By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan
Even though its been several months now since “Lety” left her abusive husband, she still carries a veil of fear and pain that looms over her daily routine. She constantly glances through the crowds on the bus, she feels unsafe on the streets and at times she even guards the outskirts of church while in mass. Ironically enough though, she experiences much more freedom in her current life than she has in years. As a single mother from Michoacan, MX, Lety left her hometown in 1991 with her three- month old son in hopes of coming to the United States. Soon after her arrival, she met “Paco.” The man she would later marry and have two children with (currently 11 years old and six). As if on a downward spiral, Lety suddenly found herself trying to survive as a wife, mother, monolingual Spanish speaker and battered woman. Feeling helpless and confused, Lety succumbed to enduring erratic physical and mental abuse that left her feeling lonely for a decade.
Being alone, however couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Just like Lety thousands of women are held hostage to their partner’s abuse for fear of retaliation and long term isolation. On average more than three women and murdered by their partner’s every day in the U.S alone, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund. The harm goes far beyond the physical, leaving women emotionally vulnerable to their partner’s actions and words. Lety vividly remembers how Paco constantly asked her for forgiveness after abusing her. As if subjected to a magic spell Lety always returned and forgave.
“He has a peculiar way of convincing people,” said Lety of her husband. “ He wouldn’t just convince me to take him back, but he would also convince those around us into believing there was no problem.”
In addition to Paco’s emotional hold on Lety, possible deportation from the country always worried her. As an undocumented resident, she recalls feeling the distress of making a wrong move that could result in her expulsion. Aware of her uneasiness on the subject, Paco would threaten Lety by telling her he would call Immigration services if she ever thought of calling the authorities. A typical scenario, not foreign to Najia Zarif from the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program. As a trilingual legal assistant, Zarif deals with Spanish speaking clients and their battle against domestic violence on a daily basis. Perhaps equally as important she also holds the listening ears for women who have refrained from exposing their problems for so long. Hispanic women who make up about one third of their clientele are generally apprehensive about seeking out help on their abusive situations. They usually do so upon threats that Child Protective Services will take their children away if no guidance or assistance is pursued. Although help was sought, Lety currently faces the battle of child custody. Paco cares for their 11-year-old son and six-year old girl, while Lety currently cares for her 14-year-old son. Although she is allowed to see both her children once a week, she fears Paco might win custody over her 14-year-old son because of greater economic stability. She insists however, that will never happen.
Hispanic women as a whole still respond to the services with uncertainty. Cultural and linguistic barriers play such as prominent role that often times women are led to believe that they deserve the abuse, finding no other source that tells them otherwise.
“The machista factor in males brings forth a tricky situation,” said Zarif. “In one way it’s attractive to the some Hispanic females, but on the other hand it facilitates the mistreatment of women.”
Lety knows this firsthand. Having survived punches, kicks, shoves, rape and even a knife to her throat she truly believed that as a mother and wife she had to accept her husband’s actions. Those surrounding her reaffirmed her thoughts at the time.
“I would always tell my sisters about Paco,” recalled Lety. “But they would told me I had to put up with the abuse because he was my husband. You got yourself into this they would say.”
The Madge Bradely Family Courthouse processes more than 3,000 restraining orders annually through their branches in Vista, El Cajon, South Bay and San Diego. The San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program provides free legal services to both legal and illegal residents who seek guidance in legal affairs and social support systems. With funding from Altria Corporation in Sacramento Ca, the SDVLP has made the seemingly impossible, possible. The center is staffed with only two full time employees who receive assistance from local volunteers who act as pillars to the program’s success. Child custody evaluations, short-term marriage counseling, parent orientation and parenting classes are only few of the services provided. Amongst their many goals, however, ending the cycle of violence in current and future generations is on top of the list. Although mostly erased from her memory, Lety vaguely recalls her father hitting her mother while in their home. Despite remembering her mother’s pain and strife to survive the abuse, she still remembers her father with great compassion and mercy. Several years later she’s confronted with seeing the mold come to life. Lety explains how her 14 year old son often disrespects her by yelling at her and imitating his father’s temper.
“ I love my son so much,” said Lety. “But in his eyes his father can do no wrong. At times it’s as if I’m listening to Paco through my son. He’s never hit me but at times he tells me that he wants to.”
In order to cure this continuation of violence throughout generations, Steve Allen from the San Diego Domestic Violence Council believes the implementation of mandatory teachings and dialogue on domestic violence in schools can help counteract the physiological abuse that comes along with the physical.
In spite of Lety’s consistent struggle to survive through her abusive relationship, she’s found true comfort in knowing that she does in fact have rights. She lived in shelters, wandered the streets and relied on others for her survival. All taken into consideration, though, she has prevailed. Although she’s still intimidated by the legal proceedings of the country, she tells that SDVLP was undoubtedly a gift from God.
“It’s important to understand that immigrants often don’t know what their rights are,” said Carl Poirot, Executive Director of SDVLP. “They don’t have rights in their countries of origin, so they assume the same applies here.”
If funding permits, SDVLP is currently working on employing a bilingual attorney who could assist victims of domestic violence without the need to having to reach a courthouse. Poirot acknowledges that only a relatively small portion of victimized women go to the courthouse, thus opening the opportunity for women to get help without necessarily going through the legal proceedings.
It is important to note though that all races are more or less equally vulnerable to domestic violence and contrary to popular belief physical abuse is not limited to poor neighborhoods or minority households.
As days pass, Lety’s self esteem begins to improve rapidly. Although hardships still follow, she has in fact achieved what seemed impossible in the past. She lives her life now looking forward to her future while feeling proud of what she’s currently accomplishing. No easy price to pay, but worth it nonetheless.
If you or somebody you know is a victim of domestic violence, call the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program to hear of their free services at 619- 687-2229