Facing fear: Silence often hides domestic violence in Hispanic community

Chicanos Por La Causa opened De Colores, a domestic violence shelter in south-central Phoenix, in 1986 to address the needs of Spanish-speaking victims. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Mary Madrid moved from Mexico to the United States two years ago to marry a man who had been wooing her for more than a year. On their wedding night, her husband flung off his ring, prohibited her from ever again speaking Spanish and cooking Mexican food.

That was the beginning of a spiral of domestic violence that affected Madrid physically, emotionally and economically, leaving her sick and homeless.

“It was thrilling. It was a dream to come here and marry a man that had been pursuing me,” she recalled in Spanish. “As soon as we got married, he changed. Everything changed. It turned violent.”

Madrid, 60, is part of a national statistic that says 1 in 3 Latinas in the U.S. will experience domestic violence during their lifetime, according to the National Latino Network.

Rose Mary Verdugo, victim services specialist at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence in Phoenix, said fear is a major reason domestic violence is so prevalent in the Latino community.

Rose Mary Verdugo, victim services specialist at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence, says victims don’t seek help because they often are isolated and vulnerable, especially if they’re immigrants. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

“Afraid of the unknown, especially if they’re coming here from other countries,” she said. “They don’t know what’s out there. They’ve been isolated. Usually that’s why they don’t know about resources and information, or if there even is any help out there. They probably don’t have any family, and they probably don’t have any friends, so they don’t have any connection to the outside world other than their abusive partner.”

As Verdugo described, Madrid was confined in her marriage.

“I never imagined myself in that situation. In a different country, in a place so remote,” she said.

Madrid broke through that isolation and sought help when she said she realized her life was at stake.

“At one point, I said, ‘If I don’t speak up now, I am going to be killed. I am in danger.’ He was on the verge of knocking down the bathroom door, and I said, ‘I am not getting out of this alive,'” Madrid said. “Fortunately, I spoke up at a very good time and I was rescued. It was just in time.”

That help would come from De Colores, a nonprofit shelter in south-central Phoenix, which was established by Chicanos Por La Causa in 1986 with the mission to serve Spanish speaking victims of domestic violence.

How it works: 90-day program

Lucia Cisneros, a case manager at De Colores, said victims seeking shelter must follow a process to be admitted into what’s called the Crisis Program.

“It’s a 90-day program. They have to call the centralized screening line,” she said. “If we do have space available, let’s say, a mom that is fleeing domestic violence, and she has two kids with her, calls the centralized screening. ‘Yes, De Colores has space for Mom plus two.’

“Then she will come here to us. She will call the crisis line, and we will do an intake for her, read her the rules of what she is expected to do or follow while she is here with us. Once they get here, we take them to their room, we start the process of case management and legal advocacy.”

Lucia Cisneros, a case manager at De Colores, says the Hispanic community needs more outreach and education on domestic violence. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

Within those 90 days, case managers and legal advocates connect families to available resources and public services.

“We can get them to receive AHCCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System) health insurance, cash assistance for some of them with kids, medical care,” Cisneros said.

De Colores works with Circle the City, an agency that provides free health care services for homeless people, Cisneros said.

“They don’t discriminate if they have a Social Security number or not, if they have AHCCCS or not. They still provide the services for them,” she said.

“That is something we work on very close with them, because when they get here, a lot of them, they haven’t received medical care in the longest time because they didn’t have AHCCCS, they didn’t have any health insurance. Some of their kids, they’re behind with their immunizations. So we connect them with those services so that they can at least be current in the time that they are here.”

De Colores also helps victims find affordable housing outside the shelter at the conclusion of their 90-day program.

“Not long ago, we had a program that was open just for victims of domestic violence. So out of those, I think it was 101 applicants, they chose 20, and out of those 20, some of our clients were selected to receive a housing voucher,” Cisneros said. “We call it the ‘golden ticket’ because as long as they follow the rules and they pay their rent and continue to follow the guidelines, they can be under the program’s housing for life.”

Madrid was a “golden ticket” recipient. She applied for the program because it gave her hope, as she had no family or friends to depend on once she had to leave the shelter.

“I was selected to receive housing benefits. I was in a drawing, essentially, for these benefits, and fortunately I was chosen for a one-bedroom apartment,” Madrid said. “I am living happily there now. I don’t have furniture. Nevertheless, it tastes like glory being in my own space.”

Latinx victims empowered

A domestic violence shelter like De Colores is important because it aids an underserved population, Cisneros said.

“We are the only ones that serve the Hispanic community and have Spanish speaking staff,” she said. “Some of the clients that have come to us from other shelters, they tell us, ‘It’s so hard for them to understand our culture, it’s really hard for others to understand that this is how we raise kids, it’s frustrating that they don’t understand even the food or how to talk to us, they don’t understand a lot of the things that we, immigrant women fleeing domestic violence, face every day. It is important that we are here.”

