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August 30, 2011 > Latino-indigenous Mexican divide stirs California town

Latino-indigenous Mexican divide stirs California town

By Gosia Wozniacka, The Associated Press

GREENFIELD, Calif. (AP), Aug 13 - Down wind-swept El Camino Real, where women in shawls push strollers and old men in cowboy hats linger on dusty benches, farmworkers spill from white contractor buses. From the main drag, it's only blocks to the fields and vineyards that sustain this peaceful town in the Salinas Valley, ``the Salad Bowl of the World.''

But there's tension in this part of John Steinbeck Country.

Nearly all of Greenfield's 16,300 people are Latino - and yet an ugly conflict has been brewing between longer-time residents and newcomers from another part of Mexico. Established residents say a massive influx of migrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca has changed their city for the worse.

Over the past decade, the migrants - Triquis, Mixtecs and other indigenous people who streamed from small mountain villages to Greenfield to plant and pick crops - spurred Greenfield's growth and now make up about a third of the town's population. (They represent up to 30 percent of farmworkers in California and 17 percent nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor says.)

They speak their own languages, not Spanish, they keep their own customs, such as arranged marriages, and, despite a longstanding tradition of sanctuary and tolerance in Greenfield, they remain separate.

In a town feeling heavily pressured by the economic crisis and gang activity, the influx of Oaxacans and their lack of understanding of U.S. customs has led to an ethnic clash.

It's a new round in a conflict as old as the United States, in which successive waves of immigrants have often feuded with each other. But what's happening in Greenfield is distinct, partly because the split here pits immigrants rooted in the same country, but also because of the hard look it's forcing the town to take at itself.

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Rachel Ortiz became so displeased with the new migrants that, after more than five decades in Greenfield, she left her cul-de-sac home and moved to Salinas, 30 miles away.

Ortiz and others in newly-formed community groups complained that the Oaxacan families clustered in overcrowded apartments and garages, threw trash into the streets, thronged city parks, held loud parties. Some urinated in public and were involved in break-ins.

``It's fine when you live over there in Oaxaca,'' said Ortiz, 53, whose grandfather came from Mexico. ``But here things are done differently. Here you have to maintain your home, your children, your job and yourself.''

Ortiz, who works for a seed company on the edge of town, helped form ``Beautify Greenfield.'' The group's goal was to clean up graffiti, trash and weeds. Its members decried the dilapidated apartment complexes scattered among neatly trimmed lawns and modest homes, the boarded-up windows splashed with gang insignia and rows of foreclosed homes.

Members of the group and its offshoot, ``Save Greenfield,'' quickly pushed into city politics. They took to city council meetings, social media sites and local newspapers to air a series of escalating grievances against the Oaxacans.

Among Beautify Greenfield's charges: The new migrants ruined the town financially, ``destroyed'' its school system, caused violent crimes and were part of gangs, which are pervasive in the Salinas Valley. The migrants, ``invaders from the south,'' should be deported.

The community groups were, in turn, labeled racist by the press and migrant leaders.

An unfair label, Ortiz said, considering members of Beautify Greenfield are mostly Mexican-American. The group was not against the Oaxacans per say, but just wanted to get rid of blight and crime, she said.

And she blamed Greenfield's Anglo police chief for favoring the migrants and allowing the city to deteriorate.

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After a federal immigration raid in 2001, Greenfield city leaders voted in a symbolic sanctuary policy, and for seven years the city held monthly meetings - with the police chief a presiding figure - to help the Oaxacans adapt.

Today, Triqui leader Andres Cruz said he is shocked by the sudden shift in attitude of his once welcoming adopted city.

``We're all human beings, and some of us make mistakes. That doesn't mean the whole community is bad,'' said Cruz, who is 50.

Yes, there's great distance, geographically and culturally, between Greenfield and Oaxaca. Cruz's native Rio Venado, like many other indigenous villages, was isolated among jagged mountains. Villagers lacked drinking water, bathrooms, street lights, trash deposits and other comforts of civilization. Many couldn't even afford shoes.

Villagers cultivated crops - corn, beans, squash and coffee - within a communal farming system. They adhered to a strictly patriarchal society, practiced mandatory community service and arranged marriages with dowries.

