Targeted by Gangs and Thieves, Growing Mayan Community Demands Translators

mexican official and sfpd mission police chief greg suhr

En Español.

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Eddie

    Suhr’s comment that 80% of homeless people are “crazy or on drugs or both” both overstates the percentage and displays common police insensitivity towards homeless people.

    There are many homeless people bouncing around from couch to couch, living in vehicles or abandoned buildings or on the street who are neither mentally ill nor suffer from substance abuse, but are just too poor to afford a home. Plus nationwide, there are over 1,000,000 homeless children, few of whom are “crazy or on drugs.”

    Homelessness has mental health and substance abuse components, but also a purely economic component. Comments like Suhr’s minimize the economic causes of homelessness while perpetuating myths that seek to criminalize and dehumanize homeless people.

    I do not deny the troubles facing Mayans, and I support their community’s efforts at improving their conditions and safety.

    • Dave

      The Chief is a man of his word. Take the time to know him and you will soon discover that he delivers on his promises. The fact that he was there at the meeting means a great deal.

    • Blurpy

      If Suhr is overstating the %, where can we find the “real” %?

      At any rate, pointing out folks having a drug or mental problem doesn’t in any way “dehumanize” someone. It sounds like he’s touching on a greater issue, which is: we need to help people like this, not let them wander the streets where they can do more damage to themselves and to others.

      • Eddie

        Accurate percentages are difficult to find, that is why I included the national statistic about homeless children in an attempt to provoke thinking about the realities of the homeless population,

        I agree that we should help people with substance abuse and mental illness issues.
        Broadly labelling them as “crazy” is dehumanizing. Criminalizing homelessness and poverty by emphasizing “quality of life” issues or enforcing punitive measures like “sit/lie” laws are steps back from attempts to help people with social problems.

        • randolph mortimer

          Why don’t you come back when you have a suggestion on how to deal with the significant proportion of people who refuse services or treatment but continually violate existing laws and negatively affect the lives of others?

          • Eddie

            Adequate health care from birth to death to replace the US pay or die for profit system, so people can get help for whatever mental and physical health problems they may face as soon as possible.

            Elimination of laws criminalizing poor people, like sit/lie. If there’s no law, it’s not illegal.

            Enough good paying jobs and affordable housing for everybody.

            An honest analysis of how negatively affected by poor and homeless people the lives of others are, rather than the current sensationalized focus.

            That’s a start, randolph. I never remember reading any constructive suggestion from you.

          • Blurpy

            Eddie, I don’t quite see how sit/lie unfairly targets “poor people.” If someone is sprawled out on the sidewalk in a drunken stupor, reeking of feces and urine and surrounded by litter (I see this often near Mission Street, 22nd, 24th, etc), that person is creating a public nuisance and needs to be moved along. If they’re sitting there begging and harassing passers-by, screaming at the top of their lungs, they need to be moved along.

            San Francisco offers a plethora of public services for the disadvantaged. Hundreds of millions are spent every year on providing for those in need. Those of sound mind are able to make the best of these services. Those that are not of sound mind tend to refuse these services, as randolph has pointed out. What’s the solution for folks like that? Should they be forced into care, or would that be violating their civil rights?

            Being poor is not a crime. Acting poorly is, as it should be, and that transcends one’s economic status. Litter, graffiti, public drunkedness and urination are all quality of life crimes, and of course they should be addressed. You don’t suddenly start doing these things just because you’re poor. I didn’t do any of those things when I was totally broke.

            Sadly, America has found itself in a position where we don’t produce as many goods as we used to. Thankfully, we in the Bay Area exist in a bubble of sorts, where we are seeing somewhat of an economic boom while the rest of the country languishes. These types of booms lead to all sorts of things that can benefit those that are able to jump on board and ride the wave. Social gaming companies offer jobs that aren’t just coding or graphic design; there’s admin, security, facilities, IT, kitchen staff. And that’s before you even start to count all the local businesses that can get a boost from all this new money being circulated around town.

            San Francisco has boom/bust in it’s genes. The best that any of us can do is try to make the most of it while we can. Instead of being upset at landlords raising rents and “gentrification,” let’s target our frustration toward our local government, and their inability to use this new money to provide for those in need. SF has been tagged as “business hostile” for ages now, and if we want “enough good paying jobs for all,” then again, the local government needs to be put to task about NIMBYism and their hostility towards new business and development.

            I personally would love to see San Francisco live up to its full potential. Apple, Google, Yahoo, all those companies should be IN SF, not the suburbs. If we’re going to be the tech hub of the country, so be it. Let’s have the most high-tech city in the USA, with smoothly paved roads, a truly modern reliable public transit system, a state of the art healthcare system, and a little something for everyone that lives here.

        • Eddie

          Blurpy,
          I emjoyed reading your thoughtful comment, even though I disagree with some of it. Rather than digress, let me share a quotation that I have always liked to illustrate my point about the criminalization of poverty:

          “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
          Anatole France

          I will add, however, that much public drunkeness by people with greater means is tolerated in the Mission. Just walk down Valencia or Mission Streets any weekend night to see it.

  2. Alyssa

    Thanks so much for this article. It is nice to see someone finally paying attention to the people who do the hard work behind the scenes in SF and who are ostracized on so many levels. keep up the good work Mission Local.

  3. daniela

    Ok so this is just Wikipedia, but according to their entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_the_United_States), around **22%** of homeless people in the US are mentally ill.

    Then they lis 30% of all homeless as having substance abuse issues.

    Together it’d be worst case 52% mentally ill & alcohol dependent, or ‘best case’ only 30% total. That’d be a far cry from the 80% they mention above.

    But those numbers in wikipedia are based on this report here: http://web.archive.org/web/20070510103756/http://www.nrchmi.samhsa.gov/facts/facts_question_2.asp (National Resource and Training Center for Homelessness and Mental Illness)

    In that report, their number is actually higher, at 38% alcohol abuse issues and 26% with other drug abuse problems. Overall they say it’s 39% with a mental health issue (though less if you only count ‘serious’ mental health issues).

    According to that report, it’s 66% of homeless people with either alcohol/substance abuse issues and/or mental health issues.

    No idea if that’s a reputable source and no idea if the San Francisco situation is different compared to the US overall, etc. Maybe the SF homeless are more troubled than the average US ones, and then the 80% isn’t all that far off. Or maybe not.

    But in any case, labeling them as ‘crazies’ doesn’t help anyone for sure.

  4. NK

    Thank you for providing good background information and quotes in this story. People need to hear about it. Many people lump everyone who doesn’t look like them into one category, never realizing what a disservice it is.

    It’s also unfortunate that the police have not completely lived up to the sanctuary city rule here- people DO get deported out of 850 Bryant, so no wonder there is a lack of trust.

  5. Donald H

    Mayan immigrants who cannot speak English need to seek out their consulate for translators or learn English. The U.S. is not obligated to provide translators for them, because our language in common is English in this country. No other country provides translators for foreign language speaking residents. Why do people expect special treatment here in the United States?

    • Eddie

      Despite efforts from anti-immigration activists, the United States does not have an official language.

      Both the private and public sector provide much written material in multiple languages and courts normally provide translators.

      Unless someone is Native American, s/he came from a family of immigrants or invaders.

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