The police in Greenfield, a Monterey County farm town, had heard the rumors before: Migrant workers from rural Mexico were marrying off daughters as young as 12 and receiving sizable dowries.
But no such cases were ever prosecuted -- until this week.
Marcelino de Jesus Martinez, 36, is in Monterey County Jail, charged with crimes related to an alleged attempt to set up a marriage for his 14-year-old daughter. According to police, he complained to them when the 18-year-old would-be groom failed to come up with the $16,000, 100 cases of beer, meat and other items he promised as a dowry.
The case has generated headlines worldwide -- “Man Sells Daughter for Beer!” -- and raised the blood pressure of activists on all sides of the immigration debate.
In Greenfield, Police Chief Joe Grebmeier has been swamped, explaining to reporters from Australia to Croatia that his initial description of the incident as “human trafficking” was ill-advised.
“There was no force, fear or coercion,” he said. “What we’re dealing with now is a difference in cultures. All of this would have been perfectly legal where they came from.”
The people involved are Mexican immigrants from rural Oaxaca. They are members of a tight-knit indigenous group called the Triqui, several thousand of whom live in Greenfield, depending on the season.
But culture clash or not, Grebmeier said, he was compelled to enforce the law. He said he had appeared at community meetings to warn recent immigrants against pursuing underage marriages. And when his department looked into reports about the 14-year-old girl, finding a matchmaker and “documents used in the negotiation,” he acted.
“I’m tasked with protecting my community, and 14-year-old girls need a lot of protection,” he said.
Whether 14-year-olds can legally marry in Oaxaca -- or whether young girls would have a real choice -- is an open question.
UCLA sociologist Gaspar Rivera, a native of Oaxaca, said he believed the legal age of consent is 16, but he has heard of girls as young as 12 being wed. He doubted that underage unions in isolated communities would be prosecuted.
“There would be no legal ramifications as long as all parties are in consent,” said Rivera, project director for UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “The villages have a high degree of autonomy, with little or no intervention from state and federal authorities.”
In any event, arranged marriages are a fading tradition, he said, describing them as “very rare.”
However, Andres Garcia, a fieldworker who lives in Greenfield, said he knew of several arranged Triqui marriages involving 16- and 17-year-olds in the last five years. The food and drink included in dowries is generally for the wedding celebration, and cash is intended to support any children if the bridegroom leaves.
Garcia, a community activist who sometimes translates for local police, said the Triqui have struggled to adapt.
“Our people get discouraged because they don’t understand, they don’t speak English or Spanish, they don’t read -- so they figure what’s the use?” he said. “Like my grandmother said, ‘You try to swim when the water reaches your neck, but it’s difficult.’ ”
Martinez’s attorneys contend their client had no interest in seeing his daughter wed.
“He was very much against it, he never arranged it, he never arranged for any payment,” said Miguel Hernandez of Salinas. The attorney said that Martinez will plead not guilty and that his defense will not be, “It’s cultural and please forgive him for having these customs.”
“The facts will show that our client is as much a victim as the girl in this case,” he said.
On Wednesday, an arraignment hearing for Martinez was delayed until Friday, when a Triqui translator will be available.
Martinez speaks no English and only limited Spanish, according to his attorneys.
He is charged with procuring a child under 16 to engage in a lewd act, aiding and abetting a statutory rape and child cruelty. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of eight years and eight months, said Monterey County Deputy Dist. Atty. Cristina Johnson.
Immigration officials are investigating his status, Grebmeier said.
Johnson said her office was weighing statutory rape charges against the daughter’s boyfriend, Margarito de Jesus Galindo of Gonzales, Calif.
The girl had moved in with him before her father allegedly complained to authorities about the dowry, police said. The age of consent in California is 18.
In the end, no marriage was performed, lawyers on both sides say.
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.