From Rock Songs to Philosophy
It is a Monday night, just after 8 p.m. and a Hispanic twenty-something named Danny fidgets and shuffles from one foot to the other as he stands in front of a class of 24 fellow students talking about a South Asian earthquake. After he is done leading the class in a discussion, he returns to his desk and Carol Doukakis, associate professor for Suffolk Community College's ESL program on the Selden campus, compliments him on his choice for a current event topic.

"Where did you read about this?" she asks him. He is vague in his answer at first, saying only "newspaper" but when pressed by Doukakis, admits it was a Spanish-language paper.

"What?!" Doukakis says in mock horror as the students laugh. "You know you're not allowed to do that Danny."

"But we don't understand English 100% so why am I going to read newspapers in English?" he protests.

"Because that was the assignment," she answers without missing a beat. "The idea is reading and listening to news in English."

And the idea is to understand. This is a Level 5 ESL class, the highest level before students are eligible to enroll in English-language college courses. So Doukakis does more than make sure her students use proper grammar and pronunciation. There are essays and outlines to write, poetry and short-stories to comprehend.

Their assignment for tonight's class is to have read Langston Hughes' short story "Thank You, Ma'm" and answer questions. The story, about an elderly woman's run-in with a young purse-snatcher, is filled with 1950s references and African-American slang, making it a difficult read for the group, which is comprised of Mexican, Brazilian and Polish students, among others.

When she asks them what blue suede shoes represent, the students, sitting in a semi-circle facing her, return only blank stares or bury their heads in their workbooks. But when she asks to describe the life of the woman, who in the story says she works nights in a hotel beauty shop, the students are quick to offer up words such as lonely and hard-worker.

"I think you guys empathize with her," she says. "Do you guys know what 'empathize' is? It's when you understand what someone is going through."

She gets more blank stares when she segues into topics of symbolism and theme but expresses happiness that the students are reading into the story. She tells them to think about how the story fits in with the theme of Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred" for the next class.

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The students meet twice a week for two and a half hours each time, plus perform lab work during the week. Only a small percentage will move onto college courses, Doukakis says later, though that remains the goal of the class, even as many juggle full-time work schedules.

"They come into class, hungry, tired," she says. "I give them a lot of credit. They complain [about the homework] but they still do it. It's just amazing."

For student Martin Rivera, the quest to learn English began when he heard his first American rock song. As a teenager growing up in Mexico City, he would translate lyrics so he could understand the songs. At 19, he had taken a year of college and was working as a manager at a Burger King when a friend who had been living in the U.S. invited him to come visit.

"I wanted to know the world," Rivera, 30, said. "And the best part was in New York. I was told I could get here and work at anything."

And work he did. Masonry, paving, carpet installation - whatever was available. "I was working all the time," he said. "I put my hands in anything."

Rivera settled in Farmingville, but worked for several years for a company in Manhattan. His boss would drive him into the city every day and during the trip, he would ask Rivera to read him the newspaper while he drove, helping him learn how to pronounce words in English. But Rivera found others in Farmingville already had a profile in their minds of who he was as a young Mexican.

"They see you as a day laborer, speaking Spanish and the profile is no education and you do certain bad things," Rivera said.

As a result, Rivera has worked to improve his English, he said, to better communicate and educate people about Mexican culture. "Whether it's myself or someone else, we're representing our whole country," he said.

But Rivera said he can relate to some of the complaints he's heard about his fellow immigrants. "I understand it," he said. "If someone comes around my neighborhood, a house packed with people, the landlords don't care about the maintenance, of course I'm going to be complaining. I completely understand that."

For the past four years, Rivera has been working for a company doing interior decorating. He is still working to become a legal citizen, he said, and wants to settle down here. He also wants to return to Mexico City to see the family and places he has not seen in 10 years.

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"My dream is to go to college here," he said. "I want to study philosophy, social studies. I want to help educate myself and achieve something."

The Landlord
Standing across the street from the Farmingville house on Granny Road that he co-owns with his mother, David shuffles his feet and stuffs his hands so far into the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt that it strains against his neck.

"I can't let you in," he says in an apologetic, child-like voice that does not correspond with his 28-year-old body. "My mom came by and when I told her Newsday was coming she got worried."

