When Gloria experienced intimate partner violence in her relationship, she had a very difficult time turning to her family for help. It was particularly hard to open up to her mom, who had her own history of trauma. And, the founder of an organization that works with survivors offers strategies for breaking the cycle.
Our expert this week is Susan Rubio Rivera, founder of M.U.J.E.R. If you or a loved one need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233. Visit her organization here. If you loved this episode, be sure to listen to When's the Time to Write a Will? and Dad's Mental Illness On His Own Terms.
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Hi, everybody. Today, my guest is Gloria. A few years ago, Gloria experienced intimate partner violence in a relationship. She eventually walked away but opening up to her mom and getting the support she wanted was nearly impossible. Let’s get into it.
My name is Gloria Martinez, and my family comes from Puebla. They immigrated to the U.S. actually when my mom was eight months pregnant with me, so I do always like to say that I was made in Mexico, but exported to the U.S., and I grew up my whole life in Southern California. I’m one of seven children in my family. I’m the third eldest. And in my family, we call my mom mom now. Originally, when we were little we used to call her mamí. And papí. But now it’s just mom and dad.
My mom… I have very few memories of her actually growing up. She was always doing something around the household. She never really sat down to talk to us. She was always just so busy. Both of them were. I mean, they both worked really, really, really hard. So, there wasn’t really much of a relationship between my mom and I, and the relationship between my dad and I was… You know, very typical. Very authoritative.
When I was in college, my parents split up, so they were always a unit and I thought even though they’re somewhat dysfunctional, we’re still a family. But last year of college my parents broke up, and I was trying to find some kind of comfort. I ended up meeting this person at work. He was actually older than I was, and I thought, “Well, he’s older, he’s probably more mature, he knows what he wants, he’s not gonna be playing games.” And I just wanted some kind of comfort and safety, because I felt that my whole life was kind of falling apart and if I could have some stability in my life, then it would make me feel like everything was okay.
And it’s interesting, because I feel like I quickly saw some red flags, but I chose to ignore them. I started noticing that he was a little bit possessive, and I think seeing the way that my dad was with my mom growing up made it seem like it was okay but having gone to college and having seen relationships that didn’t look like my mom and dad’s relationship made it seem like it wasn’t. So, I was a little bit confused and part of me was like, “Well, this feels like… This feels familiar, so it must be okay.”
Fast forward, we ended up getting pregnant, and that made it a little bit more difficult for me to pull away from the relationship, because I said, “Well, now we’re a family and mom says that you try no matter what, and she’s been trying no matter what.” So, I was trying. You know, it started off with him just calling me names. He called me so many things. I guess I was probably the one who initiated that, because I’ve never been insulted in such a way that I felt so much rage and anger inside of me that I slapped him, you know, and I asked him never to call me those things.
Well, he slapped me back. Not once, but it was like back to back to back, and that was the first time that the violence showed up. I just cried. I grabbed the baby, and I was just crying. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run away. I wanted to leave. But I was also very ashamed. I didn’t want to go to my parents and tell them like, “Hey, this happened.” Or to my mom, because my dad was no longer in the picture, but I didn’t want to go to her and tell her this is what’s happening in my life, I don’t know what to do, can you please help me? I just… I didn’t know how to do that.
It happened again, and that second time I grabbed the baby, I walked away, I called my mom, and I told her to please go pick me up, and she did. My brother actually showed up with her. I don’t know. They didn’t talk to me about what happened. They didn’t ask me. All they said is like, “Are you okay?” And I said yes, and I would just go to sleep every night, and just like have all of these feelings inside of me, and all of these thoughts that I couldn’t… I just couldn’t talk to my mom. And she never asked me, like she never dug. There was just silence. There was just silence, and no one talked about it. Everybody knew what happened, but nobody talked about it.
You know, I would leave, and then he would convince me to come back. I remember visiting her once and I overheard her talking about me in a way that she was pretty much saying that I wasn’t very smart. In her words, una mensa, you know? Que era bien mensa porque, I hadn’t learned my lesson. And that hurt a lot. And I told her, like, “Why are you talking about me? Why don’t you talk to me? You’re not even asking me if things are okay, if I’m feeling broken, you’re not giving me any advice, you’re not telling me what to do. You’ve clearly gone through all of this, so where are you? Where are you as a mom? Where are you as a support system? How am I supposed to know this? How am I supposed to know what to do? How am I supposed to know?”
But I didn’t realize that it’s because she was struggling with her own understanding of what it meant to be a partner, what it meant to be a part of a relationship. After I realized that, and it took a lot for me to figure all of that out, but after I realized that I was like… I was a lot more understanding of her situation. And it took a couple of years, but I forgave her. I realized that she just didn’t have the tools.
Gloria’s story really touched me. The way she spoke about her relationship with her mom made me think about those feelings that keep us quiet and disconnected in times of crisis. Confusion, shame, fear of being judged. It can be really difficult to overcome them and to reach out. To help us figure out how, I did what I always do. I called in an expert.
Susan Rubio Rivera:
My name is Susan Rubio Rivera. I am the founder and executive director of an organization called MUJER, which stands for Women United in Justice, Education, and Reform. We created the organization of MUJER 24 years ago in response to the high prevalence of sexual abuse and domestic violence in our community of South Dade, Florida.
You heard Gloria’s story. What did you hear in that story?
