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José Raúl Pérez, Raising His Voice
Board Member José Raúl Pérez speaks of abuse and triumph at Safe Horizon’s 11th Annual Champion Awards Luncheon.
Good afternoon. I’m José Raúl Pérez and I’m here to share my story. I don’t pretend to speak for other victims or survivors. I only hope my story inspires others to tell their own.
Thirty five years ago, I never dreamed I’d be standing here. Thirty five years ago, I almost died.
A Good Boy
I was a good boy. I was sweet and smart. I said please and thank you. I said my prayers every night. My mother - or mami as I call her - encouraged me to read. Books were a lifeline that helped me grow and escape. I lost myself in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and devoured the World Book Encyclopedia … one letter at a time.
My parents divorced soon after we fled Cuba. Soon after, mami met my stepfather, Andy. I was five. Even before they married, I sensed Andy’s hostility towards me. He resented the bond mami and I shared and was bitter about feeding another man’s son. He hated my sensitive manner and was determined to turn me into a "real man".
A Violent Secret
Mami worked days and Andy worked nights in construction. He’d pick me up after school and we’d be alone until mami came home. I tried to stay out of his way but Andy always found an excuse to punish me. Over the years, I was pushed, slapped, punched, cut, kicked and burned.
Andy was careful to not leave visible marks. If mami noticed my bruises or bumps, he would lie:
He fell down the stairs like a clumsy fool.
He was in a fight at school.
He tripped and hit his head against a coffee table.
Boys fall, boys fight, boys get hurt and that was that.
And, Andy’s threat was always the same no se lo digas a nadie porque te mato maricon, y despues mato a tu madre - "Don’t tell anyone because I’ll kill you, you faggot, and then I’ll kill your mother."
I couldn’t risk telling anyone. I kept my mouth shut. I felt terrified, helpless and alone. I’d shake in fear from the moment Andy came home until I heard him leave. I told myself -- just get through it, he’ll be gone soon, someone will save me.
A Life-Threatening Lie
One day when I was eight, I nearly died.
After mami left for work that morning, Andy got angry about something I’d done. He told me to stand in front of him, and punched me in the stomach. He yelled, parate bien derecho, como un hombre, hijo de puta - "Stand up straight like a real man, you son of a bitch!"
Andy was wearing his uniform and heavy welding boots and his massive 240 pound frame overwhelmed me. After punching my gut, he picked me up and threw me across the room. He banged me against the wall and dropped me in a heap on the floor. He kicked me and started jumping on me. I begged him to stop.
The pain was unbearable. I remember thinking - Oh, my God! This time, he's going to kill me. When he was done, Andy picked me up, dusted me off and took me to school.
"I remember thinking - Oh, my God! This time, he’s going to kill me."
A Turning Point
Later that day, a teacher called home and said I needed to see a doctor, and Andy came to pick me up.
On the drive home he came up with an excuse like always. "If anyone asks, you say you were playing football at school and got tackled by a bunch of boys."
That night, my fever shot up, I was vomiting blood, and eventually lost consciousness. I was finally taken to the hospital, and after eight hours of surgery, I survived, and spent weeks in intensive care.
I remember liking the hospital like a vacation from the violence at home. Some days, Andy kept a bedside vigil, making sure I stuck to his story. No te olvides te mato - "Don’t forget I’ll kill you!" I told that lie for many years.
Yet, this was a turning point for me. I realized what mattered most was to survive, so that one day, I could tell the truth.
Hope and Healing
The abuse lasted six years until mami and Andy divorced when I was eleven. Even after he left, I was paralyzed by fear. I thought he’d find me and kill me. I struggled with depression and low self esteem.
In time, I began to heal. At school, I was a popular nerd. I made life-long friends, and was elected President of my Senior Class with a brilliant campaign slogan José for Perez-ident! Hey, at least I had a sense of humor.
I embraced my passion for learning and earned a full scholarship to Penn. Through therapy I learned that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. I began to accept my weaknesses and appreciate my strengths.
"I learned that what happened to me wasn’t my fault."
When I told mami the truth, she didn’t believe me at first and repeated the lies Andy had told. I was devastated, but in time, mami confronted her shame and anger and the strong bond we shared the same bond Andy resented - helped us heal.
I never saw my stepfather again, but the effects of the abuse I suffered will last a lifetime. Certain smells remind me of places and feelings I’ve long forgotten. I’m a perfectionist who obsesses over trivial things. On occasion, I can be overly sensitive.
And when I see a picture of yet another battered child, I still see myself. Confused, terrified and alone.
Advocacy and Action
But I’m lucky. I’m healthy and have joy in my life. I’m resilient, optimistic and loyal. I’m passionate about my career and am fiercely proud to serve on Safe Horizon’s Board of Directors.
I tell my story and speak about choices that served me well. Reading inspired me and education created a world of opportunity. I got the help I needed to build my self-esteem and confidence. And since I know that lying can kill you, I always try to tell the truth.
I speak about choices that served me well. Reading inspired me and education created a world of opportunity. I asked for help and telling my story helped me heal. And, I know that lying can kill you, so I always try to tell the truth.
I also make this call to action: I believe that men must play a bigger part in ending the vicious cycle of family violence. We must teach our boys that real men act with an open heart, never a clenched fist. We must lead by example, and be part of the solution in ending violence against those we love most! And, if we suspect a child is being hurt, we must act. Act responsibly, but please ACT!
"Men must play a bigger part in ending the vicious cycle of family violence."
Support and Gratitude
Thirty five years ago, I never dreamed I’d be standing here.
Today, I’m surrounded by cherished colleagues, mentors and associates who inspire me on many levels. I’m grateful to my team and extended familia at People en Español, Time Consumer Marketing and throughout Time Warner.
Today, I salute People Magazine for giving voice to victims of violence. Martha, Paul, Nancy, Nora, and David — I thank you, and your world class team, for generously supporting this cause. You’ve given me a wonderful gift.
Today, I have the love and support of my family and friends, many of whom are here as my witnesses. I’m grateful to my best friend Amalia, who’s here from Oregon, and was the first person I told about Andy more than thirty years ago.
And, today, like every day for nearly twenty years, I’m grateful to my partner Joe Matula for helping me build a beautiful home filled with love, laughter and light.
Thirty five years ago, I nearly died. Thirty five years ago, I never dreamed I’d be standing here. But now I know, I’ve been dreaming about this moment all along.
Thank you for listening to my story.
José Raúl Pérez
Remarks during the 11th Annual Champion Awards Luncheon
May 11, 2006
* Client names and identifying information have been changed to protect their privacy. Images used are representations of Safe Horizon’s clients.