David asked that his last name not be used, or the name of his mother, who he said owns several homes in Farmingville she rents to day laborers. David had been planning to show a reporter the inside of the single-family home to prove that it is in good condition even though 20 men live there. But when his mother stopped by unannounced, she took notice of the peeling linoleum and messy kitchen, he said, and forbid any outside intrusion.

After she left, he said, he watched her car circle around 10 minutes later, checking to make sure he didn't go back on his word. "She knows her son," he says with a laugh.

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David bought the house at his mother's urging a year and a half ago, he said. He didn't really want to go into real estate, he said, but his mother, who had paid for a sibling's college education, wanted to give him a similar gift. "But she didn't want to give me $10,000, because she thought I'd blow it," he said.

At first, David said, he intended to rent to only a handful of friends, buddies in their 20s who didn't want to live at home anymore but couldn't afford to buy their own house. But his mother soon rented out rooms to the day laborers, he said.

Almost as soon as the house was rented, he said, Brookhaven town officials showed up and issued him tickets for having an improperly sized window in the basement, having two driveways and renting the house without a permit.

David got a lawyer, made some changes, paid $1500 in fines, but continued to rent to the men.

David said he believes it is unconstitutional to stop him from renting out his own house. "On Fire Island, you don't have to have a permit to rent houses out in the summer," he said. "I don't understand why they don't and I do. Is it because they're rich?"

The 20 men living in his house - "friends, not tenants," David said with a smile - pay $250 a month each. The mortgage on the house is $1,200 a month. "I'm just trying to pay off the house as fast as I can," he said. He said he doesn't make a huge profit because of utility bills and attorney costs.

David grew up on Long Island, spent six years in the Navy and now sells tile for a living. His parents are Portuguese immigrants who came to the U.S. nearly 30 years ago. Day laborers would come in asking his mother if she knew of rooms for rent and she would make referrals to friends, David said. Eventually, she realized she could buy houses and rent out rooms herself.

"These guys are just trying to make a living here," David said. "When [the Portuguese] got here, we were the bad guys too."

At the same time, he said he understands complaints about overcrowded houses.

"I see both sides," David said. "If I had a house, I wouldn't want to have a house with a bunch of them living next to me, either."

Making matters worse, he said, is that the men often bring home friends who stay at the house. He had to put up a wall to divide the living room, he said, because too many were sleeping in there.

"They're the ones who choose to live four to a room," David said. "If you've got a big living room, they're going to bring their friends in. I had to make it into a bedroom. I continually have to go and see how many people are living there."

David said he fears letting town building inspectors into the house. "I'm sure they'd find something if I let them into the house," he said. "I'm sure I'd get hit with . . . the ceilings are two inches lower than they should be or whatever. . .

"My house is clean," David said. "There's no holes in the walls, no exposed wires hanging over propane tanks. My house isn't like that and the town wants to see that but I won't let them in... I know I'm doing something wrong. But they need a place to stay and I'm giving them a place to stay.

Writing it All Down
Mayra Martinez's story starts with a phone call.

"The clock said two in the afternoon. When the phone rang I was on the first floor of my husband's house," she writes.

As part of "Her Story" -- a writing workshop in Farmingville that has brought Hispanic and American women together -- Mayra's assignment was clear. She was to pick a moment, a time in her life when she would want the reader to encounter her.

This was it: a phone call she received in Mexico telling her that her brother-in-law had been killed in New York. These are Mayra's words, written in Spanish and translated into English:

"Through the window I could see the street and the hill of another village. I could feel the air, and I said to myself, 'Lord, just a minute ago I felt unbearably hot. Now I feel that such a strange coldness is running through my body.' 'In that moment,' I said, 'everything changed in such an odd way.' I felt that the air was blowing differently, the trees on that hill were no longer swaying happily, and from one moment to the next, the sky grew cloudy. The village was silent. It seemed that when my husband gave me the news, the entire village was listening. ...

