Two East Tennessee women say they escaped domestic violence, the “love that kills.” They tell their stories in the hopes that others in their situation will see a way out. Speaking through interpreters, they asked that their real names not be revealed.
“Marisol” immigrated in search of work and a better life, and “Teresa” came to the U.S. hoping her children would have more opportunities. Instead, both Latin American women found themselves trapped by domestic violence.
While this crime of power that can happen to anyone, Latina immigrants in the U.S. face barriers that non-Latinas do not.
“Latinas often have taboos regarding their sexuality, gender role issues and the importance of ‘familia’,” says Alianza, the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence.
A strong sense of culture, and a belief in family obligations, may cause some Latinas to treat an abusive spouse as a “cross to bear,” the organization says on its website.
In Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, Latinas can face even more barriers. Some shelters do not provide bilingual services, and victims may be afraid to report domestic violence because of their legal status.
Kathy Johnson, executive director of Bristol-based Abuse Alternatives, said that the shelter does not see many Latina clients. While there are no bilingual staff members, volunteers do provide language services to victims.
“I know there is a Hispanic community here, but we are not having that many victims reach out for our services,” Johnson said.
One reason could be that the Latino population is not as large as it is in other areas of the country, Johnson said. Another reason could be a communication barrier.
“I think they are afraid, a lot of times, because they don’t trust the system,” Johnson said.
Latina victims may be told that if they report domestic violence, they could be deported or lose custody of their children.
While Abuse Alternatives does ask clients about their legal status, the shelter also provides resources to help Latinas sort out their immigration problems – while keeping them protected.
“We are there to provide a service to them regardless of sex, race or national origin,” Johnson said. “We are there to help them, whatever their needs may be. Don’t be afraid to reach out for services.”
Breaking the silence
“Marisol,” a woman in her 20s, sits quietly in the McDonald’s booth, her hands laced and resting on the table.
She met her boyfriend in Mexico before she made the journey to the U.S. Then the man, who was living on the East Coast, found out through mutual friends that she was here. He began to call.
“At that time I was unemployed,” Marisol said. “He offered to bring me to where he was, and said that I didn’t have to be with him. He sweet-talked me. He told me I would have a job, money and a house.”
When she arrived, he treated her as a friend. After a time, she did not get a job. The man quickly became jealous of other men’s interest in Marisol, so he began to tell people they were together. He began treating her like his wife.
He hit her for the first time after falsely accusing her of infidelity.
“He grabbed me by the hair and started punching me in the face,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“He would hit me in the stomach and kick me. I would try to tell him to let me explain, because things were not as they seemed.”
That night, he told her he was going to make her life impossible.
“I felt terrible, like a piece of trash,” she said. “I felt caged in his world, because I don’t have any family. I didn’t know where to go. I started fearing him, and it was a terrible fear.”
The abuse became verbal, physical and psychological. He would humiliate her at every opportunity, she said, and he prohibited her from leaving the apartment. It was his decision for them to move to East Tennessee.
“I had no choice,” she said. “I had nobody.”
She was eventually offered a job in another state. Seeing a way out, she told him she was leaving. He said he was returning to Mexico.
However, after she left he became very ill. His hair fell out and he lost weight. She had been gone three weeks before she received a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line said her boyfriend was dying in the hospital, so she returned.
When she arrived, she learned he had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
“I would look at him and think, I cannot do this to him, I cannot leave him,” she said. “And I wondered how I could start my life over with anyone else.”
In the hospital, her boyfriend promised he would change, that he would stop drinking and that he would take care of her.
“I don’t know if it was love or security,” she said. “I believed him.”
He did not hit her or drink for a year. One night he returned home from work drunk. The abuse began again.
When he broke her nose, a womanfrom a local church told Marisol she would help.
“I did not take the chance,” Marisol said. “With only his stares he would look at me and I would be so scared of him.”
The day after he gave her two black eyes, she had a doctor’s appointment. Her bruises were reported to the police and Marisol was taken to a local domestic violence shelter.
Although she went back to him, she said her “eyes were opened because of the shelter.”
“I knew I had a choice to get out of all of this,” Marisol said.
When she finally caught him with another woman inside their apartment, she said nothing.
“I walked out,” she said, “and I said to myself, ‘My life is over.’”
He told her he was leaving because the other woman was “more of a woman.”
“He said to me, ‘You are nothing, worthless,’” she said. “All those words he told me, they scar my heart.”
Marisol attempted suicide by swallowing 150 pills, which made her violently ill.
“Eventually I said, ‘God please help me, I don’t want to die.’ I had to ask him for help.”
When she told her boyfriend he was unsympathetic.
“He said if I wanted to die he had a gun,” she said. “He yelled at me and told me that if I wanted to die it would just take one shot.”
Thirty minutes passed before he would take her to a hospital. She walked into the emergency room with the pill bottle in her hand.
“With the words I could find, I said, ‘Help me, I took this,’” she said.
When she woke up, someone from the hospital’s psychiatric office was there. She decided to call her partner on the phone to tell him she was being moved to a different floor.
When he answered, she could hear the other woman’s voice in the background.
Instead of telling him she was being moved, “I decided not to say anything,” she said. “I told him not to worry, I was OK.”
She told an interpreter from the domestic violence shelter what had happened, how she didn’t want to be with her partner anymore. At last, Marisol found her way out.
Marisol’s life has improved dramatically since her suicide attempt. She has spoken with psychiatrists and counselors. She now has a job, independence and renewed faith.
“Thanks to the psychiatrists, the talks I had and the chance God gave me, I am like a new person,” she said.
“I am not afraid anymore. My security came back just to know that God is my breath of air, of new life. I learned to forgive.”
The problems of women in these situations are not limited to physical abuse. Another woman, “Teresa,” experienced sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband.
When they came to the United States, he — like Marisol’s partner — told his wife he would change. The abuse did not stop, and it nearly cost Teresa her life.
With her mother’s help, Teresa was able to escape.
“Now that I am not with him I am a lot more calm about things,” she said. “But at this point, to say that I wake up in the morning to enjoy the day — I can’t say that yet. Nonetheless, I am still grateful to God for keeping me here, for my children’s sake. I put up with all of this, I went through all of this for my kids.”
The path to healing
Both Marisol and Teresa have found forgiveness in their pain. However, both have advice for women dealing with domestic violence.
“If they do find an opportunity, someone who offers them help, do not stop,” Marisol said. “Just go for it. They have to tell themselves, ‘That’s it. No more.’”
Teresa advised young women to trust, to lean on their mothers. Your mother, she said, will always believe you.
“It’s a hard thing to talk about,” Teresa said. “It’s not something I want to talk about. But bring it all out to light, because this causes really severe physical and psychological problems.”
“The most important thing would be to seek God, with His love and peacefulness you will find tranquility,” Marisol said. “All their lives will be completely different. They will see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Each woman ended her interview with heartfelt words.
“There is always a light of hope,” Marisol said.
“They are not alone,” Teresa said.
Where to find help
The Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence began a free legal clinic based in Nashville “to address the unique problems faced by immigrant victims of domestic or sexual violence.”
The clinic helps immigrants who are victims of domestic violence who could not otherwise pay an attorney. For more information on this clinic, please visit www.tcadvs.org or call 615-386-9406.
Abuse Alternatives, in Bristol, can be reached at 423-764-2287.
Safe Passage, in Johnson City, can be reached at 423-232-8920. Their 24-hour hotline is 423-926-7233
Hope House, a Kingsport-based center that provides long-term housing, counseling and pre-natal care, can be reached at 423-239-7994.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which provides interpreters, is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233.
Originally published in El Nuevo Bristol Herald Courier