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Unraveling the mystery of Petrona
By John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff
Sunday, November 24, 2002
SAN MIGUEL ACATAN, Guatemala -- For more than two decades, this isolated Indian town has sent innumerable citizens to the United States searching for work, and those who stayed behind were always anxious to receive word from their faraway loved ones.
Secluded in this rugged, sometimes bitterly cold corner of the majestic Sierra Madre, those who remained -- mostly women -- lived traditional indigenous lives, largely stuck in time. Word from the workers in el norte, the north, was their main contact with the modern world.
But the most recent news to reach here -- that a local Indian girl has been charged with first-degree murder in Lake Worth after the death of her newborn child, that she may be tried in Florida as an adult and possibly sent to an American prison for life -- has shocked and chagrined the population.
"My God, that's impossible," says Catarina Francisco, 41, a schoolteacher who wears the ages-old embroidered dress of the Akateco Indian people. "She's only a child, that girl. Not only a child, but one with a high degree of ignorance. People there in Florida can't possibly understand her, what she has come from, what she has suffered."
The news about Petrona Tomas, 15, the jailed girl whom the court system has mistakenly named Eulalia Miguel, has also made these barely educated, simple people feel that at least in one way they may be more enlightened than the mighty Americans to the north.
"We don't understand what the people there can be thinking," says Liliana Lopez, 29, who works for a social service agency. "Here in Guatemala, we don't send our children to prison."
The two women and other influential citizens of the town, led by the mayor, are preparing a petition addressed to the president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, asking him to intercede with U.S. authorities and have the girl returned to Guatemala, where she might be placed in an institution for minors.
They are also requesting that a representative from the town be allowed to travel to Palm Beach County to act as a translator in the Akateco language for the girl, because they fear that the individual now being used -- who speaks a related dialect, Kanjobal -- cannot truly communicate with her. They also are insisting the translator be a woman because, given the girl's upbringing, she will never speak to a man about the extremely personal events that transpired.
Emigration decimates villageBut the language and
gender barriers are not the key issues in understanding the
undoing of Petrona Tomas, they say.
According to community leaders, for several years the custom-bound society in this town has been in a state of painful dissolution due to changes brought by the mass movement of its citizens to and from the United States. The money sent back has been beneficial in most instances, everyone agrees. The town center looks traditional -- adobe buildings, rusted zinc roofing and muddy streets. But the arrival of new money is reflected in the number of American and Japanese vehicles and the presence of satellite dishes for long-distance calls to and from el norte.
Apart from the economic benefits, other effects of the emigration -- the collision of the modern and the primitive -- have been disastrous.
Reaching the village requires crossing an 11,000-foot mountain ridge. Until two years ago there was no paved road coming near it, and the village was protected by its very remoteness, held together by indigenous social mores and a combination of Catholicism and ancient Mayan ritual. Today, the people find themselves in crisis.
"We did a survey not long ago and found that 40 percent of our people are gone, mostly in the United States," said Mayor Andres Miguel, 47. "The great majority of those are men, and that has caused a tremendous disintegration of our families.... The women are the ones who have suffered the most."
The struggle to wrest a living from these steep, stony mountains, combined with the lure of the United States, where even the lowest-paying jobs are more profitable and less punishing than most work here, leads local men to take the long trip north. Sometimes, they never return.
"We go to the aldeas -- the hamlets -- around the town, and all we find are women and children," says Virginia Merida, the manager of the local bank, Banrural. "All the men are gone."
Leaders here say the two tragic stories -- of the town and of the girl -- are inextricably connected. They say the case of Petrona is not the first frightening manifestation of that tragedy.
"Two or three years ago, a baby boy, a newborn, was found dead in the river," remembers the teacher, Catarina Francisco, speaking of a narrow, rocky stream called the Rio Akateco that passes through town. "He was near full term and obviously thrown there. We never found out who the mother was."
The town leaders say this is only one example of what has become an epidemic here: women with unwanted pregnancies who go to local midwives for herbs or injections of contraceptives and induce abortions, sometimes early but also midterm and beyond.
"We know that women have thrown fetuses in the river or disposed of them in other ways," says Miguel, mayor of this widespread rural town of some 30,000 people. "It is not spoken of in public, but we know it happens."
Abortions commonThe town leaders say abortions occur
for several reasons. Married women, whose husbands spend many
months and sometimes years working in the United States
without coming home, have affairs and become pregnant.
"These women are meant to be with their mate, but they end up suffering a great emptiness and do things they shouldn't," says the local Catholic pastor, the Rev. Dionisio Mateo. "It is a human reality."
"They have to abort the child because if the husband returns and finds the woman pregnant or with a child not his, he may stop sending money to support her and the children," says Francisco, the teacher. "The women despair."
Younger, unmarried girls also are affected.
"With so many young men leaving to the U.S., the girls become desperate and think they will never get married," says the Rev. Julio Tomas, pastor in the next town, San Juan Ixcoy. "They make themselves available to men to whom they are not wed.... They get pregnant and you see the swelling. Then, suddenly, the swelling is gone." But there is no child, which means the girl has aborted, he says.
Town leaders explain that, in this indigenous culture, a girl who does not marry most often leads a miserable life, considered an endless burden on her family.
Alonzo Francisco (no relation to the teacher), a male nurse in San Miguel, says some girls will live for a short time with local men visiting from the United States, hoping for at least some money, if not a marriage, so they will be of some use to their families.
"They aren't prostitutes. We don't have that here," he insists. He says the radical imbalance between the number of men and women drives the young women to those dangerous decisions that often lead to pregnancies out of wedlock, which are still considered shameful here and can lead a girl to be disowned by her family.