They put him in the house where he and Aydee lived, and Aydee screamed, 'Cachorro, stand up. We're home! Stand up! Look at all the people who have come to welcome you!. Listen to the music. Stand up. Get on Barril, your horse.' My brother-in-law seemed to be sleeping. My sister had asked for everything that he would have wanted: the sombreros, tejanas, riatas, the horse's saddle, the music, los charros. Everything he would have liked to see. I approached him and hugged him and said, "Cachorro, what did you do? Why did you die like this?' When I hugged him I pressed my forehead to his. I had always been told that dead people are very cold and stiff, but I didn't feel any cold. In fact, I touched his hands and put a rosary in them and a holy candle, and he was cool--neither warm nor cold ...

We had to leave and take my brother-in-law to his parents' house, in his native village where he had been born and raised. During the ride, it began to get dark. During the ride, all was silence. The people riding with me and the man who was driving didn't say a word. The road had many curves. When we left our village and another neighboring village, we were descending and there was nothing but curves. When you descend, there's a ranch and a river, and there we entered the village of Tezontepec. We passed right by the hot springs and the gardens where they grew vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The road runs right through all this, and then you begin to go up, and again there is nothing but curves. When I saw that we were climbing, I looked below and saw the river and the gardens and I said to myself, 'Ay, Cachorro, how I hope that when you get to heaven, God transforms you into something beautiful like the water or the flowers that I'm seeing right now.'"

Mayra is one of eight who attend the workshop. Some of the women speak only Spanish, other's only English. The Mexican women write their stories by hand, the "gringos" use computers.

"Sometimes just hearing it in the other language helps you feel it better," said organizer Erica Duncan. "I feel it through twice."

The Activist
It's almost 9 a.m., a Monday, and Irma Solis is gearing up for another week at her new "office," a gazebo in the backyard of a home on Berkshire Drive. Several tents are pitched around her.

The three-story house had been home for the past five years to Mexican men from various hometowns. In the first years, it housed men from the small town of Huizachez, who with their earnings built a church on a dry hill. Then, last summer, Brookhaven town officials shuttered the house, citing fire and safety codes. Encouraged by activists opposed to the closure, the Mexicans moved into the tents as a form of protest.

Solis, a Binghamton University and Buffalo Law School graduate and an organizer for the non-profit Workplace Project, which has been helping day laborers, spent eight weeks living in the backyard as part of an effort she hopes will focus attention on the plight of the immigrants.

She spent the first couple of nights in a tent, and then started sleeping in the back seat of her Toyota Camry. She later shifted to larger quarters when a Mexican woman in town loaned her a van.

Most mornings, Solis rises at 4:30 a.m., rushes over to her apartment in Ronkonkoma to shower, and then returns to the tent city by 5:30 a.m. as the men roust themselves for another day of work. They have no running water, electricity, bathroom, kitchen or refrigerator. Other immigrants cook them meals and lend them their restrooms.

In her early 30s, Solis herself was brought across the border by her mother when she was five years old and eventually became a U.S. citizen. On a cool morning, she is wearing a red sweater and a long blue overcoat, and is sitting at a picnic table decorated with a religious devotional candle of St. Martin de Porres, paper plates, a small propane Coleman lamp, a radio and a coffee can with the word "donaciónes" written across it.

At the back of the gazebo she and the workers have hung a banner declaring "United Day Laborers of Long Island." Like an alarm clock, Solis's cellphone goes off. It's the Spanish-language television station Univision calling from New Jersey to find out if Brookhaven Town officials are planning to close down the tent city soon.

"We're waiting for the court decision," she says in Spanish. (Town officials later closed down the tent city).

Two minutes later, another call. A day laborer wants to know about ESL classes. A few minutes after that, two more Mexican workers pull up in a car. They tell Solis that their "patrón" – their boss – has refused to pay them for the last two weeks, even though they had received steady paychecks from him for the past year. They say they are owed $1,500 each for installing bricks in driveways and around pools at homes in Bay Shore and Queens.

She hands the men a blue piece of paper to fill out with the details. When it comes time to put down the company's telephone and address, the men say they don't have a business card. Then one remembers his t-shirt advertising the company. He pulls up his sweater and turns around while the other jots down the information.

A New Dish
Liandra Bernard unlocked the front door of the International Deli on Horseblock Road.

