The Women Who Help Immigrant Women Escape Domestic Abuse

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Many undocumented women fear that reporting their husbands’ abuse will get their children deported and cause retaliatory violence, so many Latina farm-workers keep quiet. For The California Sunday Magazine, Lizzie Presser writes about Mily Treviño-Sauceda and Valentina, part of the growing network of women who have stepped in to help empower these victims and end their silence. These women aren’t social workers. They are people who empathize, often from their shared experience as victims of rape, wage theft, racism, and violence, and they take risks by letting women stay in their homes, learn their rights, and connect with social services.

Valentina began waking up at dawn to drive to Santa Maria, more than 100 miles away, two or three times each week. She set up appointments at health clinics, food pantries, and churches, and Elena watched as Valentina took down numbers and asked questions. Elena had felt confined by the street Spanish she spoke and started learning words she hadn’t known. Valentina took her window-shopping at the mall or belted Mexican folk songs, dancing in her seat, when Elena seemed down. After several months, Elena took the lead. She held meetings with women in homes across the city, Valentina sitting by her side.

Within a year, Elena was taking women in. She was nervous about the strangers, reminding her 10-year-old daughter to stay in her bedroom and lock the door, but after the first few came and went with their kids, she loosened up. In the morning, she woke up early to make breakfast and scouted for apartment listings. At her peak, 20 people stayed in the house at once, kids’ arms dangling off the leather sofas. Her daughter slept in the bathtub.

Around the same time that she opened her home, Elena told Valentina why she had been interested. She sat across from her on a bright afternoon at an outdoor table of a coffee shop. “I think I was in a worse situation than you,” she started. Elena began to tell Valentina about the father of her child. She explained how he had raped her at work when she was a teenager and how her parents had pressured her to be with him afterward. She talked about how he would treat her like a piece of paper that he could do whatever he liked to. She said that, after they had a child together, he tried to kill her, running the blade of a knife across her neck.

When she decided to go to the police a week later, they didn’t help. She felt paralyzed, as if her mind had dissolved. She hadn’t known her rights or that she qualified for a U visa. Instead, she kept quiet and hid out at her sister’s house for a year, working 13-hour days picking strawberries and peppers. “How stupid I was,” she said over and over. Valentina wrapped her arms around Elena. “Chaparrita,” she said, “we didn’t have any experience.”

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