Laura is someone who always seems to have a smile on her face, and possesses a sense of humor that transcends language barriers. She is also a survivor of domestic violence. Her positive attitude is in no way the result of an easy life; as Laura herself often likes to remark, “after four years of therapy,” she has worked hard to get where she is today, and has demonstrated incredible personal strength and growth along the way.
Laura first arrived to the United States in 2002 from her native Mexico looking for better economic opportunities. But along with her first job in this country came her first abusive relationship. “We had many conflicts,” Laura remembers, “because he had another way of thinking, a very chauvinist one. He was very jealous, very possessive, he just had other ideas. He had the idea that women were sexual objects, or he thought of them as the maids of the house.” Living in the competitive Bay Area and needing to support her children back home, Laura did not have the luxury of staying home, and what had started as possessiveness quickly escalated into a nightmare of verbal, physical, and sexual violence, as well as frightening harassment at her place of work. With help from her friends and family, as well as a temporary hiatus from her job in San Francisco, Laura was able to escape her abusive relationship. One friend in particular seemed invested in supporting Laura, and soon a romance blossomed between them. Unfortunately, once their relationship became intimate, the same man who had seemed trustworthy and sympathetic as a friend turned to the same controlling and abusive tactics that her previous partner had used. Once again, Laura’s life was hijacked by domestic violence.
Laura’s introduction to W.O.M.A.N., Inc. occurred after a concerned manager at work gave her a list of domestic violence resources. By that point, Laura was experiencing mental and physical symptoms of extreme trauma, in large part due to ongoing stalking and assaults by her abuser, in spite of having separated from him and filing for a restraining order. She was also attempting to navigate a Child Protective Services investigation without any language support. As a survivor of abuse herself, the accusation that she had abused her daughter was confusing and painful. Remembering that experience, Laura remarks, “Not knowing many things, I messed up…the social worker told me they would execute an ‘action plan,’ but I didn’t know what it was because the paper was in English. I did not know that the first pages said that I was accepting what I had done to her [the alleged child abuse]. And that the so-called ‘action plan’ allowed them to send me to parenting classes, to court and everything, since I was admitting that I was beating her.” At W.O.M.A.N., Inc., Laura was able to access a Spanish-language domestic violence support group and also met Argelia Gomez, then the Latina Program Manager, who became her case manager. With Argelia’s support, Laura was able to enroll in the mandated parenting classes, obtain affordable legal counsel, and find a Spanish-speaking therapist. Laura also recalls the importance W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s 24-7 Support Line played during the darkest days of her ordeal when emergencies occurred after business hours.
During this time that Laura was leaning heavily on her instinct for survival and attempting to recover her life, health, and daughter, she decided to press charges against her abuser: “Argelia said to me, ‘You have to start to defending yourself. Assert your rights from now on, and not just at work, but also in relationships.’’’ For many months, her efforts were stalled by his evasion of law enforcement, until one day, Laura spotted him at the party of a mutual friend’s family. She immediately called the police, who detained him, and the outcome of the subsequent trial was his deportation back to his country of origin. In spite of this legal victory, Laura realized that the departure of her abusers from her life did not erase the damage they had inflicted upon her. She continued her work in individual and group therapy for four years. “Coming to therapy here helped me a lot. They would start showing us the cycle of violence, and I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I went through that.’ First when you’re falling in love, then you get hit, then the forgive-me phase, and I would say, ‘how can this be possible?’” In addition to learning about the cycle of abuse and the dynamic of power and control that distinguish domestic violence, Laura also acquired the tools to help her develop healthy, nonviolent relationships. By the time Laura met her current husband, she was able to prioritize her own needs and set firm boundaries. “At the beginning [of our relationship], he would always call me a lot,” Laura recalls. “And I would tell him, ‘Sorry, but this is called control…no, no. One call, and a message is enough. If I have the time I’ll answer, if not, I won’t…I’m not hiding anything, but you have to respect my space.’” Laura reports that her new suitor was a quick and willing learner of the knowledge she had to share, and to this day they have a healthy, loving relationship characterized by mutual respect.
In addition to her happy marriage, these days Laura is working on starting her own business and awaiting the results of her U-Visa application so that she can apply for permanent residency. She has also taken to championing the usefulness of community-based programs as a means for self-improvement among her friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. To those who are similarly confronted with domestic violence in their lives, Laura says, “I feel that the first step that people who are in [domestic violence] situations can take is to find ways to recover their self-esteem. I feel that when they are feeling good, they’ll learn to value themselves overall and easily realize that the relationship is not healthy…and if they return to the [abuser], I feel it doesn’t matter, because I know that they will later try again; I tried several times. The first thing they have to know is that they are not alone. That there are people, there is help, and all they need to do is to decide. We should never feel alone, because we’re not; we only believe we are alone. We are valuable; we are the ones who are going to make this country and our families. We’ve got to thrive.”
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence or contact the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
To access domestic violence support services in the San Francisco Bay Area, please contact W.O.M.A.N., Inc. at (415) 864-4722 or toll free at (877) DVHELPU 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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