In Her Own Words: Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Out

María Sánchez Díez. Illustrations: Javier Güelfi.

Ángela: “Never Alone”

Ángela, a 27-year-old immigrant from Estado de México, Mexico, lives in West Harlem with her 6-year-old son. Since escaping her abuser, she’s become determined to help other domestic violence victims. 

I didn’t think that domestic violence was happening to me, because I thought that domestic violence meant to be hit or threatened. The violence eventually became physical, but I later learned that violence also can be emotional, sexual, economic.

The part that struck me the most was the emotional, the sexual. Sometimes he would force me, and he would say, “You’re my wife, and this is your job.” Sometimes I did not want to and I suffered a lot of vaginal infections. I went to the doctor and I was told it was natural, and probably caused because I did not lubricate. But it was rape.

He left to work in Minnesota for three months. My rent was $700, and I had to gather $1,000 (for expenses). And I said: “Of course I can. I’m going to do it.” I babysat a girl and I got paid $115. I told my sister: Keep $100 and do not give the money to me unless I have an emergency. With the $15 that I had left, I bought jelly, plastic glasses and plastic wrap (to repackage the jelly for resale). I went to a school to sell jelly. With the $15, I made $30. I bought juices and fruits. I walked in Queens, on Junction Boulevard, selling mangoes, watermelon, melon, water, sodas and juices. I was pregnant. I thought, “Even if I am pregnant, I am able to make money.” I kept working. Within three days, I collected $800. And I decided to leave.

Now I’m with my son. We are not doing great, but we are doing well. No one shouts at us, no one mistreats us. Sometimes I cry with joy because I once lived from room to room, a month in one apartment, another in the next one. I had to go live a shelter, from Dec. 17, 2013 until Feb. 23, 2015. During that time, it was very difficult. Today I have an apartment in West Harlem. My son has his own bedroom.

Now I have working on my own for two years. I sell Herbalife products. I am very grateful to the people who helped me. I learned that we are never alone. My goal is to help at least one more woman.

Aida: “What a Life”

Aida, a 42-year-old mother of three, sells food from a cart near Yankee Stadium. The Mexican immigrant tries to avoid reminders of the violence she suffered, and takes solace in a childhood dream.

I sell tamales on the street. I do that from Monday through Thursday. I have many customers and everyone tells me, “You never seem to have problems.” But then I go home, I pick up my son, I arrive about ten o’clock at night, I give him a bath (he has always already eaten). I put myself to sleep and say, “What a life.”

I’m going through a very difficult situation emotionally, because I have no family here. I am alone with my two older children and the younger boy. I have no one. All my family here in the USA is in California. And there are times that I do not know what to do… I would like to have a coffee with my sister, so if I’m feeling bad she would say to me, “I’m with you.” Or  just to be able to tell her, “You know what? Let’s take a walk to the park, you and me.”

I cannot see anything violent because it makes me hysterical. It gives me great anxiety. Before, I was a fan of watching the news…

When I was little, my aunt from California gave me pajamas with Disney characters on them and I said, “Oh, I’ll go there someday.” It’s been my dream, since I was a chamaquita (a little girl), to go to Disneyland. Maybe it’s ridiculous, because I am a middle-aged woman. If God wants me to, next summer, I will take my son to Buffalo, because I also have always wanted to see Niagara Falls.

Rosa: “No Space”

Rosa, a 56-year-old native of Provincia del Cañar, in Ecuador who now lives in Brooklyn, eeks out a living cleaning houses. But because of the man who abused her, she says, she no longer has a home of her own.

In Ecuador, I made crafts from paja toquilla (an Ecuadorian kind of straw) as a living. I did dolls, hats. I am from the country, I had chickens. I like New York, that’s why I haven’t left. Since I arrived, I have worked at everything: in factories, cleaning houses…

I rented space in my house because I could not afford the mortgage by myself. I rented a room to a man who said he had fallen in love with me. At first I did not believe him. I thought he just wanted to sleep with me. But as the time passed, he was always waiting for me, helping me clean. He seemed to love my children so much. We got married in 2007. And then I began to really know him.

He told me horrible things I had never heard and never want to hear: That a woman has to give pleasure to men. He threw things at me. Once he grabbed (my neck) and said, “You’re useless.” He would tell me that I had never learned anything because I’m just a peasant. He always threatened to report us to the police, when I threatened to get a divorce. He said he was going to get me deported.

I did not know that I could get help. I was always working. I was desperate. I was very afraid that something would happen to my children.

He told me he was going to help with rent, but then he stopped. He wanted to live for free. I didn’t pay a few months of mortgage and I lost the house. The house was registered in my brother’s name because I am undocumented.

My children and my brother were upset with me. They resented me. I was alone.

I always try to forget… I go out somewhere, I talk to someone to distract me. But if I stay home, I spend my time crying. Now I’m living with my brother, but I’m paying him rent. It’s not like I would like it to be. Before, I had a sewing machine, and I was able to do work in the house. Now I have no space.

Claudia: “I can do things”

Claudia, 34, immigrated to New York from Guerrero, Mexico, in 1998. Now the mother of four lives in the South Bronx and is determined to get an education.

I was 17 when I married him. I had problems almost since I met him, but I never wanted to tell anyone what was going on. One day, three years ago, we had an argument. That day, he hit me so hard I had to go to the hospital. He hit me hard and dragged me. Then he hit me on the forehead, until I started bleeding. My girl, the oldest, was 12. She called the police because she was scared.

Then he left home for a long time. I did not hear from him for years. He returned and attacked me again last year. He attacked me on the street. He grabbed my hair and started to drag me down the street.

I thought he was going to kill me there. But he released me and the police grabbed him. At the precinct, he said he was going to kill my parents. I made a report.

I started thinking about my parents and thought, “Oh, and if he kills my parents, what will I do? It will be my fault.” I told the police I did not want to press charges against him, because I was afraid for my parents. We come from a culture that speaks Mixtec [one of the main indigenous languages existing in Mexico], and do not understand things well.

The authorities later deported him. When I got my U visa (a type of visa for which undocumented crime victims are eligible), I felt good. But suddenly, I also felt bad because I often think, “What if he does something (to my family) someday?” And I don’t know, it must be because I lived with so many years of violence and I know it is stupid to say this, but it feels like something is missing. But it is not good.

My goal is to overcome, to keep on studying. I lived with great fear. I study English in the Bronx, in the church. I finished school in Mexico, but I want to get a high school diploma. I would like to defend people.

After everything that happened to me, I thought I was not going to make it. But I realized that when I put effort into things, I do well. I take care of my children and they are doing well. I am a home attendant, and in the summer I sell fruit on the street. I would say that nothing can stop me. I got my driver’s license, I bought my car… I can do things in life.