Greenfield cops break barriers at ongoing meetings with the city’s Oaxacan community.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
Sitting in the Greenfield High School cafeteria, indigenous Oaxacans listen as Councilman Agapito Vazquez speaks in Spanish about trusting California Highway Patrol officers. Andrés Garcia Cruz then translates Vazquez’s words into the native tongue for the Triquis on the right side of the room. Mixtecs fill two rows on the left.
Vazquez, dressed in jeans with a grape bunch belt buckle, makes a joke about dancing the Macarena and puts his hands on the back of his head like he is being frisked. Suit-clad Greenfield Police Chief Joe Grebmeier – known as “el jefe” – plays along and takes out his handcuffs, spreading smiles and laughter.
“EVEN IF THEY WERE BEATEN UP, ROBBED, THEY WOULDN’T REPORT IT.”
Every month, the city hosts these informational meetings with the Oaxacan community, covering topics from reporting crimes to using birth control. Most Triquis and Mixtecs work in the fields but are culturally and linguistically isolated from their Spanish-speaking Mexican co-workers. When the meetings started nearly six years ago, Vazquez says, the indigenous people were afraid of police.
“Even if they were beaten up, robbed, they wouldn’t report it,” he says. “They felt that police here in the states was the same as in Mexico.”
Now there are stronger ties between Oaxacans and police. Case in point: In December, Triqui father Marcelino de Jesus Martinez originally contacted the cops to get his 14-year-old daughter back but then allegedly arranged her marriage to 18-year-old groom Margarito do Jesus Galindo for a dowry of $16,000, meat and beer. Grebmeier caught international attention when he issued a juicy press release titled “Human Trafficking,” and thus, the “U.S. father sells daughter for beer” story was born.
Martinez pleaded no contest to one felony count of child endangerment in exchange for probation and up to one year in jail. His attorney, Miguel Hernandez, maintains Galindo’s family kidnapped the teenage daughter. Martinez’s sentencing is scheduled for May 7.
These days, all press releases must be OK’d by City Hall. Still, Grebmeier says, the teen-bride case hasn’t affected his department’s connection to Oaxacans. “We have the same working relationship,” he says.
A few weeks prior to Martinez’s arrest, Grebmeier says he hosted a meeting about underage marriage being illegal. “We have always been up front with everybody,” he says. “Culture doesn’t trump the law. I can’t believe [Martinez] came in and acted as if we weren’t going to do anything.”
Cruz says it is difficult for Triquis to understand local laws because many are illiterate.
“It’s really hard for them to learn the law when they don’t know the language either,” he says in Spanish through a translator.
Arranged marriages are customary among Triquis, Cruz says, but the dowry is never intended to sell a daughter’s hand. Rather, its purpose is to show the husband-to-be has a vested interest in her welfare. (Plus, the money funds a big party.)
Young girls marrying older men is typical as well, Cruz says, because the men are more financially stable.
“We understand that it’s against the law,” Cruz adds, “but based on our way of life it’s normal.”