Rivera: Well, you know, I basically heard… You know, I am a Mexican-American woman that was born 65 years ago, and obviously what I heard was exactly what… the way that I grew up. You know, it’s very difficult to speak to our parents about things that, number one, were thought to be taboo by not just by family, but by the whole culture. Whatever happens at home stays at home and you don’t talk about it. And also, from perspective of… You know, my abuela used to say, “Hija, si te casas con un perro, con ese perro vas a vivir el resto de tu vida.” You know, so if you marry a dog, you have to lie with that dog for the rest of your life. That was how they felt back then. That’s basically what I heard.
So, you’ve done this work for over 20 years now. I’m really interested to know if you’re able to identify some of the conditions that exist in Latino households and families, and in immigrant households and families, that might exacerbate these situations, that might create fertile ground for these situations.
Rivera: What I’ve heard through MUJER, and what I’ve learned on a personal basis, is the fact that many times our culture has taught us that we are supposed to be subservient, that we are supposed to be submissive, and many times we’ve seen that in our own households. So, for example, I grew up in a house where I saw my mom being beaten by my dad almost to death, many times, and where I was told as a five-year-old to not say anything, to not react, or else I would get it, too. And from there, I went over to live with my maternal grandparents, my grandfather, who was also very machista, and who also basically said, “I am the king of this castle and you’re gonna do what I say.”
We also learned that sometimes when you’re here, like second generation born, like myself, we learn to say the violence stops with me and it’s not gonna continue for another generation, because we’ve also learned that domestic violence and sexual assault is intergenerational. It can carry on from one generation to another.
Someone listening who might be saying, “Oh my God. That’s me. That’s my mom. That’s my tía. That’s my family.” How do they break the cycle? What are the strategies once there’s that recognition that something has to be done?
Rivera: What I would say to anyone listening to this podcast is that… Reach out. Break the silence. Start talking. Identify someone that you trust and tell them what’s going on, and that person may know of someone, or may know of an agency where you can go like MUJER and get assisted. A place that’s not gonna judge you, that’s not gonna tell you what to do, that is going to value what you’re feeling through, and then starting to work with you. The goal in many of these places, including our organization, MUJER, is not to tell you what to do, but to show you, to teach you. What is violence and how has that impacted your life? Because violence, folks, regardless of whether you believe it or not, it impacts every decision that you make as an adult.
So, we teach. Teaching is a big part of what we do at our agency and I’m sure that in other domestic violence centers, is we teach you what is it, and a lot of times we feel that if there are no bruises on the outside, because a lot of times a person will say, “Well, no. He’s not physically violent with me. It’s more of him telling me that I’m nobody, that I have no value, that I am ugly, that I’m fat, that I’m stupid, that I will never amount to anything.” And those are the messages that when people keep telling you over, and over, and over, and you listen to them over, you start accepting that’s what it is. And that’s how we start internalizing.
And in order for us to get better, we first have to acknowledge that there’s an issue, and then reach out and get help, because there are people that are gonna help you. I don’t like the word empower, because to say it means that that person doesn’t have any power, and I don’t believe that. I believe that every single one of us has power inside. We just don’t know it and we just don’t know how to pull it out.
So, I want to go back a little bit to your point about reaching out to someone. So, Gloria thought that that person in her life was gonna be her mom. And so, she reached out and her mom and her brother actually intervened, and physically removed her from her and her partner’s home. She stayed with them for a while. But they never talked about it and it wasn’t until much later that she recognized that her mom didn’t have the ability to talk about it, because she’d also been victimized. So, that seems like an impossible scenario. What would you advise someone in that scenario, where they recognize that they are trapped in the cycle, but that the person from whom they most want help is really the least able to help them?
Rivera: Well, I would say… I mean, I think that you’ve already answered your question. I believe that number one, absolutely what happened to Gloria has happened to thousands and maybe millions of women all over the world, I’m sure. You know, when we’re in that situation, what do we want when we’ve been abused? We want moms to come to us and maybe not even say anything, but just hug us. Moms, if you’re listening to me, you don’t have to say anything. All you have to do is go and hug your daughter, or your son, because sons are victims too. And that will resonate how much you love them. Don’t expect something from them that they’re not able to give. And that’s what I would say.
But don’t stay quiet. If someone isn’t able to give you that type of support at home, find someone else that can without putting yourself in danger. Again, I tell you, reach out to a community-based organization that has experience in working with victim survivors of domestic violence.
So, here’s a delicate one for you. How do you help your mom or an elder person in your life who might be in the situation without coming across as invading their privacy, or being judgmental, or intruding on the sanctity of their relationship?
Rivera: I would go to my mom and I would say, “Mami, I love you, mom. I’m here for you. But you know what, mom? No one can change anything until that moment that that person decides to change. You live your life until you decide that you no longer want to live it that way. And mom, when you get ready, mother, I’m here, mom. Because I love you.”
Beautiful. That’s such a great way to end. Thank you so, so much.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from Susan. Speak up. There is always someone ready to help. Whether it’s a relative, a friend, a neighbor, someone at a local community organization, someone is ready to help. Intimate partner violence is more common than we think because so few people talk about it, but there are resources and there is support if only we reach out. Recognize the impact. Violence takes many forms: physical, emotional, verbal, psychological. To help ourselves and our loved ones, the first step is to name it and to recognize its impact in our lives. And remember, start with a gesture. Even if we’re not ready to talk, to open up, and to be vulnerable, a hug, a physical sign of support, sitting quietly next to someone, those small gestures can go a long way in helping someone feel safe, seen, and supported.
Thank you for listening and for sharing us. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora produced this episode. Carolina Rodriguez mixed it. Micaela Rodríguez is our founding producer and social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. I’m the show’s creator, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Please subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “Facing Intimate Partner Violence, and Mamí Can’t Help.” How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, Lantigua Williams & Co., December 21, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.