"Men come from the U.S. with a bit of money and take advantage of these girls," Mayor Miguel says. "The guy goes back to the States and the girl is left pregnant."
In some cases, a family will keep a girl hidden for months until she gives birth, then the parents of the girl will claim the child as their own.
"The man says he is the father when really he is the grandfather," priest Mateo says. "The real father is not known."
But many cases end more tragically. In the Akateco culture, there is no such thing as sex education, and that leads to mid- and late-term attempts to abort.
"No one ever talks to these girls about sex or pregnancy," Catarina Francisco says. "A girl here who can't talk to her mother about her pregnancy will not know what is happening, what to do."
Arranged marriage?The town leaders say that the case
of Petrona Tomas fits clearly into the epidemic they are
seeing and that the girl may have gone through even more
travail than most. Conversations with those leaders, Petrona's
mother and neighbors reveal the following:
Because of her comparatively light skin color, from a very young age Petrona was considered extremely desirable to local men. Although both the mother and father deny it, Petrona had apparently already been "given" to a much older man, to live with him, when she was 11 or 12 years old.
She had lived with her mother, Maria Tomas, now 44, and siblings on the family property just off a rocky dirt road outside the town, all of them supported by money sent from the United States by her father, Miguel Pascual Tomas, 47, who lives in Lake Worth. Her one living sister is named Eulalia, age 9, and that may explain the false name a friend gave to authorities after Petrona gave birth.
The life Petrona led was poor -- but not more so than that of most around her. Cooking was done with firewood in one adobe structure, and everyone in the family shared two beds in a one-room house adjoining it, which is traditional indigenous fashion. The children would cut and carry firewood, tend chickens and pigs, and help harvest the corn that grew on the hillside beyond the house.
In indigenous culture, girls are raised in great innocence, in some cases being taught to read but prepared mostly to bear children and do the hard work of rural existence. They have little contact with the outside world, except for news from family in the United States and the stories told by local men who come back for visits. Televisions and radios are in use in San Miguel, but because many indigenous women speak no Spanish they cannot understand the programs.
Petrona had started school in the Akateco language -- not Spanish -- at about age 8 in the one-room schoolhouse a short walk from her house, but she attended for only three years. She has only rudimentary reading skills in Akateco, if any, people here say. A close neighbor and president of the local version of the Parent Teacher Association, Andres Miguel, remembers when Petrona dropped out.
"The teacher who was here at the time came to me and asked why Petrona wasn't coming to school anymore," he says.
The neighbor says he spoke to Petrona's father, who was visiting from the United States at the time, and found that a marriage of sorts had been arranged for the girl. Money is sometimes exchanged in such cases.
"I told him I thought she was too young," says the neighbor, as he holds out his hand at the level of his waist. "She was very pretty, but she was only this tall." Petrona is only 4 feet, 10 inches tall now.
It is not unheard of for marriages to be arranged among the Akateco people at such a tender age, and girls as young as 12 sometimes give birth. But usually the groom is also very young.
"But I understand that in this case the man was twice her age, more than 20, and that's why it concerned me so much," Andres Miguel says. "The girl wasn't ready for something like that."
Kept pregnancy quietPetrona disappeared from her
mother's house for about two years, the neighbor says. He says
she returned after the older man apparently was killed in an
automobile accident. But she stayed only a matter of weeks or
months, and around April 2001, at age 13, she went to live in
a nearby hamlet with a man named Armando Domingo.
Local residents say Domingo, thought to be in his 20s and much more sophisticated than the girl, is now believed to be in either Mexico or the United States.
According to Petrona's father, a cousin of the girl's arranged that match, telling Petrona that Domingo was wealthy. Petrona's mother denies that account and insists she doesn't know how Petrona met Domingo. Regardless, the relationship was short-lived. Petrona returned to the family house in the spring of this year, complaining that Domingo had beaten her, according to her mother.
"The mother says that she was pregnant when she returned, although Petrona didn't say anything about it," says Catarina Francisco, the teacher who acts as translator. "She says she is sure Armando Domingo was the father."
Petrona stayed only about a month and then left for the United States, reaching Palm Beach County within the next 30 days. It is not clear who arranged her passage.
She lived in an apartment with her two older brothers, Miguel and Francisco, in Lake Worth, and it is not known whether she advised them of her pregnancy. Her father, who lives nearby, says he didn't know. She apparently did not seek medical help or consultation of any kind.
Pastor: She's no murdererOn Oct. 9 -- her 15th
birthday -- alone in the apartment, she gave premature birth,
and the fetus was found later in a bathroom trash pail,
wrapped in a plastic Publix grocery bag with a wad of tissue
trapped in its throat, which apparently had caused
She was rushed to Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach by a family friend who followed a trail of blood in the apartment and found her in bed soon after she gave birth. Petrona was arrested at the hospital by police and charged with murder.
The Rev. Dionisio Mateo, the pastor of San Miguel and a native of these mountains, hears the story and his face reflects pain.
"The young ones have been the most affected by the changes we have seen here," he says. "They have been left without a sense of family. With globalization, our role in it, sending our men away to work, we have been unable to keep our way of life."
Births out of wedlock have increased to the point where he now refuses to baptize some newborns -- at least for a time -- unless both mother and father are present. He says he preaches more and more about the respect for life and how it starts in the womb.
As for the case of Petrona Tomas:
"This girl reflects what indigenous women are suffering in this century," he says. "I know she committed a crime, but you can't call her a murderer. What happened is a consequence of what has been happening around her. And we think it is very unjust what is happening to her now."