Five years ago, Manuel Melgar, then 17, was cashing a check in Greenfield when two federal agents came up and asked for a green card. Before he knew it, he was handcuffed and on a bus to Mexico.
Today Melgar, one of 40 indigenous Oaxacans deported in the April 2001 sweep by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, is back working the rows of grapes that stretch from Highway 101 to the Santa Lucia Mountains.
And indigenous Oaxacans, once afraid of law enforcement, now loiter outside the police station and even venture inside to ask questions.
“If we don’t break the laws, the police won’t bother us,” Melgar said.
The raids, which outraged the predominantly Latino area, became a turning point for this farming town of 12,000, forcing it to deal with its most invisible and vulnerable population – indigenous immigrants from Mexico living in tool sheds, garages and packed apartments, many of whom speak neither English nor Spanish.
In an area filled with Mexican immigrants, Triquis and Mixtecs from Mexico’s second-poorest state are isolated from stable work, language training, decent living conditions and adequate health care.
“They were sort of underground. At that time, people became aware,” said Raul Rodriguez, manager of a local bakery. “That was sort of the spring board for this momentum.”
Today Greenfield has translators for indigenous residents, a Spanish-indigenous language radio show broadcasting public service and health information, health-care outreach workers at the local clinic, loan help for indigenous residents starting businesses and Police Chief Joe Grebmeier, a 30-year resident of the area who has made a point of reaching out to the indigenous community since he took over the department three years ago.
“When I first came here in the ’70s I saw things that can be classified as an American version of apartheid,” Grebmeier said. “I didn’t like it then; I don’t like it now.”
Before 2001, many indigenous Oaxacans felt police singled them out, said Eulogio Solano, a Mixtec community leader who has lived in Greenfield since 1991, pulling them over for minor infractions and impounding their cars.
“All my friends have cars and every week the police took away our cars – like once a week. But now it’s not as frequent,” said Juan Pedro de Jesus, who was deported in the 2001 raids and like Melgar is back in Greenfield.
Cultural differences and fear led to other problems. In one case an indigenous Oaxacan managed to fend off a would-be mugger only to throw his wallet in fear at an approaching police officer. In another, a recent immigrant went to the laundry to wash his only pair of clothes, only to find himself charged with indecent exposure.
Trouble intensified after the 2001 raids, which started when some parents complained that Triqui men loitering on the street were harassing schoolgirls. Instead of going to police, a crossing guard took the matter to the INS, now called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that raided six meat-packing plants Dec. 12 in Midwestern and Mountain States, rounding up scores of illegal immigrants.
While there is debate over how much Greenfield police were involved, the indigenous community felt they were responsible, deepening the mistrust.
After the raids, groups such as the United Farm Workers and the Citizenship Project, a Teamsters Union group advocating for Mexican immigrants, urged the city council to publicly condemn the INS sweeps and got a divided council to pass a largely symbolic resolution demanding agents notify local police in the future.
But change didn’t really start until 2003, when the council hired Grebmeier, who decided to employ the basic tenets of community policing, seeking to decrease crime by increasing interaction between police and all communities in town.
In his tan sport coat, wire-rimmed glasses and buzz cut, Grebmeier looks like a character from 1980s sitcom “Barney Miller,” but talks like a sociology professor. He can cite Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and early 20th century Turkish history when talking about policing, then demonstrate how to drop a man with one well-placed thumb.
Grebmeier started by pushing out many officers he felt bullied the indigenous community. Only five of the current 17-man department were on the force before the new chief took over. He organized monthly community meetings, where officials and social service agencies pass information to the Mixtec and Triqui through volunteer translators.
Less than 30 people attended the first meeting in 2003 and mostly yelled at police. Over time, both sides were able to share concerns and learn to work together, said Agapito Vazquez, a Greenfield city councilmember.
“The meetings help poor people a lot,” said Triqui resident Andres Bautista.
As the town’s chief law enforcer, Grebmeier acknowledges many indigenous Oaxacans are undocumented and breaking the law, but he defends his approach to policing.
“There’s the academic viewpoint, there’s the political viewpoint,” he said of illegal immigration. “As a chief of police, I have to deal with reality, and the reality is the mission I’ve been given is to serve the community.”
Less than a year after Grebmeier became chief, members of the Oaxacan community presented him with a plaque reading: “Thank you for all your help and support in welcoming us to your community. Thank you from the families of Oaxaca, Mexico.”
Despite such praise, there is still work to be done. Not all indigenous Oaxacans in Greenfield trust and work with the police. Most come with genuine terror of law enforcement because of corruption, bullying and violence by police authorities back home.
That mistrust makes it difficult for Greenfield police to fight crime. Many indigenous Oaxacans are robbery targets because they don’t trust banks and carry around as much as $10,000 in cash, said Mike Rice, a Greenfield police officer.
Alcohol is another problem in the community where it is not uncommon to find drunk men passed out on front lawns. With alcoholism comes domestic violence and many women, fearful of the police and losing the family’s primary provider, don’t report abuse, Rice said.
While Greenfield has actively reached out to indigenous Oaxacans, neighboring towns in the Salinas Valley, where more than 30,000 indigenous immigrants are estimated to live, lag in their efforts.
Soledad, to the north, has no specific programs and no Mixtec or Triqui translators to work with the indigenous community, police Chief Richard Cox said, adding that so far it hasn’t been a problem. But he acknowledged he doesn’t know the size of the indigenous community in his city and said there could be some living in the shadows as was the case in Greenfield before the raid.
King City, only 10 miles south of Greenfield, also has no programs to work with the indigenous community.
“They treat them differently because the police officers are not aware of the different customs and ways of living,” Vazquez said. “Here in Greenfield, it used to be that way.”
©2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism