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The case of two Latino brothers in Shelby County jail on capital murder charges leaves unanswered questions

LatinaLista — The jury is still out on the CNN “Latino in America” program but from the first night’s show, it won’t be surprising if people unfamiliar with Latinos and the inherent pride we feel for our culture will walk away with a negative impression.


For some reason, media when dealing with ethnic groups tend to dwell too much on the hard-luck stories in their search for Horatio Alger-type scenarios. The problem is that in these kinds of stories, amid any given situation, there is only one heroine/hero while the rest of the players are the villains.

Media doesn’t seem to realize that in their zest to portray the “true” picture, they inadvertently perpetuate negative stereotypes that the whole community is trying to overcome.

Because of this, most people unfamiliar with Latinos think we all just arrived in this country, we don’t speak English, don’t care about education and what’s worse — that we’re all drug dealers or cartel gang members.

While it’s pretty easy to prove our proficiency in English or our degree of assimilation, it’s nearly impossible to shake the stigma of being labeled a drug dealer.For the uneducated, being Latino is synonymous with drugs.

It’s hard to prove innocence because the assumption of guilt has already been so deeply planted in the minds of people.

No one is a fan of drug cartels. We’ve heard the stories and seen the bodies they leave behind. We know how drug cartels corrupt, intimidate and prey on law-abiding citizens of any country.

So when I heard today’s news that 300 arrests were made of people in the U.S. who were thought to be members of the Mexican drug cartel, La Familia Michoacana, I had mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I was thankful that people who condone and commit the level of violence we’ve seen in Mexico were apprehended before they could do anymore damage here.

On the other hand, I was skeptical that law enforcement hadn’t rounded up innocent people, along with, the cartel members.

Don’t think it doesn’t happen?

Try telling that to the Castaneda brothers sitting in the Shelby County, Alabama jail who are accused by local law enforcement of murdering five men all because they’re also accused of having ties with drug cartel members — and no matter what they say, they can’t convince anyone of their innocence.


About four months ago, I was contacted by the oldest sister of the Castaneda brothers. She told me that one of her brothers, who was in jail, had told her to find a way to contact me because I wrote about situations of injustice.

I agreed to meet the sister at a Denny’s two hours away from my home. She arrived with her sister, toddler son and a friend. For more than 3 hours, she told me the story of her brothers.

Her family was originally from San Antonio and moved to Shelby County, Alabama when their mother was undergoing cancer treatment there. Her brothers decided to open up a mechanic shop and life was good until five men were murdered in what has become known as the Cahaba Lake murders.

Before the brothers knew it, they were embroiled in a nightmare and have been publicly declared guilty by the local Shelby County sheriff.

The family is at its wit’s end because the lawyers they hired don’t tell them too much and one of the jailed brothers is so depressed because no one believes in his innocence he is considered suicidal at this stage.

It would be easy to dismiss this story if Shelby County, and this sheriff, didn’t have a history of questionable ethics, as documented by the local newspaper and blogs. Or the fact that a couple of suicides of Latino inmates have occurred at the jail.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this story if the evidence against the men consisted of more than just other people’s statements.

It would be easy for me to say this is another Latino family who was seduced by drug money if a 7-month pregnant woman didn’t drive over 12 hours just to meet a journalist with a blog in the hopes that she could help her.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this story if two members of the family didn’t sit down and write out an excruciatingly detailed timeline of events of what happened on the night of the arrests of their brothers.

It would be easy for me to dismiss this story if I hadn’t looked into the eyes of two sisters trying with all their might to find help for their brothers.

I don’t know for sure that these guys are innocent. In fact, journalist colleagues of mine, who have done stories on the drug cartels, have cautioned me saying that the depth of involvement can run so deep and the players are just ordinary folks that even their own family members don’t know they are involved.

I know this. But I also know that my gut instinct is telling me that something is not right with this story.

