The killing of a beloved cook in October was the latest in what the Mexican consulate general in San Francisco says are targeted attacks against the city’s Mayan community.
“This is something that we are very worried about,” said Carlos Isauro Felix-Diaz, the consul general. “For us it’s fundamental to prevent these types of circumstances in which our countrymen, the Yucatecos, have been involved in these attacks.”
Jose Chuc Mul, 40, a cook, was involved in an Oct. 16 confrontation with about a dozen men near 16th and Valencia streets at around 2 a.m. He was brutally beaten and died from his injuries days after the incident, police said.
In response, the consulate arranged a meeting in November between leaders in the Mayan community and Police Chief Greg Suhr, to discuss safety measures.
Asociacion Mayab, a Mission nonprofit serving the Mayan community in San Francisco, demanded that the police department hire a translator to work with the community, which has grown from 15,000 to 20,000 in the last decade.
“I hear you, Chief, say there are programs at the Mission Station that provide service in Spanish, and that’s great, but in the case of our community it is not enough,” said Alberto Perez, Asociacion Mayab’s director of programs. “There are a lot of people in our community who are bilingual, speaking Spanish and Mayan, but a lot of them prefer to talk in Mayan, and even more so in situations that are so stressful, like talking to a police officer.”
Following the meeting, the chief agreed to arrange for Mayan translators.
Community leaders also told the police chief that the main perpetrators are gang members, homeless people and serial thieves. Mayans are targeted, the organizers said, because they work late at night, are known to carry cash and are a vulnerable population that’s not likely to report crimes due to language barriers and mistrust.
“One of the biggest problems is with the homeless people who attack the Latino guys,” said Angel Granados, the president of the Federacion de Clubes Yucatecos del Norte de California, an organization representing Mayan communities throughout the Bay Area. “Sometimes [the homeless] get angry and just chase them.”
At the meeting, Suhr provided basic safety tips, such as never wearing blue or red — gang colors. He also suggested walking on Valencia Street at night rather than sparsely traveled streets where most incidents occur.
“About eight out of 10 homeless people suffer from some sort of mental illness or alcohol or drug problem,” Suhr told the crowd of about 25 people. “You can’t really reason with someone who is either crazy or on drugs. So since you have eight out of 10 chances that the person is either crazy or on drugs or both, it’s best to just stay away.”
Felix-Diaz wanted to remind residents that police are on their side.
“This is not a police that attacks Mexicans, it is not a police department that acts as immigration,” Felix-Diaz said.
Juanita Quintero, a case manager at the Instituto Familiar de la Raza who works with the Mayan population, said many in the community come from rural areas in which they speak only their indigenous language.
Quintero recalled a recent incident in which a man who was robbed came to the institute’s offices to ask for help in filing the police report.
“They get jobs where you get out at 2 or 3 in the morning and then have to take the bus to get back home,” Quintero said. “During that time they are at risk, but they are unaware.”
The city’s Mayan population, which hails from the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico and Central America, is mostly centered around the single-room-occupancy hotels near 16th and Mission streets and in the Tenderloin – areas the Sureno gang also claims as their own.
“The gangs, they don’t really care if you are in the gang or not,” Suhr said. “They will rob people, they will bully people. If you are younger, sometimes they try to bully you into becoming part of the gang.”
On Aug. 30, 2011, Gaspar Puch-Tzek, a cook from Yucatan, was smoking a cigarette with co-workers outside of Hog & Rocks, a bar and restaurant on 19th Street, when two youths approached and asked which gang he was affiliated with. When he said none, one of the youths shot him to death.
Earlier this summer, a pizzeria worker was shot in the abdomen after a brief confrontation with a person his friends described as a gang member. He later recovered.
At the November meeting, neighbors told the police chief about robberies and assaults that they have kept to themselves.
Attacks against the Maya have been going on since at least the early 2000s, when a group of Mayans created an emergency fund — which still exists — to help families send the bodies of victims back to their country.
The attacks have caused the Asociacion Mayab to transform itself from a cultural preservation organization into a service provider. When someone in the community needs to send a body back, the group makes arrangements and gives the family some money, usually about $500.
Perez has conducted focus groups among the Mayan community, and one of the recurring themes, he says, is that they feel as if they are being targeted because of their ethnicity: “Because of the way we look and our actions, they recognize us. We cannot hide — we have a specific look and that’s what they use to identify us.”
“Mayans, we are small in stature and we don’t represent the age that we appear,” Quintero said. “Men look younger than they really are and are confused as teenagers, and they are perhaps harassed.”
The vast majority of Mayans in the United States are economic migrants who are unable to find work in Yucatan and live in extreme poverty there. At home, their own countrymen ostracize them because of their indigenous appearance and because they speak a different language.
In the United States, things are not much different.
“It’s a range that goes from mean comments, derogatory terms, all the way to physical violence,” Perez said.
Some Mayan immigrants have been intimidated into joining the Sureno gang or are looking for protection in a place that’s foreign to them, Granados said. Some of those who become gang members and are deported back home are importing the gang culture into the state of Yucatan.
Over Thanksgiving break, a congregation of mayors from Yucatan cities came to visit Supervisor David Campos. They talked about the Mayan population at large, but also about the increasing levels of crime since last year, when gang members were deported back to Mexico.
“The kids in Yucatan are growing up with that culture,” Granados said. “‘I like the color blue,’ they say, because they think it’s about fashion and style.”
Back in the United States, parents have to fight a tug-of-war with gangs, Granados said.
At the meeting in November, community members recommended that police talk to parents about identifying the signs that their children are involved in gangs. The Mission police station already has a program in which officers go to middle schools — the most vulnerable age — and talk to students and parents about the dangers of gangs.
As for the homicide of Chuc Mul, police are still looking for five suspects who were captured on video. His body was sent home to Santa Elena, Yucatan, thanks to funds provided by people in his hometown, the community here, and a fundraiser held at Serpentine restaurant, where he worked.