CONTENT DISCLAIMER: Mentions of domestic and emotional abuse, harassment, sexual assault and rape. Resources listed at the end.
EStrella was a freshman in high school when she and her boyfriend of three years once again got into an argument about him touching her inappropriately in public. From groping her to talking disrespectfully to her in front of her friends, arguments have often led to him crying and giving gifts in an attempt to earn her forgiveness.
The two men had gone to an isolated area late at night to discuss his behavior. Estrella said that despite her intention to break up with him that night, her promises to change her ways gave her hope and kept her in the relationship with him for another year.
They talked for an hour that evening. He threw the flowers, jacket, sweater, and blanket he gave Estrella into the back seats of his car. He started kissing Estrella and forced himself on her. “I always blame myself because I think, ‘Why should I let this happen,'” Estrella said.
Now a sophomore in college, Estrella is one of many women who blame themselves for the sexual violence they have endured. Of every 1,000 sexual assault cases, 310 go unreported to police, according to the largest sexual violence organization, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Estrella is one such case.
She said it was only two months after their split that she realized her ex-boyfriend had sexually assaulted her. She said her failure to recognize the gravity of the situation was partly rooted in how her Latinx parents raised her to support and care for men.
Estrella said she would vaguely communicate to her mother the various instances where her boyfriend made her feel uncomfortable, but her mother would suggest “that’s the way men are.”
“My parents were old fashioned in that sense, they made me think that if a man did something to me it was because it was my fault,” Estrella said, leading her to believe that the way she was being treated was normal.
Estrelle said that toxic masculinity, the cultural expectation for men to behave in stereotypically masculine ways, such as exercising dominance or aggression, is prevalent in Latinx culture. Of 5.4 million Hispanic/Latina women, 36.1% have experienced sexual violence, 2010 study finds National Intimate Partners and Sexual Violence Survey.
Nina Wilson, professor of women’s and gender studies at DePaul, works on the education team at Resilience, a nonprofit sexual violence resource organization. Wilson said toxic masculinity and misogyny are a response to historical mistreatment of black and brown communities. Wilson said she believes both are natural responses to systems of violence such as colonization, imperialism, and contemporary variants of capitalism and neoliberalism. “Many of these processes have used gender-based violence to do harm and unfortunately black and brown people have had to assimilate, succumb and perpetuate harmful gender roles, or die,” Wilson said.
The perpetuation of sexual violence is not just exclusive to Latinx communities. “It’s really a systemic problem, it’s happening everywhere,” Wilson said.
Sexual violence against women of color has deep roots in United States history. Enslaved black women were often raped by their white slave owners, according to Prevent connection, a national project that helps prevent sexual assault and violence in relationships. After the end of slavery, physical and sexual violence remained prevalent against black and indigenous communities, making black women among the first women to break the silence about rape.
“Particularly in the community of women of color, where other forms of trauma such as systemic oppression and discrimination already exist, they may experience an intense response or worsen symptoms they already had. [to sexual violence]“Said Sara Heidbreder, specialist in the prevention of sexual and relational violence.
Yasmine is another Latina who has suffered sexual violence.
During their high school winter break, 15-year-old Yasmine was smoking a joint of marijuana with her friend in her bedroom. The two had met the summer before eighth grade and struck up a good friendship, often bonding over similar family issues growing up.
After smoking, he offered her a yellow Xanax pill. Although hesitant to take it, Yasmine said it happened quickly and her friend assured her that everything would be fine. Yasmine said he convinced her again by telling Yasmine that her boyfriend would come soon.
Yasmine’s boyfriend never came that night.
Within hours, Yasmine and her friend had finished an entire bottle of prescription Xanax.
Yasmine said she had no memory of that night. Later, she found a picture on her phone of her and her friend lying on her bed. In his hand were thirteen yellow pills.
She woke up the next day and her friend told her they had sex. “I couldn’t even believe it, I was so amazed and disgusted,” Yasmine said.
It was only two years later, when Yasmine fell into a depressive episode because she could no longer bear the silence, that she told her parents that she had been raped.
Yasmine remembers her father asking her if someone had touched her and how it triggered her emotions. “I wasn’t going to lie, I just started crying and widening my eyes,” Yasmine said. “Immediately they knew something had happened. I broke down and told them the whole situation, all the drugs, everything.
Rocio Lozano, director of the sexual assault program at Mujeres Latinas en Accion, said stigma still exists in the Latinx community when trying to find professional help.
“[Latinos] we care a lot about what our family thinks of us, culturally, we always try to please the family and in trying to please the family, or to avoid what they will say, we don’t seek services,” said said Lozano. Survivors may also refuse to seek professional help because the abuser might live nearby, such as in the same building, building or neighborhood, Lozano said.
Most child and adolescent victims of sexual abuse are committed by someone they know. Of sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement, 93 percent of child victims knew the abuser was either an acquaintance or a family member, according to RAINN. “The fact that the survivor knows this person is already traumatic and prevents them from asking for help,” Lozano said.
Heidbreder said survivors should be empowered to make their own decisions about who and where to seek help.
For Estrella, it was difficult to seek professional help, she felt distrust of predominantly white institutions. “A majority of white therapists wouldn’t understand cultural differences in the same way,” Estrella said.
Heidbreder said that for some, reaching out to family or community members can feel a lot safer than reaching out to professionals.
Psychology and gender-based violence expert Megan Greeson said seeking professional help can help survivors cope with some of the repercussions of sexual assault such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders and more. “The most important thing is to believe them and share the empathy,” Greeson said. “Don’t question them, judge them, or suggest that the survivor should have behaved differently.”
Estrella said survivors should take it minute by minute. “It’s so hard when you realize what happened to you,” Estrella said. “You feel so naked, no matter how many layers you put on, you try to scrub it off in the shower, you try to do whatever you can to get rid of that feeling. No matter how tight someone holds you, you kind of stay with that feeling, but eventually it goes away. We feel it from time to time, but it’s getting better.
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The names of the survivors have been changed for privacy reasons and the identities of the alleged perpetrators have not been released as they were students at the time of the incidents.
This story was originally published by The DePaulia April 10. Reprinted with permission.
Resources: If you or someone you know has been abused, resources are available through the National Rape, Abuse & Incest Network (RAINN) at rainn.org. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.
Mujeres Latinas en Accion has three locations in Chicago: Pilsen, Brighton Park and North Riverside. Bilingual services are available to everyone, regardless of immigration status.
Not by my own community offers domestic violence support services located in Hyde Park.
Center for the Advancement of Inner Peace located at 813 S. Western Avenue offers professional resources for addiction treatment, psychology and community counseling.
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Jacqueline Cardenas is an undergraduate journalism student with a concentration in Latin American communications at DePaul University, where she serves as editor of The DePaulia. She is a first-generation Mexican-American. This is her first story in the Weekly.