Phone cards and religious candles sit behind the counter; Jarritos sodas with flavors like pineapple and mango fill the glass refrigerators. The only hint that the place was once a popular American/German deli is a grease-stained sign by the stove that lists the prices for eggs on a roll and western omelets.

Soon the smells of chopped cilantro, onions, and cumin fill a backroom kitchen as Julia Frea starts the beans and rice -- yellow and white -- as she waits for the other women to arrive.

Barbara, an American woman who prepares the salads, shows first. Next comes Evelia Flores and her 16-year-old daughter Ana, who came from Mexico only a year ago to join her mother who has been here five years. Ana plugs in a portable boom box and Rancheras, songs of love and scorn, blast through the room.

Evelia chops the chicken for pollo y mole verde. On the other side of the table, Ana peels tomatillos. Barbara works the grill while slicing vegetables for the salads. Frea, who arrived from the Dominican Republic a month ago, washes dishes.

Ana coats both sides of two briskets with fistfuls of salt, pepper and sazone, turning the meat a bright sunset red. Evelia pours vinegar on the chicken and lights two more burners on the stove. She tosses the ingredients for a green sauce into a blender: chiles, tomatillos, onion, pepper, and garlic cloves. Her name dangles on a gold chain around her neck -- a statement of identity amidst a life of anonymity.

"Aye, Madre," Julia grunts as she plops a cooked vat of rice on the table with a thud.

"Ana, passame," Evelia says, nodding toward a pan on one of six shelves. Barbara, stomping loudly through a limited Spanish vocabulary, says "Escuela, school," to Ana.

While other kids were boarding school busses nearby, Ana pats three pints of congealed grease into a bowl for the tamales. When asked what she wants to do here in the United States, she replies simply, "Estudia."

Later, the day's weariness wiped from their faces, Evelia and Barbara sit at opposite ends of a table at the International Deli, belting out "La Bamba."

Barbara's husband, Esmeregilbo Castillo, a Tex-Mex in every sense, strums his acoustic guitar. He taps a cowboy boot on the linoleum.

"I'm on recreation now," Barbara says.

It is 9 p.m. Friday, taco night at the deli, and Castillo is the entertainment.

He sings Mexican classics spiced with a little country flair. "Con verguenza or sin verguenza," with or without shame, the cowboy hat-wearing Castillo tells the small crowd, urging them to join in the singing. Four men, including a Mexican man who minutes before was complaining into a beer about life's difficulties, start in on "La Puerta Negra." They clap beers when the song is over, saying "Salud."

When he's not singing, Castillo speaks softly, his southern drawl seeming to crawl amid the fast Spanish spoken around him.

"I'm a country boy," he says, adding that in his hometown of Victoria, Texas, he worked cattle and rode broncos. He has recorded with La Mafia and Selena, but moved here to be with Barbara.

Next to him sits Juliette Hawks, who left Texas for Farmingville four years ago to escape a bad marriage. "I've rebuilt my life here." She is a mix of French, Irish and Indian, a red tail hawk feather affixed to her hair hinting at her Cherokee heritage. As Castillo strums the guitar, Hawks plays the harmonica.

The music is swelling, and a young Mexican man, Daniel Sifuentes, grabs two bottles of syrup off a shelf and taps them to the rhythm.

Evelia, who was serving tacos earlier, sings in a steady beautiful voice. Barbara bobs her head in time, not knowing the words. She joins in loudly with the English songs: "Down by the Rio Grande, one step, two step, three step, four, let's dance the cowboy cumbia…"

"It's a connection," Barbara says. "Everybody needs a social connection, someway, somehow."

"This is mentual," Castillo, 52, says in Spanglish. "Mentual, that's like therapy."

By 10 p.m., the crowd packs up and leaves, Evelia and Barbara having to return by 6 a.m. to prepare the day's food.

Making a Quiet Life
The lament of Mariachi singer Vicente Fernandez played on an old stereo and filled the three-bedroom house occupied by seven workmen from Mexico. And between the sorrowful "gritos," or shouts, that the tragic Mariachi are known to let out after a particularly painful verse, the men spoke of what Long Island offers them, after it has taken its share.

