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For SF Immigrants, Mirkarimi Case Exposes Private-Public Faultline

Posted: Mar 29, 2012

Eliana Lopez’s tireless public defense of her husband, embattled San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, is typical behavior of abuse victims, say anti-domestic violence advocates. But, for editors of the city’s ethnic media, her behavior also reflects a desire all too familiar to immigrant communities here: the need to keep the family together, at all costs.

The case has been headline news ever since Lopez’s neighbor went public with her allegations of a New Year’s altercation and her videotape of a bruised arm resulting from it. Mirkarimi’s effort to dismiss the story as a private affair led to calls by anti-domestic violence advocates that he be held accountable for his actions. The media has tracked developments daily, from the charges against Mirkarimi to Mayor Ed Lee’s announcement that he was suspending him from his position as sheriff.

Ethnic media that serve the city’s immigrant populations offer a glimpse into the conversations taking place among immigrants who account for almost 35 percent of the city.

“The family is paramount, and it’s important that they keep their relationship working,” said Esther Chavez of the Filipino news site INQUIRER.net. “If there is an argument in the family, it doesn't have to be seen from the outside,” she said. “If you report it to the police, what will happen to the family? The family will be broken up.”

“Domestic violence cases are underreported in general and in the Filipino community in particular,” added Cherie Querol-Moreno, editor-at-large and Web cast anchor of Philippine News. “Filipinos typically do not discuss relationships beyond the bedroom or the home.”

The consequences of this silence can be deadly, said Querol-Moreno, who is also the founder and executive director of ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment Kumares and Kumpares, a non-profit organization that works to educate the community about domestic violence.

Filipino media are using the political scandal to draw attention to the issue of domestic violence in their community. In its section “Pinoy Abroad” (Filipinos Abroad), Manila-based GMA News Network is running a series of articles on gender-based violence. One article examined emotional abuse, considered one of the most common types of domestic abuse, laying out the tactics of emotional abusers and how women can cope.

In the Chinese community, the Mirkarimi case has also opened up a discussion on how domestic violence is traditionally viewed.

“The Chinese community has to realize that domestic violence is illegal in Western society,” said Kai-ping Liu, city editor of the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal.

In Chinese culture, he said, domestic violence can be seen as the norm. A husband who beats his wife, for example, may be seen as acceptable as long as it does not cause grievous bodily harm, he said. Many Chinese parents also choose to use physical punishment as one of the ways to discipline their children.

“The Ross Mirkarimi case is an opportunity to educate the Chinese community -- especially new Chinese immigrants -- that domestic violence should not be allowed in mainstream culture, [even] when it may be seen as a private matter,” said Liu.

Which is exactly how some continue to view it.

Vandana Kumar, publisher of India Currents, said when her magazine first covered domestic violence in the early 90s, “readers were incensed at us -- did we not have better things to talk about? Did we not have a rich history to share with the world? Why talk about issues that are strictly personal?”

Attitudes have changed since then, she says. “People are more willing to recognize that domestic violence actually exists in the Indian American community.” She says groups like Narika – where Kumar volunteers – and Maitri, which helps South Asian women dealing with domestic violence in the Bay Area, “deserve a lot of credit for starting this conversation and creating awareness about it.”

Still, while the issue of domestic violence spans all communities, the Mirkarimi case hasn’t resonated as deeply with Indian Americans.

“Minority communities feel connected to an issue when one of their own goes through it,” said Kumar, noting that the Lakireddy case in Berkeley generated a lot of discussion about the issue of trafficking in the South Asian community here. “I don't think the Mirkarimi case has generated the same kind of discussion in the Indian American community.”

Lopez, meanwhile, has gotten a lot of attention from the city’s Spanish-language media.

The former Venezuelan film star was honored in February by the Mission District’s four-year-old Latin Business Network for co-producing the weekly Spanish-language radio show “Hecho in California con Marcos Gutierrez” on 1010 AM. She later appeared on the program insisting that the scandal over alleged domestic violence was the result of political persecution against her husband.

“Now just a minute,” wrote editor Maria Mejía in a column entitled “The Mirkarimi Telenovela.”

“If we all know about her problems with Mirkarimi and saw the bruise the sheriff allegedly left on her arm after a New Year's Eve argument, it’s because she showed it to a neighbor and asked her to record it.

“In other words, things didn’t start from political persecution; if anything, they began with an indiscretion on her part. The best-kept secret is never told.”

Now that it’s out, word is spreading fast.

A coalition of anti-domestic violence groups launched an online “crowdfunding” campaign to raise money for a billboard that reads in part, “Domestic Violence is NEVER a private matter.”

Media outlets from Univision to the Philippine News, meanwhile, covered the first billboard’s unveiling on Feb. 16. Last week the coalition put up five more billboards in Spanish.

But the Mirkarimi case isn’t just about alleged domestic violence; it is also about holding politicians accountable for their actions, noted Janna Sundeyeva, editor of the Russian-language newspaper Kstati.

For some Russian immigrants in San Francisco, she said, the Mirkarimi case harkens back to memories of politicians in the Soviet Union.

“We came from a country where leaders behaved exactly this way,” Sundeyeva explained, “so we recognize the signs of this behavior easily and that saddens people much, much more than domestic violence.”

“The Mirkarimi case started dialogue [in San Francisco’s Russian community], but not about domestic violence,” said Sundeyeva. “It is dialogue about the sheriff abusing his power, and how city officials will react to this fact.”

Additional reporting by Rochelle Riva Bargo, Odette Keeley and Summer Chiang.

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