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A little more than 20 years ago, Juan Cáceres immigrated to the United States. Like so many of his countrymen, he wanted a better life, and he certainly seemed to get it.
Cáceres started off small, selling tomatoes and limes on the streets of New York, driving a cab, and eventually branching into business ventures. He also became an activist for immigrant rights, founding the Spanish Harlem nonprofit Centro de la Comunidad Mexicana (CECOMEX), helping immigrants find affordable housing, and lobbying the Mexican consulate for better service.
Talk to people on the streets of El Barrio, and they'll tell you that Cáceres, who just turned 44, is an outstanding family man and a beloved community leader. The go-to guy for an immigrant's every need, he could hook you up with a job, and if you got into legal trouble, he'd get you a lawyer. He did so much work on behalf of the community that the governor of Puebla once named him the state's representative in New York. The city's Mexican population has doubled in the past decade, according to some estimates, and fully half of the 500,000 Mexican immigrants in the city are from the east-central state of Puebla. (Cáceres himself is from the southeastern state of Tabasco.)
Not all of CECOMEX's work is serious and somber. It also organizes El Barrio's annual Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day parades, which have drawn such big crowds in recent years that police have had to shut down nearby subway stations. It's a very important task for a very important man in the Mexican immigrant community.
But Cáceres won't be attending this week's lively street party and parade. That's because he's locked up on Rikers Island. In March, a jury convicted him of second-degree rape—of his own daughter, from the time she was 11 until she was 14. He was also convicted of endangering the child's welfare and of criminal contempt. He was found not guilty of predatory sexual assault against a child. He was sentenced to nine years in prison—the maximum.
News of Cáceres's conviction quickly circulated among local Spanish speakers, with reports surfacing in Spanish-language newspapers and wire services. New York's mainstream, English-language papers did not appear to take any notice of his downfall—despite the made-for-tabloid tale of a father convicted of raping his own daughter—though he has long been a major player in the city's rapidly growing Mexican community.
Cáceres's conviction, however, isn't just an example of a community leader fallen from grace. His absence has created a power vacuum in El Barrio's expat enclave and has shown just how ugly sexual politics can be in the neighborhood, centered on 116th Street in East Harlem.
Cáceres's supporters—he still has many, despite the conviction—have decided to run CECOMEX without him, and they now dedicate much of its time, energy, and other resources to insisting that he is innocent.
But the group's top brass and allies aren't just campaigning on behalf of Cáceres. They have also gone out of their way to vilify his daughter, the underage victim. The courts withhold underage rape victims' names and whereabouts, but many people in El Barrio have made the girl's identity public, and they brandish her name as a weapon against her.
There's even a photo of her on the main page of CECOMEX's website, where visitors have left comments calling her a liar. At rallies in support of Cáceres, attendees have even been said to carry posters displaying photos of her face. Some at the press conferences have yelled her name while chanting, "You have to tell the truth!"
Meanwhile, top Mexican organizations in the city have either come out even now in open support of Cáceres or act as if the conviction never happened in the first place. Spanish-language media outlets have continued to give him and his supporters ample opportunity to state his case against his daughter. Nobody has rallied behind her.
The victim's identity "isn't a secret," Sandra Pérez, entrusted by Cáceres to help run CECOMEX, tells the Voice, just as she has told the Spanish-language press. "There are images of the child in videos and photos. A lot of people know her because she was always involved in public events. Being the daughter of a public figure, your identity is always well known. And not just her identity, but the family's identity."
Pérez says that CECOMEX doesn't advocate making the girl's name and face public, but that it has not acted to stop it.
"They're people's opinions, and we can't control how they express themselves," she says.
Cáceres insists he has nothing to do with the propaganda campaign against his daughter. "Of course I want to protect my children's privacy," he tells the Voice during an interview at Rikers. "But everyone knows me and my family. I'm a public figure, and we were always together. I don't think that it's right that they're doing that, but I can't control other people."
Or himself, as a jury has ruled. Cáceres started to show his daughter porn and molest her in 2007, when she was 11, according to court records. When she turned 12, records say, he started to have oral sex and vaginal and anal intercourse with her.