At 13, to help his family make ends meet, Cruz left to work in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Baja California, and then 20 years later pushed on to Greenfield. He watched the community grow as the U.S. government clamped down on the border and crossings with a coyote became expensive and dangerous. Instead of going back and forth to their villages, indigenous people brought their families and stayed. Cruz got married and had three children, all born in Greenfield, all U.S. citizens.

But over time, Greenfield came to reflect some of the differences found in the old country. Dr. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education, said the migrants brought remnants of racial and socio-economic conflict from Mexico, a multi-ethnic nation where 62 Indian groups still operate within their own language and culture. Oaxaca is Mexico's most diverse state, with 16 such groups.

In Mexico, Rivera-Salgado said, indigenous people are treated with prejudice, considered uneducated and inferior. The migrants - with their typically shorter stature and darker skin, pre-Hispanic languages and lack of legal immigration documents - stuck out in Greenfield, a city where established immigrants spoke English, had moved up the economic ladder and won their citizenship through birth or naturalization.

The migrants faced a double language barrier. Schools, clinics and even grocery stores posed tremendous challenges. So did poverty - on average, farmworkers earn about $10,000 per year. In the fields, the Indians often got paid less than other Latinos.

Still, Cruz said, it was better than going hungry in Oaxaca.

And at first, in Greenfield the government welcomed them and offered help.

``A light was born for us here,'' Cruz said. ``The council, the police chief, they saw our poverty and the needs of our people and they have been very human with us.''

Cruz and other indigenous leaders have had trouble grasping the meaning of Beautify Greenfield.

``It's a shame,'' said Eulogio Solano, a Mixtec leader. ``Their fathers or grandfathers came to this country in the same way that our people are coming now.''

Said UCLA's Rivera-Salgado: ``After a group gets here and gets established, they tend to close the door behind them. There's always been this exclusion, especially in moments of crisis.''

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Greenfield's police chief Joe Grebmeier says he's an Anglo with a Mexican heart. He once proclaimed that apartheid-like conditions were prevalent in the Salinas Valley and he would not tolerate them in Greenfield.

Grebmeier, 56, who became chief in 2003, began to hold regular meetings to address Oaxacans' fear of police and teach them about U.S. law enforcement.

At the meetings, Cruz and others translated into Triqui and Mixtec laws on drunk driving, domestic violence and underage sex. Grebmeier focused on street lights and stop signs, urinating in public and keeping farm animals. Hundreds of indigenous migrants attended.

When residents asked him why he didn't arrest the ``illegals,'' Grebmeier countered that hounding immigrants was not his job. And for the most part, federal immigration agents rarely conducted large sweeps in communities like Greenfield, populated by large numbers of undocumented farmworkers.

``These are hard-working, honest people who came here for the same reasons all immigrants came before them,'' Grebmeier said, ``to make better lives for their families and their kids.''

Over time, the scope of the meetings expanded. Teachers encouraged indigenous parents to read to their kids and attend parent-teacher conferences, counselors spoke about alcohol abuse, and nurses discussed diabetes. Then there were other issues.

In 2009, when a Triqui man was arrested in Greenfield after sending his 14-year-old daughter to marry a neighbor in exchange for beer, meat and cash, the news exploded into a national media sensation. Originally, the man faced charges of human trafficking and was accused of selling his daughter. But Grebmeier later concluded it was a case of arranged marriage and dowry exchange, which he used as a teaching moment. At the meetings, the chief explained that U.S. law prohibits such practices. The man was later deported.

But some locals complained that Grebmeier sheltered Oaxacans from the law. And the Greenfield city council canceled the meetings.

To members of Beautify Greenfield and Save Greenfield, the chief came to exemplify everything that had gone wrong.

Greenfield, Ortiz said, was once an ideal town. In the past, farmworkers - Mexican braceros, who came legally to work in agriculture - rarely ventured beyond the migrant camp outside city limits, where Ortiz's mother cooked their meals and where Ortiz grew up.

Today, she said, farmworkers live in the city and they are allowed to follow a different set of rules.

