U.S. courtroom dramas don't usually have much impact in this ramshackle village of Triqui Indians deep in the mountains of southern Mexico. But a new case unraveling in Greenfield, Calif., has sent shockwaves through the Mexican community. The accused men are both of Triqui ethnicity, an ancient people who number in just the tens of thousands. The trial will judge one of their most sacred rites: bride prices. Adding to their concern is the way global media have jumped on the story, with the Internet headline "Man Sells Daughter for Beer" sparking a sudden interest in Triqui customs from Italy to Australia.
The case centers on an alleged marriage arrangement that went sour involving Marcelino de Jesus Martinez, his 14-year-old daughter and her suitor, Margarito de Jesus Galindo, 18. Galindo had agreed to pay Martinez for his daughter's hand in marriage, according to Greenfield police. According to the cops, the total cost was $16,000, one hundred cases of beer and several cases of meat. "The 14-year-old juvenile moved in with Galindo, and when payments were not received, the father, Martinez, called Greenfield [police] to bring back the daughter," the police said in a Jan. 12 statement.
Galindo has been charged with misdemeanor statutory rape after he and the girl admitted to having sex during their weeklong "marriage." He has since been released. Martinez is accused of a felony for "receiving money for causing persons to cohabitate." The police called their news release "Human Trafficking." Martinez faces up to eight years in prison if convicted. Held in prison since his arrest, Martinez has pleaded not guilty. His sister-in-law insists that the police version of a marriage contract or sale of Martinez's daughter is not true.
Nevertheless, the tremors are being felt across hundreds of Mexican indigenous communities that use forms of bride prices which can include farm animals and soda as well as cash and beer. The Greenfield incident is the most high-profile U.S. court case ever to involve an indigenous Mexican marriage, and its resolution could set a precedent. Critics in Mexico have jumped at the chance to attack a practice they see as abusive to human rights. Defenders have warned against bashing Indian customs and called for understanding "cultural relativism" a concept that sparks passionate pleas from anthropologists and searing scorn from conservatives.
San Juan Copala village council secretary Macario Garcia claims the bride price makes the husband commit to the marriage, reducing breakups. "It is so the man gives value to his wife and so he won't easily leave her for another woman," Garcia says, sitting in the shade of a wooden hut under the glare of rugged hilltops. In the ancient tradition, he explains, the suitor negotiates the marriage with the family through a so-called ambassador. After a deal has been struck, the suitor then goes to meet and collect the bride at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Local custom also permits polygamy, and some men in the Triqui region have up to seven wives.
However, Garcia says the custom of arranged marriage is dying, with many young people meeting their partners at the village middle school. Girls are also marrying much older at around age 20 instead of the traditional 14 he said. Village resident Pilar Martinez echoes his defense of Triqui traditional marriage, saying the payment puts worth on the matrimony. "It is a mark of commitment," she says smiling as she plays with her lively daughter and nephew. Martinez married at age 21 after meeting her husband at school. He paid her father about 9,000 pesos ($650), she says.
In the neighboring market town of Juxtlahuaca, Maria Bautista sees the practice as coercive and barbaric. "It's like a form of slavery. They buy their women and then treat them like their property," says Bautista, a single mother with her own business. Bautista has a Triqui father and Mixtec Indian mother, but she speaks only Spanish and follows few of the old traditions. She cites the cases of many older men who came back minted from working in the U.S. and who bought themselves several young wives.
Down in the state capital of Oaxaca, state human rights commissioner Heriberto Garcia also chastised the custom. "Buying and selling a woman is a clear violation of her rights," he says in his office decorated with leather-bound law books. "And a young teenage girl does not have the experience to make these decisions." Oaxaca state law permits marriage of women at 14 and men at 16. However, Garcia said he plans to send a bill to the state legislature changing the age to 18 for both sexes.
Mexican officials have long tolerated arranged marriages, Garcia concedes, adding that he doesn't know of any cases of prosecutions. But he says he will also propose to amend a "Treatment of People" law to include an article that makes bride-selling a criminal act. Such action is opposed by many who see indigenous traditions as a virtue of Mexico's cultural diversity. Demonizing arranged marriages is the latest portrayal of Indians as savages that has continued during five centuries since the Spanish conquest, says Ximena Avellaneda of the Rosario Castellanos Women House. "Why do Americans attack an arranged marriage between Triquis and say nothing about million-dollar marriage contracts between Hollywood stars?" she says. "Relationships between teenagers are also common in many communities, not just among indigenous people."
Back in the Triqui village, leaders lay no blame on U.S. authorities. But they excoriate the accused for going to the police. "This man must have had little experience in the United States and must really not understand the way it works there," Garcia says, shaking his head and showing a look of disbelief. "You just do not get the American police involved in a case like this."