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Protests over police shooting resonate all the way to Guatemala

The remote, indigenous village of Xexac mourns and vows to fight over the death of Manuel Jaminez Xum, a day laborer shot in a confrontation with LAPD officers in Westlake this month.

September 26, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Reporting from Caserio Xexac, Guatemala

It was just before 11 a.m. when Isabel Marroquin Tambriz once more began to cry. Her wails were so piercing they rose above the brass band. They traveled down the dirt paths of the village, which grew ever more crowded with mourners.

"Walijoq caewaj!" she yelled over and over in Quiche. Wake up, my love. Wake up, my love.

In a casket outside her cinder-block home lay the body of her husband, Manuel Jaminez Xum. He was dressed in a pinstripe three-piece suit, finer than anything he'd worn when he was alive.

Following Maya tradition, his family had filled the coffin with the few clothes he owned so his spirit would not return to haunt them. For protection in the afterlife, near his right arm, they tucked a sword carved out of wood.

Los Angeles police say the 37-year-old man, whom acquaintances in California had identified as Manuel Jamines, was drunk and threatening two women with a knife when an officer shot him Sept. 5 in Westlake. Word of the shooting prompted protests in the neighborhood, where angry residents threw things at police.

In Guatemala, too, his death was news. Political leaders spoke out in his defense. And the day before his funeral, a throng of media lined up in Guatemala City for the arrival of the day laborer's body, flown back from Los Angeles, where he had lived for seven years.

Five hours to the west in his damp, lush village on the steep slope of a small volcano named Xac, or Charred One, the Maya community of 2,000 reacted to the shooting with shock and indignation. In the decade or so since they began sending their men to the United States, Jaminez Xum was the first to have died there.

Like many of the 6 million Mayas who make up nearly half of Guatemala's population, the people of Xexac have little to do with the outside world. They speak to each other in the Maya highlands language of Quiche. They cook with firewood. Converts to Christianity, they have six churches in the village but only two cars. Some of the young boys have skinny jeans and spiky hair, but the women dress in traditional knitted skirts and cotton shirts embroidered with brilliantly colored flowers.

Ten years ago, many in Xexac had never seen Guatemala City, let alone the United States.

"We didn't know what Los Estados Unidos meant," said Diego Guarchaj y Guarchaj, a childhood friend of Jaminez Xum.

Then a man from the village followed his wife's relatives to Westlake and changed everything.

Diego Ixquiactap began to make money, hundreds of dollars each week. He started buying village land and built something never before seen in this world of wooden shacks: a white-washed, concrete block house with arched windows and doorway.

"It was beautiful," Guarchaj y Guarchaj said. "Everyone saw it and knew we had to go too."

In the years that followed, 60 to 70 men left Xexac, most of them to join brothers and cousins as day laborers in Westlake. They borrowed $3,500 to $5,000 from private lenders in nearby towns to pay their smugglers. And they agreed to pay 10% to 20% interest on the loans each month once they got to Los Angeles.

It was a risky decision.

Those who found steady work soon paid off their debt and began to construct their houses in Xexac — hacienda-like structures in pastel colors with Spanish colonial-style columns, spacious porches and wrought-iron windows. Those who struggled saw their debt climb and only seemed to worsen their families' plight.

Jaminez Xum, an orphan raised by an uncle from the age of 2, decided to take his chances in 2003 when he realized that the $15 a week he was making in the coffee plantations would never be enough to properly care for his wife and his three young sons. Tired of living in a dark, cinder-block room with a dirt floor, no bathroom and nothing but wooden planks to sleep on, he wanted a real home with a garden and a porch.

His wife imagined it too as she walked past the nice homes built with money from America.

"It's good," Isabel told him. "You should go."

They borrowed about $5,000 in two loans — one at 15% and one at 20%. The family's small plot of land was collateral. And even if he died, the debt would not be forgiven.

The night before he left with 15 other men from the village, Jaminez Xum said goodbye to his uncle, Manuel Esquipulas Jaminez. The old man long known as a leader in the village told him to be careful and to return home quickly. He already had four sons in Westlake, and he asked them to look after Jaminez Xum.

"I told him, 'May God bless you,'" Esquipulas Jaminez said, holding a faded childhood photo of his nephew. "And no matter what, I said, 'Don't ever drink alcohol and don't give in to vices.'"

Jaminez Xum soon found himself in a crowded concrete world he couldn't have imagined, despite how many times others had described it. Gone were the tropical butterflies that fluttered after people like fairies, the golden cones of beehive ginger that grew wild in the ravines, the Maza River that roared by his home.

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