"Everything we have, is what they didn't want," said one of the men, a broad-shouldered worker in his mid-20s who like the others asked that his name be withheld because of his status as an undocumented immigrant.

"The TV is from the trash. The stereo is from the trash. And the sofa is from the trash," he said, his eyes scanning the living room where a few of the men ate their dinner of beans, rice and tortillas washed down with a Corona beer. "Even the work we do is what they refuse to do."

Another young man heard the frank words and added: "A friend of mine. He was riding down the street on his bicycle and a car passed by and someone spit at him. They don't hurt us with their fist, but they injure us with words and their actions."

They live on the western outskirts of Farmingville, afraid to spend too much time in their yard because, they say, when they tried to move into the center of town a group of residents heckled them.

"I guess they thought we were day laborers, but we have regular work," said one of the men, pointing out that some had been there as long as six seasons, others at least three. They commonly stay during the summer months when there is work and leave in the winter, a stretch from March to November where the contractor who hired them awaits their return.

Meanwhile, in this non-descript house on a corner of Holbrook, they have made a life from themselves outside of the 10-hour workdays they pull on a blacktop crew.

They keep their dwelling as tidy as seven men are likely to because they are brothers and cousins and neighbors from the same place. It is a city called Mixquiahuala that is the birthplace of so many Farmingville laborers that you are as likely to overhear the name in their conversations as often as you hear other words, like "sueldo," or pay, and "patrón," boss.

It is a place they return to every winter to find the welcoming arms of wives and girlfriends and can see the fruits of their labor in the brick houses they have built with American money where crumbling clapboards once stood. But they point out the money was hard-earned, not only in the tough workshifts but in enduring life in a place where they say they are reluctant to go outside and kick a soccerball for fear of drawing another group of angry neighbors.

They are paid in cash, have no health insurance and see it all as part of a trade-off in which the United States mostly benefits.

"When I buy a shirt, or something to eat, I pay taxes," said the same young man who told the story of the friend who was spat upon.

"People ask us why we don't want to be a part of this country," said another of the men. "The answer is we don't have the opportunity to stay because of immigration laws. And no one has a problem with us in Mexico like they do on Long Island. They don't treat us like animals."

A Bad Rap
Although her body is planted in a white plastic patio chair, Beth Fennell's eyes are getting a workout. They dart back and forth from one end of the playground to the other, making sure her charges at the Teacher's Pet Preschool in Farmingville are safe.

"If everyone saw the world through the eyes of a 3-year-old, there would be no problems," Fennell says with a sigh as a dozen little legs scurry from plastic toy to plastic toy in front of her. "They don't see the differences."

Fennell lives on the border of Farmingville and Ronkonkoma. She has watched her community wrestle with the issue of Latin American immigrants and worries about how outsiders perceive it.

"This is just your everyday, average community but it's gotten a bad rap," she says. But even Fennell is amazed when she is going about her daily routine and she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a Farmingville on the edge of transformation. "It trickles down into every area - education, business, religion. It affects everyone."

When Fennell goes into Compare Foods, she says, she feels a tingle of unease run through her. "You see what they must feel like when they come to this country, being the white woman among all of these ethnic foods," she says.

And when she drives down Horseblock Road in the morning in an SUV, the workers come right up to her, she says. "If you're not familiar with it and you're alone, you're not going to feel comfortable with a group of men coming up to your car," Fennell said. "It's a different town between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m."

Still, Fennell empathizes with the workers. "We need to find a place for them," she says. "In Louisiana [after Hurricane Katrina], we're rescuing animals. Why aren't we doing that for people? I have a situation on my block [with illegal housing], I understand. But there are people here living in the woods and we're worrying about dogfood for animals in Louisiana?"

There is a caveat: "Not that we have to pay for it, but if they're willing to pay for it."

Fennell says extremes on both side of the issue are giving an unfair picture of Farmingville. "Those people out there picketing, they don't represent the average person," Fennell says.

Another teacher at the school, Donna Esposito, 40, said that as a mother of two young children, what upsets her most is inequality in school.

"I'm here paying taxes so they can learn English and my daughter doesn't get to learn Spanish," Esposito says. "It's not that their kids shouldn't go to school, but it should be equal."

She is also upset that the immigrants can use services, such as hospitals, and walk away without having to pay the hefty bill. "That's unfair," she says. "It's so hard to live here as it is."

Yet Esposito sees a hypocrisy with some who voice displeasure about the influx of immigrant day laborers. "I have neighbors who complain about the day laborers, yet they go get them to do their yard clean-ups and cement work," she says. "They complain that they're here but then they're here because people are hiring them."

Esposito, who has lived in Farmingville for 12 years, said that although she has heard talk of the day laborer situation causing housing prices to deflate, she has yet to see any proof. She said she recently had her house appraised and its value is more than double what she paid six years ago. "So I don't know how much it's really impacting, unless you happen to be next door to one of these houses with 20 people," she says.

"It's clean-up time!" Fennell yells and the children scramble like obedient soldiers, grabbing their toys and putting them away.

One Woman's Fight
Sitting on the front stoop of her house on a corner of Horseblock Road in the center of Farmingville, Jane Reilly stares at the white two-story house across the street. A birds' nest of cable wires dangles in a tangled heap across the front bushes where various soda bottles and wrappers lie discarded. A row of shoes leads up to the front door, next to a large blue and white cooler. From a window, a picture of Che Guevara stares back at her.

"The town had to fix the pipe for the water," Reilly says, motioning to the bottom of her driveway. "They make u-turns in the driveway so much that they hit the pipe and damaged it."

She does not know their names but she has mapped out a blueprint of who her neighbors are. The woman upstairs has a family with small children and runs a food business where she cooks meals all day and then delivers them to day laborers' houses around Farmingville. On the first floor and, more recently, the basement, live at least 30 day laborers, Reilly, 45, says. When the front door is left open, she says, she can see the sheetrock that has been erected to section off rooms.

"Who knows what the cesspool system is like," says Reilly, a 10-year resident and mother of two sons. "And with all those wires - God forbid the thing goes on fire. You've got kids living next door. It's a scary situation."

For a year and a half, Reilly has been watching. She has circulated a petition, taken pictures and written letters, documenting all of the problems she witnesses: Loud music in the middle of the night, men urinating in the yard, contractors speeding down the street, honking their horns starting at 6 a.m. She has seen men changing out-of-state license plates on cars and had to have the town tow away one car that was left in front of the house with flat tires, smashed in windows and no license plates.

"I should start tape-recording," she says. "Last night they were yelling and cursing at each other. I don't think we need to hear that, I don't care who it is."

"If you want to rent to tenants, fine, but it's gotten out of hand," Reilly says.

And her quest to get the house emptied has nothing to do with their race, she says.

"People always say it's because they're immigrants," she says. "It's not, it's the traffic, it's the noise. If there were 50 white people living in there it'd be the same thing."

The influx of immigrants in Farmingville has affected more than the view from her front stoop. Reilly says the amount of men hanging around the 7-11, the contractors stopping in the middle of the road to pick up workers and the police cars clogging nearby parking lots to make sure there are no clashes with anti-immigrant groups have caused her to change her routes at certain times of the day.

"I hate going up to that corner on a Saturday morning," she says. "I can't even go to the bank on a Saturday morning without worrying about it."

A truck drops off workers who quickly go inside. "I don't know what the answer is," she says. "I understand why contractors hire them. Teenagers don't want to do the work. But there has to be a solution that gives better living conditions for them."

Two Backgrounds, One Life
Neves and her husband Paulo are relaxing at their Ridge home on a fall Sunday, doing what many suburban families do: mowing the lawn, watching football games and just enjoying time together. Their energetic two-year-old son, Benjamin, with brown hair falling into his eyes and a devilish smile creeping across his face, is running across the wooden floor when he trips.

"Mau!" he says, telling the floor in Portuguese that it is bad. Neves asks him in Spanish if he wants some juice: "Quieres jugo?"

She pours him some iced tea and then props him up on the couch. But Benjamin is already one step ahead, reaching for a picture book of animals. He points to each animal and Neves tells him the word in both Spanish and English, "Gato, Cat." Benjamin points to anything and everything on the pages, including the grass. "Comida de Vaca" Neves says with a sigh and a smile.

