*Trigger warning: This post describes an experience of domestic violence.
By Dr. Amanda M. Stylianou
October 3, 2018
National Hispanic Heritage month is a time to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Hispanic Americans. This year, we interviewed two experts to highlight the lived experiences of Hispanic survivors of crime and violence: Dr. Elithet Silva-Martinez, a professor at the Beatriz Lassalle Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Puerto Rico, and Jennifer Hughes, a crime victim expert and case manager at Safe Horizon’s Community Program in Brooklyn. Last year, Safe Horizon’s Community Programs supported over 1,000 Hispanic survivors of crime and abuse.
Their experiences reflect the strength, courage, and resilience of the Hispanic survivors we work with each and every day.
What Barriers do Hispanic Survivors Face in Seeking Help?
Hispanic survivors of crime or violence may face a multitude of barriers to seeking and accessing services. “Many Hispanic survivors ask themselves what options they have, especially when they live in a host community,” Dr. Silva-Martinez explained. “Sometimes doing nothing is an option in order to survive. Others attempt to get help, but because they are in such isolation and danger, they may face even more trouble, and for those who are vulnerable because of their migration status, seeking help is complex.”
Hispanic survivors experiencing domestic violence may also face cultural barriers to seeking help. “Domestic violence is not talked about in Hispanic culture. What happens in your home stays at home,” Ms. Hughes explained. Domestic violence survivors with vulnerable migration statuses may experience heightened fears around seeking help. “I often hear domestic violence survivors tell me that their partners threaten them with deportation if they’re not submissive. Their partners are citizens so they hold the power and control. They also threaten deportation for their children.”
How Do Hispanic Survivors Find Strength and Share Courage?
“Many survivors think that they are the only ones going through this,” Ms. Hughes explained. “They find courage through their children. Survivors will tell me ‘Every time I think about my son and daughter, I find courage.’” And Dr. Silva-Martinez added, “For many Hispanic women, finding strength through motherhood is culturally bounded. One survivor recently shared with me, ‘My children are the ones that give me strength to keep going and change my future. I want my children to have a better life, and be happy.’”
For some survivors, speaking out about their experiences of abuse and violence can be a deeply empowering experience. “Surviving is very much an act of resistance,” Dr. Silva-Martinez declared. “Hearing from others that they are valuable and that they can imagine a life safe from abuse can be empowering for survivors. Survivors have the capacity to find strength in the midst of struggle. The resilience that survivors demonstrate in spite of the barriers they encounter is powerful.”
How Can Advocates Support Hispanic Survivors?
“Hispanic survivors face multiple oppressions because of their race, gender, language, and immigrant status. La lucha (the struggle) can include experiencing violence from an intimate partner, facing discrimination for being an undocumented immigrant, or not being able to communicate in English. Advocates can support Hispanic survivors by creating opportunities for them to speak out and tell their stories on their own terms. Bringing to light the factors that perpetuate disadvantage and oppression for Latinas as well as bringing light to strength and courage can lead toward action for change,” voiced Dr. Silva-Martinez.
While creating opportunities for survivors to speak out, it is critical that advocates utilize client-centered, trauma-informed approaches in supporting survivors. We asked Ms. Hughes to paint a picture of how she works with survivors at Safe Horizon’s Community Programs.
Jacqueline’s Story of Surviving Domestic Violence
Jacqueline* is a Hispanic survivor of intimate partner violence who Ms. Hughes helped. Jacqueline’s partner would stalk her and threaten her. “It doesn’t matter where you go, I’ll be there,” he used to warn Jacqueline. She lived in constant fear during and even after the relationship ended. Jacqueline described having flashbacks and being overwhelmed by memories of his threats. Ms. Hughes worked with Jacqueline to help her increase her sense of safety and control by using trauma-informed therapy techniques. “We used a lot of grounding techniques. When Jacqueline would come to the office, I would ask her to focus on a drawing in the room. ‘Tell me a specific color in the drawing,’ I would say to her. Then I would ask her to identify the same color but in other pictures around the room. We would look at the orange Safe Horizon logo. Then we would find orange throughout the room: the orange color on a flyer, the orange in the painting on the wall. At that moment, her focus is on the present, on the drawing in the room, rather than on her memories of the abuse. Now I have her focus. Then I would ask her how she feels so I would know she was present in the room with me. She said she felt safe.”
Grounding techniques are just one of the evidence-based techniques Safe Horizon advocates use at the Community Programs. Grounding helps survivors that are experiencing emotional pain by helping them regain a sense of control over their emotions. “Often, I’m the first person that a survivor talks to about their abuse,” Ms. Hughes explained. “This is the first place where they actually feel comfortable enough to talk about their struggles. But when they are here, they know they are at Safe Horizon and they are safe.”
To learn more about Dr. Silva-Martinez’s research, see this infographic created by Rutgers University Center on Violence Against Women & Children: