U.S., Mexican Cultures Clash in California

By Joel Simon
Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1990-1991)
Issue theme: "Uses and misuses of history in the debate over immigration reform"

Dateline Placerville, Calif. - During the eight months Ladislao Pastrana has spent in the El Dorado county jail here, he has been trying to remember exactly what happened on the night of May 11, 1989, when he nearly decapitated his friend Emilio Lopez with a machete.

I remember getting drunk, joking around, and saying some words which maybe I shouldn't have said,' he recalls, But I can't remember how I got to jail.

'The victim himself was also too drunk to remember how he got the gash on his head. But an eyewitness saw Mr. Lopez, the victim, leave his trailer with a kitchen knife. The witness heard the fight and saw Mr. Pastrana, a machete in his hand, standing over a prone Mr. Lopez.

But what appears to be a straightforward case of attempted murder is complicated by the fact that both Messrs. Pastrana and Lopez are Mixteco Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico. Despite spending at least part of every year for the past decade in the United States as migrant workers, they continue to live under the social, political and moral influence of their town in Mexico. The interpretation of guilt, responsibility and punishment among the Mixtecos differs sharply from the U.S. legal system. Mr. Pastrana has spent the last eight months ruminating about these differences.

Here I understand there are different laws, he says. But I think the reason I am still in jail is because they don't realize we are friends from the same village.

Mr. Pastrana sits in pumpkin-colored prison garb with a number stamped in black letters across his breast pocket. During a recent interview, he is friendly but nervous; his large, powerful hands, out of sync with his small frame, tightly grasp the arms of his chair as he speaks in simple, rustic Spanish.

If the crime ha