By Michael E. Miller
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Angela Hernandez, a gentle 69-year-old grandmother, wasn't so lucky. On November 11, her onetime boyfriend Manuel Jesus Sanchez ambushed her as she drove up to her Hialeah townhouse. Sanchez shot her four times as she sat in the driver's seat of her Mercury Sable. He never noticed Hernandez's two grandsons, ages nine and eleven. They were cowering in the back seat.
So there's the carnage. You may have seen portions of it on WSVN-TV (Channel 7), or in the Miami Herald. The daily media absolutely love these stories of love gone bloody. Especially now, in the O.J. era, domestic violence is chic.
Perhaps the best indication comes from the Dade County Grand Jury, a rotating assembly of do-gooders whose duty it is to study whatever crisis is most fashionable. In November the grand jury issued a workmanlike 39-page report on domestic violence. The primary conclusion jurors reached, after much statistical throat-clearing, was that Dade officials have done a jim-dandy job battling domestic abuse.
They proffered plenty of predictable suggestions, such as increasing shelter space for battered women and toughening laws against domestic crimes. But overall the report touted Dade's proactive advocacy as a "model for all of Florida" and praised local officials for establishing the state's first prosecutorial unit and criminal court devoted exclusively to domestic violence.
As to why hundreds of men (and some women) continue to terrorize their sweethearts, the jurors were more circumspect.
They might have done well to spend an evening with Carmen Caldwell. A longtime political activist and first-term Hialeah city councilwoman, Caldwell works full-time as a police volunteer, heading the force's Community Relations and Crime Prevention Unit from a little office filled with bumper stickers, coloring books, and lollipops urging Hialeahans to Think Safety.
Among other assorted tasks, Caldwell delivers speeches about domestic violence. These talks are filled with all sorts of reasonable admonitions. Abuse victims are instructed to seek legal intervention if their spouses can't control their violent impulses. Abusers are urged to seek counseling. Listeners are reminded that civil rights precede marital rights.
"It's pretty basic stuff," Caldwell says. "But inevitably I get a few of these men who just flame out. They can't handle it. The other night I gave a presentation at a night school and two men started screaming at me: 'The reason this kind of thing is happening is because of people like you!' They dragged their women out of there."
To Caldwell, who has lived in Hialeah for 24 years and is herself Cuban American, there is an obvious cultural component to all this. "Sure, you've got all these Third World cultures where the whole attitude of men is, 'If I can't have you, no one else will.' And a lot of the women fall right into it because they've been brought up to believe that the man is always right. If they get smacked around, it's because they did something wrong."
By "Third World," Caldwell says, she means still-developing Latin American countries. Oddly, however, nearly all the domestic homicides in Hialeah last year were committed by Cuban Americans. In fact, most followed a predictable pattern. The perpetrators were first-generation immigrants, older men accustomed to holding tremendous economic and social power over their spouses or girlfriends. Their crimes generally occurred at the juncture when the killers were most acutely feeling the loss of that power. Most, for instance, had begged their mates to take them back days, or even minutes, before they murdered. A few had lost their jobs.
Lisandro Perez, a sociology professor at Florida International University, grew up in Hialeah and still visits his father there on a weekly basis. He says the city's residents have forged a culture more traditionally Cuban than any other area of Dade. "The link is stronger," Perez notes. "You still see people riding bicycles, for instance. That's a remnant from Cuba. If you need to buy the kind of luggage or battery-charged lamp you take to Cuba, you go to Hialeah. Most of the new [Cuban] arrivals end up in Hialeah, so there's a continual replenishing of the native culture."
At the same time, Perez observes, the economy in Hialeah often requires that women join the labor force, usually at one of the city's many factories. "You could make an argument that this forced adaptation sets up a conflict with the traditional structures." (Several of the men who killed, notably, had attempted to prevent their mates from working.)
Perez, though, rejects the notion that Latins are disproportionately prone to domestic violence: "I don't think there's any empirical basis to that whole argument that we are a more passionate people."
Well, yes and no.
"There has been no definitive study of domestic violence across different ethnic groups that I know of," notes Rita Smith, coordinator of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
About the only research that has probed the issue is a 1993 study released by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization established to battle domestic violence. That national survey centered on public attitudes about violence against women. Of the four ethnic groups surveyed (Asian, African American, Latin, and Anglo), Latin men were most likely to downplay the significance of various abusive scenarios.