Paulo is trying to get one-year-old Felipe to quiet down and take a nap. This is his only day off from his job doing road construction, working side by side with three Mexican immigrants who have been in this country for 20 years. Paulo came from Portugal to Farmingville illegally 16 years ago, following his father and brother. By his second day in the country he was hard at work in the construction industry. Having grown up close to the border of Spain, he knew Spanish. "There were only two channels on television in Portuguese," he says with a laugh. "Spain had four channels. Neves, 28, came by herself to the U.S. from Queretaro, Mexico, in December 2000, leaving behind a seven-year-old son, Mario. She arrived in Farmingville and went to the corner of Horseblock Road and North Ocean Avenue, hoping someone would help her find a job and a place to live. She rented a room and got work cleaning houses. Two years later, while working for her aunt cleaning rooms in a resort in Vermont, she met her future husband who had immigrated to Farmingville in 1989.

The couple received their share of scorn when they married. Bringing his wife into a Portuguese restaurant in Farmingville and telling people she was from Mexico brought looks of shock. "They would look at him like why are you with this Mexican girl?" Neves says.

Neves, who graduated from college in Mexico and taught biology and math in a middle school there, came to the U.S. to learn English, a skill she thought she could bring back to her country. "I thought I can come back and I have a plus when I teach," she says. When she arrived she began attending some free English classes in Coram and eventually found her way to the advanced ESL classes at Suffolk Community College. She still hopes to teach, though with her marriage her plans have taken a bit of a detour. Now she wants to get a degree in education here in the U.S. and teach high school Spanish or elementary school math.

"That's my dream, to become a teacher," she says proudly.

With her family and now 12-year-old son still in her native country, she wonders about possibly moving back one day. "But it's hard to think about going back to Mexico," she says. "We established here."

"Here" is a brown, two-story house with white shutters on an out-of-the way, tree-flanked road in Ridge. A patch of daisies and a wooden apple with "Neves" written on it welcomes visitors. Inside, their commitment and life together peek out from every corner to greet guests, from the wood-framed pictures of the couple and their two children to the Aztec sun, flanked on either side by their names, that is tattooed on Janet's lower back.

Their home life is an amalgamation of cultures that probably few foresaw when Mexican immigrants began replacing the Portuguese on construction jobs in Farmingville more than a decade ago. Mexican frijoles and Portuguese canned fish sit side by side in the pantry. Paulo speaks Portuguese to his wife and sons. Janet speaks Spanish to Paulo and the boys. Together the family sits and watches television in English.

"He can speak in any of the three languages and he can understand anything you say to him," Janet says of Benjamin. Felipe is being raised the same way.

The inspiration to teach her children different languages came to her in Wal-Mart. She was shopping when she watched store workers try to help a little Hispanic boy who had become separated from his mother. The boy could not speak any English and could not communicate to the workers anything about himself or his mother.

"God forbid something like that happens to me," Neves says. "I want my kids to be capable of expressing themselves in English while they are in this country, or in Spanish if they are in Mexico or in Portuguese if they are in Portugal. It is important to have that."

Paulo only recently became a citizen. "Nowadays it's getting harder and harder to get the papers," he says as his wife nods her head. She's in the process of trying to get her Green Card and is frustrated that she cannot get a driver's license. Relying on her husband for transportation, she worries about what she'll do if the children get sick while he's at work. "They give me a credit card, but no driver's license," she says with a wry smile.

Her 12-year-old son Mario is trying to get the proper paperwork so that he can come visit her in the U.S. She hasn't seen him in five years but talks to him regularly online and keeps two pictures of him on the entertainment center in the living room, one of him at age 7 before she left and one from now. "He's a man now," she says proudly holding the pictures side by side, the boyish features morphing into stronger lines and angles in his face. "Look how he's changed."

She and Paulo have talked about moving to Mexico, but he needs another 15 years on the job to collect his pension. "This is something I started 11 years ago," he says."If I quit now all those 11 years will have gone to waste... "I'm a citizen so I'm a free man in this country, I can come and go as I please," he says, and then laughs as he realizes the irony. "Of course, I'll be taking money from this country and bringing it down there. But I won't be the first to do that!"