A playground was built at De Colores for the children of the victims residing at the shelter. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

Madrid felt comfortable and accepted at De Colores.

“First of all, they speak your language. Second, they understand your necessities. While there are victims of other ethnicities there, the majority are Hispanic,” she said. “They guide you toward resources, and they support you.”

Discussing abuse helped her understand her situation.

“My case manager and the talks about domestic violence, how to detect it, what to do, how to overcome it and what traces it leaves, that, for me, was fundamental,” Madrid said. “They explain it to you in a way that you slowly digest what happened to you.”

Chicanos Por La Causa and De Colores also have connected Madrid with academic opportunities, and she’s on track to earn a general equivalency diploma. She hopes to get a university degree, but even more, she wants to share her story with others.

“If I have life, I want to contribute by volunteering and speaking about my experiences,” Madrid said. “I want people to understand that violence is not good under any circumstances. Not verbal, not psychical, not economic, not sexual. It’s very hurtful and deteriorating. A lot of people commit suicide.”

Suicide was something Madrid contemplated when she was at her lowest, having just arrived at De Colores. A combination of the abuse she suffered and a series of hospitalizations and medical diagnoses left her severely depressed.

“Before, I used to say, ‘I want to die now. Why am I here? I already lived, I’ve grown up, I reproduced, it’s the cycle of life. I’ll die,'” Madrid recalled. “I was a recluse in my room. I didn’t feel like doing anything. I couldn’t stop crying.”

After receiving abnormal findings in a mammogram, she got psychological and psychiatric help through De Colores and began to see things differently.

“Having been at the shelter for a while and working with my psychiatrist, I realized my future wasn’t so hopeless after all. God existed, and I’ve always believed in Him. I spoke to God and said, ‘If you want me here, I’m going to keep going.'”

Although she’s still battling with the aftermath of domestic violence, Madrid described De Colores as a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

“My life has changed.”

So why is domestic violence prevalent among Latinxs?

Not everyone finds that light at the end of the tunnel, though. Fifty percent of Latinas who experience abuse never report it and never seek help.

Cultural and immigration barriers, as well as a general unawareness, are some of the factors that prevent Latinx – individuals of Latin American descent who identify themselves as gender neutral – victims of abuse from seeking help.

“It’s part of the culture,” Cisneros said. “Coming from a Mexican background, I think a lot of us are raised, ‘Well, whatever happens in your house stays in your house.’ You don’t disclose that information to anyone. You don’t want anyone else knowing your business. I hear a lot of older aunts in my family say, ‘Es lo que te toca’ (You get what you get).”

Cisneros also said the current political climate can discourage undocumented victims from leaving their abuser.

“They get threatened, especially if the spouse is a permanent resident or U.S. citizen,” she said. “That’s what we get a lot from clients. ‘He threatened me with keeping the kids and not being able to see them anymore,’ or, ‘He was going to call ICE on me, and I was going to get deported,’ or even, ‘He was going to kill me or the kids before I did anything to flee the situation.'”

Finally, a lack of education on the topic not only directly affects the victim, but generations to come, Cisneros said.

“It hurts the one that is facing the abuse, but it also passes onto the kids, because they’re seeing that (abuse), and as they grow, they see it as a normal thing.”

There is help

Cisneros wants to see “a lot more outreach to the Hispanic community about this topic.”

“A lot of them, they don’t know that we have centers like this that are out there to provide services for victims of domestic violence,” she said. “Just speak up, and even if we don’t have the space available, there’s always hope for that situation.”

Ginger Butcher, director of victim services at Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence, said the coalition has a help line with two bilingual advocates.

Ginger Butcher, director of victim services at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence, says the coalition’s help line has two bilingual advocates. (Photo by Andrea Estrada/Cronkite News)

“We also have a chat line. So if people are not comfortable calling, they can access it through the website, and chat with someone online if they’re more comfortable in that format,” she said.

Callers have what’s called privileged communication, Butcher said.

“Any information that’s disclosed to us, we keep with a very high level of confidentiality. If someone called us and said that they needed help with their immigration status, that’s certainly not anything that we would ever report,” she said.

“We answer the help line from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. We’re available to speak with people about any number of issues. Survivors can call to get resources and referrals.

“They can call and talk to somebody just when they’re overwhelmed with their situation and they don’t even know what they need, then our specialists will be happy to help them, kind of break it down and help them figure out what kind of resources they might be able to access in the community.”

Madrid advises fellow abused women to seek the help that’s available and remain optimistic. Hope, she said, is the key to moving forward.

“They are lessons to learn from and overcome. Sometimes people dwell on it, and believe it’s not simple to recover, but it is when you put in effort and a positive attitude.”

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