From Mexico to Tacoma, a shared struggle against domestic violence

(Photo by Liliana Caracoza)

A visit to an impoverished village in Veracruz uncovers a shared trauma, and the shared strength to overcome abuse. Leer en Español »

Being able to admit that you suffer from domestic violence can be really challenging. And it’s even harder to ask for help. I remember the feeling of being alone, like nobody really cared what happened to me.

So I couldn’t even imagine that women with children have to live through.

But I found out when I visited the mountain villages of Veracruz, Mexico this summer as a volunteer with Agrupación de Derechos Humanos Xochitépetl (A.X.), a human rights nonprofit that provides adult education and legal aid.

Riding the bus up to the small communities of the Ilamatlan municipality we passed through a fog that reminded me of home. The roads were in such bad condition that all the parts of my body started to move with their rhythm. Out the window, I saw colorful butterflies flying around the flowers, while the old bus and rough roads made me feel we might be crushed at any moment.

This was my first time witnessing extreme poverty. When we arrived in the first village, I saw children running around barefoot in the street. There’s no water that’s safe to drink. Most of the adults do not know how to write or read. Education here stops at a young age. The desperation to eat overcomes the desperation for education, and the cycle repeats itself. But even in such bad conditions, kids are kids, and they’ll do anything for a piece of candy.

Reina Martinez Olivares (right) with her granddaughter. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)Reina Martinez Olivares (right) with her granddaughter. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)

Finally, we arrived at the house of Reina Martinez Olivares. She was there working on an elaborate piece of the embroidery work that is her only source economic stability. She has a small store attached to her house, but it’s been all but abandoned due to the poverty of the neighborhood.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs in the middle of Mrs. Reina’s small living room. The darkness of the room drew my focus to the small light bulbs and candles that signify her faith.

She started telling her story from very early on in her life. Her mother encouraged her to get married at the age of twelve.

She told me she had ten children, but now she only has three surviving daughters. Olivares started crying when talking about her children, and I didn’t have the courage to ask her what happen to her other children.

She told me of the extreme violence she suffered at the hands of her now dead husband and his family members. She described a scene where she was carrying one of her newborn children and holding the small hand of one of her daughters, while her husband followed her with a carbine rifle threating her to kill her.

When she was fifteen, Olivares says she tried to escape from this abusive situation and escaped back to her mother’s house. But her mother told her to return to her husband. That was just the way that her life was going to be.

“A wife is supposed to stay with her husband until death, we are supposed to be treated like that,” she was told.

Her husband did eventually die, six years ago, and left her with a small house. But now she’s in a battle, with the help of A.X. to get that house back from her mother in law, who says that she and her daughters can’t be the owners of the house because they are not men.

Mrs. Reina’s story is just one example of the life many women in those indigenous communities live. They don’t know how to get out of these difficult situations. They have kids that are depending on them, and they have to endure the abuses of a husband, who is the head of their home and the only person that support them economically.

This is a cultural problem that has been passed from generation to generation.

Agrupacion de Derechos Humanos Xochitepetl is helping women like Mrs. Reina with education, free legal aid, and human rights workshops. They’re giving crucial, life-changing medication and imparting information to not just to women, but also men.

At an AX workshop, local women do exercises to learn about their individual legal and human rights. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)At an AX workshop in Veracruz, local women do exercises to learn about their individual legal and human rights. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)

Abi McLane victim services supervisor at the Crystal Judson Family Center back here in Tacoma agrees that the kind of information A.X. is sharing is the key to change.

“Education is power. Knowing about human rights gives people power,” she says. This is as true in rural Veracruz as it is in Tacoma.

“Domestic violence is present everywhere. There are issues of power and control in all cultures,” McLane explains. “We see it in all countries, at all income levels and all religious beliefs.”

But cultural differences do impact how we address domestic violence.

