Domestic Violence Through the Latino Lens

Anabela was only 14 years old when she became pregnant, and eventually married the father of her son and the man who she believed loved her. That love turned sour, though, when her husband became her abuser. Anabela's situation became so dire that she ran away from home, only to be kidnapped by her husband who also tried to kill her. While her physical scars are vivid reminders of the abuse, Anabela doesn't consider herself a victim, but rather a survivor. Today, she's a successful Los Angeles entrepreneur and a volunteer with Peace Over Violence, a California-based organization which provides intervention, prevention, education and advocacy for victims of domestic violence.

Unfortunately, Anabela is not at all alone in her story; nearly one in four Latinas will experience domestic violence during their lifetime, and Latinas are only half as likely to report abuse to author­ities compared to victims from other cultures. And while domestic violence occurs across all ethnic groups, economic levels and social backgrounds, it is how Latinas respond to these incidences that marks a difference.

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Family principles a part of the problem?

Although the concept of machismo is engrained in the Latin culture touts the strength of men, experts actually link domestic abuse to the particular pillar of family values. In Latino communities, the family is essential. According Ambar Hanson, Senior Trainer for the National Latina Network for Healthy Families and Communities through Casa de Esperanza, Latinos live under a very developed concept of familiarismo: keeping the family together is first and foremost. The message is clear: "You have to stay; that's your family. You need to keep the children and the parents together; that's the way it is." But family can hinder or bring further harm into a domestic abuse situation if there's no positive support given.

Traditionally deep religious roots emphasize this message further stressing the importance of keeping the sanctity of marriage and divorce out of the conversation. According to Hanson, Latin victims tend to blame themselves ("What did I do to make him hit me?"), or keep silent. Others also try to analyze the situation and find the reason behind an abuser's actions.

Help for victims and abusers

Dr. Julia Perilla, Georgia State University professor and Director of the National Latin@ Research Center on Family and Social Change, believes that there's hope not only for victims, but for the abusive partner as well. When taking a further look at Latin families where the husband was undergoing court-mandated intervention, Dr. Perilla found that the families wanted to stay together, even when the possibility of domestic crisis was still an issue.

For these types of families, Caminar Latino in Atlanta, Georgia is an option for rehabilitation. The facility, founded in 1990, offers a home for families in therapy and aims to help mothers and children, while husbands complete the 24-week intervention classes. The success has been positive: 70%-80% of the Latino men graduate from the classes (as opposed to a 30%-40% graduation rate in other ethnic groups), and 50%-60% of those men do not go back to abusing their spouses.

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Signs of abuse and abusive relationships

If you're experiencing any form of abuse, advice includes:

1. Call the police/911: Especially in a life-threatening situation or if there may be impending harm on someone in the family.

2. Know that you're not alone: There are a number of local services and organizations that offer support. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1(800)799-7233 or 1(800)799-SAFE. You can request a Spanish speaker or interpreter if needed.

3. Know your rights: You have the right to get help; you have the right not to identify your status in this country.

If a friend or family member is experiencing any form of abuse:

1. Ask: "What can I do to help? I'm concerned for your safety", but do not take action against the abuser on your own.

2. If you witness abuse, contact the police immediately.

3. Call a domestic abuse advocate to get further advice on what to do

If you want to help fight domestic abuse in your community:

1. Find a local organization in your area, and ask how you can help. It may be through monetary donations, but you can also help by donating time or supplies.

2. Put an important lifeline in the hands of a domestic abuse victim by donating your no-longer-used cellphone to Verizon's Hopeline campaign.

For content that speaks to you, visit Shine Latina.

Ambar Cristina Hanson, MPA, is the National Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator at Casa de Esperanza-the National Latin@ Institute on Domestic Violence. She's originally from the Dominican Republic and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mexican-American Anabela is a domestic violence survivor from Los Angeles. She's a businesswoman, entrepreneur and a volunteer with Peace Over Violence.

Dr. Julia Perrilla is a Ph.D. in Psychology, Georgia State University professor and Director of the National Latin@ Research Center on Family and Social Change. She's originally from Colombia and now resides in Atlanta, Georgia.

We would also like to thank Elva Lima, Executive Director, Community Relations and Multicultural Communications at Verizon Wireless, for her collaboration towards the writing of this article.