And the most nagging feeling I get is that by virtue of being Latino, it is these guys’ death sentence.

I’m not a lawyer and have told the family that I can only write about what I discover and they seem to be alright with that. They say they just want the truth to be told because right now their family has no voice — and they desperately need one.

This is just one of those untold stories of being Latino in America.


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  • Karen
    October 22, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    Re: “Media doesn’t seem to realize that in their zest to portray the “true” picture, they inadvertently perpetuate negative stereotypes that the whole community is trying to overcome.”
    Of course they realize it. They do it on purpose because the people who control the media are racist. It’s better to turn the TV OFF.

  • irma
    October 23, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Who are the people who “control” the media ? This statement has racist overtones as well. The last time I heard that statement, the person also said those people “control” the banks……..
    The point is that Soledad O Brian did not choose to interview the entire spectrum of Latinos. Some of us are on the Supreme Court, are surgeons, teachers, policeman,
    soldiers, cooks, delivery men, professional
    athletes and agricultural workers. We are actors, musicians lawyers etc
    Joan Baez’ Mexican father was a physicist. Ted William’s Mexican mother
    was ardent member of the Salvation Army.
    Soledad O Brian barely scratched the surface as to who and what Latinos are.

  • maryelizabeth
    October 23, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Unfortunately, I did not get to watch day 1 on CNN and from the looks of Marissa’s article and Karen’s post I probably would have been disappointed with it. However I did like parts of day 2. I was pleased with the way they covered the story in Shanandoah PA. I am thank-ful that they did show the human side of that tradgedy. It really hit home when the woman spoke about fighting for civil rights since she was a child. I personally identified with that being Italian American. She spoke about JFK and concluded with “why are we still having the same problems today”…”we haven’t learned from our mistakes”. It did show how ridicously ignorant the marine was with his statements about the undocumented and I thought it was great when the reporter pointed out that he was saying that the undocumented take jobs from African Americans and at the same time he bragged about having a confederate flag on his front porch. This is the typical type of backwords nut that resides in these white impovershed neighborhoods. I couldn’t believe how the residence were cheering when the 3 kids were acquitted for murder. That did raise the eyes of my parents who are from the world war ll generation. They were in shock. They actually couldn’t believe that this took place right here in PA. Dad actually thought we fought this kind of rasicm in Germany and that we were way above this in the US. I tried to explain to Dad what was going on in our country around 6 months ago and he kept telling me that I can’t believe everything that I hear but when he saw this on main stream TV. he finally believed me. The other story I believe moved my parents was the story of Marta trapped in dentention at 12 years old. My parents just didn’t think that our country was capable of doing these kinds of things to people and many other Americans are shocked when they see what is happening. I did like Senator Martinez success story about being the first Latino to make the senate. So overhaul I did think Day 2 might have been a postive impact. Although I found the story of Pica Rivera annoying when they focused on crime but I did like it when the actress from Selena came on and said she was fustrated that she was only offered maid type roles “sterotypes” in Hollywood and found that she was a lovely person to have been so down to earth to reside in Pica Rivera. So they focused on the Hollywood Stars, The famous Singer who healed her pain from the lack of family in America to the little girl who felt lost in the US without her mother “that was an amazing story about what can happen when we reach out to others”, crime against latinos, the children in detention, the fustrations of trying to better yourself in while trying to become fluent in English, the difference between entering from Cuba in the 60s in comparison to what it is like to migrate now, the pride with latinas and keeping culture in the family amongst other things. I thought overhaul they did a decent job on day 2. I did however notice that they continue to shift the language between “illegal alien” to “undocumented Immigrant” and have notice our own elected officials and president continue to use those words of description. They play politics to appease both sides. I felt that they did expose the people in Shanandoah for being racist and extremely confused and that this racism is apparently imbreed over there.

  • monica
    January 15, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    I feel bad that two brothers were convicted before they were tried`due to the media an sided minds of people we give our faith and hopes to just sad

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