While some migrant defenders said they dropped offending habits after learning they were unacceptable, Ortiz said the chief's monthly meetings didn't teach the Oaxacans ``anything.'' She also said the meetings were illegal, because they were open only to Oaxacans - a claim Grebmeier denies. Others accused the chief of embezzlement and participating in gang activity.

In the words of Save Greenfield member Matt Sileveira, Grebmeier's favoritism amounted to ``extreme prejudice.''

``All we want,'' said Silveira, who is of Portuguese descent, ``is equal laws in the town.''

Because of the chief's failure to enforce the law, Ortiz and Silveira said, crime increased. Beautify Greenfield kept count: 18 murders in 7 years, 16 unsolved. Grebmeier said those figures included some Greenfield residents killed in other cities. The actual number of homicides in Greenfield was 14 during that time period.

In any event, crime compounded the migrants' negative impact, Ortiz said, causing some people to move away, leaving Greenfield with foreclosed homes and failed businesses. ``If anybody were to say it's all because of the Oaxacans, they would be wrong,'' Ortiz said. ``But they're part of the reason.''

Ortiz and others pushed for an audit of the police department, which a divided city council approved in February.

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In April, about 300 indigenous men, women and children jammed the Greenfield city council chamber in support of Grebmeier. Some wore hand-woven, bright red huipils, traditional dresses and blouses. They waved red flags with the farmworker union's black eagle and held up ``No to racism'' signs.

Cruz and other indigenous leaders expressed gratitude for the police chief and their opposition to the audit. ``The police chief is like a blanket,'' Solano, the Mixtec leader, said. ``If they take off the blanket, they will be free to bring in someone like Arpaio'' - a reference to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for tough anti-immigrant enforcement.

To Greenfield Mayor John Huerta, Jr., who voted against the audit, the conflict was about his city's very identity. ``We have these hard core passionate feelings about how we identify ourselves as a city,'' he said. ``Are we a farmworker community or do we promote a retail center and become more of an established upper income area where you have less lower income people? It's got to be a combination of both, but we're basically an agricultural town.''

Grebmeier told city leaders that he gave no special treatment to the migrants: ``If they commit a crime, we arrest them.''

The increase in violent crime throughout the Salinas Valley, he said, was caused by gangs and their drug wars, not the influx of Oaxacan farmworkers. The homicide rate in nearby Salinas had doubled over the past few years and in 2009 stood over four times the national average. A gang member had even made an unsuccessful run for the Greenfield City Council. The indigenous migrants, Grebmeier said, were most often victims of crime, not criminals.

``During troubled economic times,'' Grebmeier said, ``it's not unusual to blame the newcomers.''

Instead, said United Farm Workers' vice-president Efren Barajas, long-time residents should accept the newcomers and their differences. ``They're here and we need to live together in peace,'' Barajas said. ``They're working here, raising their families, and they're not going anywhere. So it's better to make a carne asada with them in the park than to resist their presence.''

At the end of June, the city council announced results of the police audit. Auditors found that the department was understaffed, officers used too much overtime, and some were late on training.

And earlier this month, in another packed meeting, the city council adopted a resolution of intent to eliminate the local police department, instead outsourcing policing to the Monterey County sheriff. The council would still need to vote on whether to approve the contract.

City manager Brent Slama said Greenfield has suffered severe losses in the collapse of the housing market and construction industry, and simply lacked funds to sustain its police.

Grebmeier wonders if this is the finale of a long campaign against his department. ``There's always a chance I may lose my job and I'm concerned, but I don't see it happening,'' he said. ``I think we'll adapt until the economy improves. What keeps me in this fight is how many people support us.''

His department was chosen by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for a civil rights award recognizing its efforts in working with the indigenous community. Meantime, local supporters filed a petition to recall the councilors who supported the audit.

Looking ahead, the only certainty here lies in the verdant fields that surround Greenfield.

On a recent afternoon, under a blazing sun, Cruz walked down a never-ending row in a cabbage plot, bending to pull weeds with his calloused hands. Other indigenous workers weeded along parallel rows.

The Triqui leader was frustrated. His people were afraid. New migrants continued streaming in from Oaxaca for the harvest, and didn't have the benefits of the monthly meetings. Cruz said he didn't know what the future of his community would hold.

But he was happy to have a job.

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