raise money to move his family north.

Rico Solis' story mirrors that tragic tale of reunion, then separation. Solis left the Philippines to join his mother in America only eight months ago after five years apart from her. The 17- year-old, who shared an Arlington Heights apartment with his family, worked six days a week so he could pay for his own things. He wanted to join the U.S. Army and to buy a sports car.

And no one could fail to be touched by images of Epifania Castro at the funeral home bending to caress the face of her son, 16-year-old Michael Castro. Castro, also of Filipino descent, wanted to be an engineer and prized his white pickup truck. He helped Solis get the job at Brown's, forming a work team in a way Ramos said is common among Filipinos "so you don't feel so lonely" on the job.

In English and in Tagalog, a Philippine language, the boys' lives and deaths were detailed in a Schaumburg-based weekly Filipino newspaper and were "a big story" in the Philippines, Ramos said.

But the compassion in the Northwest suburbs for the victims' families crossed cultural boundaries.

At least half of the crowd that attended a memorial service for Maldonado was not Hispanic, although the church's 2,000 families virtually all are, said the Rev Rafael Orozco, pastor of Santa Teresa Church in Palatine. A village-wide "Palatine Cares" fund for the victims' families climbed to $77,000, while a fundraising effort to mount a reward for information about the killers topped $100,000.

"We've had a lot of support from people," said Juana Maldonado, Guadalupe's sister-in-law. "I feel there is a solidarity between Mexicans and Americans."

Perhaps, Orozco said, "the tragedy made bridges, sad as it is."

It is no coincidence that three of the seven Brown's employees killed were members of minority groups, Ramos said. The other victims were owners Richard and Lynn Ehlenfeldt of Arlington Heights, assistant manager trainee Marcus Nelson, 31, of Palatine, and Thomas Mennes, 32, of Palatine.

"The employees were paid $5 an hour. For them, that was something. For some other cultural groups, it may not be enough," Ramos said.

Often, among minority teens, "the financial reality of the family is they have to work," added Palatine High School social worker Carlos Burger, who was hired by the school district last fall to work with non-English speaking students.

The minority population of the Palatine area remains small, but growing. The village itself is 9 percent minorities, but ethnic minorities make up 14 percent of Palatine Township's population, 1990 U.S. census figures show.

The numbers are higher among the young. Nineteen percent of Palatine High School students are members of minority groups, and Fremd High School's student body is 16 percent minority.

Traditionally, relations between Anglos - non-Hispanic whites - and the minority communities have been harmonious, at least on the surface. But that is not to say there are no barriers.

Some Hispanic residents, in particular, say they are isolated from the community as a whole. Hispanics are the largest minority group, making up nearly 6 percent of Palatine Township's population and 4 percent of the village's.

Juan Gonzalez, owner of Nuevo Mexico Restaurant in Palatine, said the shock of the mass murders will open no new lines of communication between Mexicans and others in the Palatine community, mainly because of language problems.

Like many immigrants, Gonzalez doesn't speak English. He settled into a Mexican neighborhood in Des Plaines when he arrived in the United States in 1976, and he has not moved since. Without a command of English, "it's easier to stay within our community," Gonzalez said.

Although he does speak English, Emmanuel Castro, Michael's father, said he believed language barriers, and related racial stereotypes, delayed the police investigation into his son's death.

In the initial days of the investigation, both the Maldonado and Castro families complained that police brushed off their worries that family members were late returning home from work.

That treatment by police, Castro said, was "because of our accent, because of our look."

Emmanuel Castro said he called police around 11:30 p.m. Jan. 8 to say his son was late returning from work Castro said he met an officer at the restaurant and was assured everything was fine. Juana's husband and Guadalupe's brother Pedro Maldonado, said he went to the Brown's restaurant at 1:30 a.m. Jan. 9 to look for his brother, but was sent away by a patrol officer who drove by and saw him peering in the windows. The bodies were discovered by police at 2:30 a.m. after Castro called again about his son. Since that horrible day, and after meeting with Village President Rita Mullens and others, the families have moderated their stands.

"I have confidence they are doing all they can," Juana Maldonado said of the police.

"They're doing their best," Epifania Castro echoed.

Police denied accusations that race influenced officers' actions. Palatine Deputy Police Chief Walt Gasior said the department's first contact with the Castros was at 1 a.m. Jan 9, a discrepancy of more than one hour that has not yet been resolved.

The controversy put police in the position of having to defend their attitudes toward minorities. At least half of the police officers have gone through a training program designed to increase sensitivity to racial and ethnic groups, Gasior said, and the goal is to get everyone into the training program.

Among the Filipino population, there are many "if onlys," Ramos said "It is an eye-opener for the local government that they should serve everybody. Sometimes, you cannot break the mold. You are used to serving white people in the community, and all of a sudden, here come minorities."

The police department in Palatine is 92 percent white, with eight Hispanic employees making up the largest minority group. In comparison, 98 percent of teachers in Palatine Township High School District 211 are white.

In the future, Ramos said, "I think the village will have an attitude toward minority groups that if there is a missing-person report, investigate it right away."

The unforgettable tragedy at the Brown's restaurant poses another opportunity to bring the community together, Ramos said.

"If the village would hold a memorial for the victims maybe once a year, that will help make contact between minorities. We are all residents here. Each depends on the other for support, for security," he said.

Orozco agreed.

"The family that was affected from our church, the Maldonados, was amazed by the outpouring from people they never met. They've just gone out of their way - people who do not even go to our church," he said "But people just slip back into their own little worlds. If we are going to do something, it should be on a continuous basis, a scholarship or whatever so that this tremendous outpouring is not forgotten."

Orozco's thoughts turn to Juan Pablo Maldonado, 13, Guadalupe's oldest son. The boy and his younger brother, Javier, 10, reluctantly agreed to stay with relatives in Palatine and return to school while their mother and youngest brother returned to Mexico with Maldonado's body.

"If this interest and love and concern is of a lasting basis," Orozco said, "that particular young man can say, 'Someone cares'."