“Somebody moving from different country, speaking a different language… [that] is a whole other barrier to knowing what services are available and how do they access these services,” she says. “[The way to start is] by getting people taking, letting people know that they are not alone, that they deserve to feel safe, to have this basic human rights in their homes and everywhere.”

Traditional embroidery is one source of income for women seeking some financial independence from their husbands. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)Traditional embroidery is one source of income for women seeking some financial independence from their husbands. (Photo by Liliana Caracoza)

Hearing this, and listening to the experiences of women like Olivares in Veracruz was life changing for me. I was surprised to find out that the same scenes are played out in Mexico as right here in the Northwest.

I realized that I wasn’t alone in my own experience.

It’s hard to forget the fear in my mother’s eyes. Watching her fight to avoid getting hit, while trying not to show fear to her perpetrator. Trying to forget those situations is harder than I expected — the vague, yet intense memories come to my head as a dream, or sometimes as a nightmare.

I remember a beautiful Sunday morning with the sun shining on my face — it was like the universe was telling me to wake up. I could smell my mother making pancakes, her favorite meal for Sundays. But I felt ashamed, miserable, that I was disappointing her. “She will notice,” was the first thing that came up in my mind. She will see the intense purple on my wrists and I won’t be able to tell her.

But I learned to survive. That step took me longer than I expected: just understanding that I was a woman — a person — who needed to be valued, not just a possession.

World Arts Access

World Arts Access is a proud partner of the “Historias Indigenas” reporting series. 



Support for this project was provided by Silvia Barajas, Tabitha Bronsema, Diane Cooper, Anita Verna Crofts, Jimmy Docs, Joel Dodge, Bruce & Wendy Fein, Kenneth & Mary Fox, Eroyn Franklin, Jacob Galfano, Lisa Maria Garza, Elisha Hansen, Jenny Heard, Karen Hirsch, Bradley Hutchinson, Lawrence T. Johnson, Robyn Jordan, Jenny Lee, Min Manifold, Gloria Mayne, Sara McCaslin, Danielle Moylan, Andrea Otanez, Jessica Partnow, Susan Partnow, John Reinke, Lindsay Ryan, Alejandra Santiago, Andrew Scott, Dakota Seymanski, Ken Shook, Alex Stonehill, Sarah Stuteville, Bekah Townsend, Alejandro Villacorta, and CJ. 


    1. Thank you Karen, I am glad that you liked it. I hope that talking about it can create a change. As well as people willing to help this women in Veracruz.

  1. Liliana,
    This is a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching, piece. It brought tears to my eyes. Although I am called to work with the impoverished in Uganda, the plight of women and children in Veracruz is not isolated, as Abi McClane points out. God bless you for your work. May First World countries open their eyes to help developing countries see the need for education and employment. Through balanced economies there may also be a hope of decreasing the violence in a culture so frustrated it has no where else to turn.

    1. Thank you Diane! I would like to know more about your work in Uganda. That is what I tried to enhance with this article. Empowerment, as well as education is the key for those women in Veracruz of a change, that they hopelessly want. Due to the economic, and corruption issues that possibility seems impossible. A change for the lives of those women in Veracruz. That people with possibilities can come together, and contribute to the change. To give those women a possibility of employment, and education. I want people to be aware that persons in Veracruz are dying out of poverty, violence, and lack of resources.

  2. Perhaps the most inportant sentence in this article is the comment that Mrs. Reina’s mother made to her when she was fifteen years old and had tried to flee from her abusive husband; “A wife is supposed to stay with her husband until death, we are supposed to be treated like that,” Unfortunately it is true that many cultures in very poor parts of the world, though by no means all, have traditions that support this situation and justify it. This is the foundation of violence against women that has to be changedm and it can probably only be changed through education and economic development, which empowerers the women to stand up for themselves and change the ways of the past.

    1. The justification for those types of behaviors against women, unfortunately has been and ideal that has been passed from generations. I believe that can be change like you said, through education, as well as economic funds. Women in Veracruz are still in the process of learning that they have rights, that they can be empower, and part of a change of their communities.

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