Mexican Community in the US Addresses Domestic Violence

By Nidia Melissa Bautista

This story was first published on Civic Ideas

NEW YORK—A mural in Brooklyn shows a woman with deep-set eyes standing poised between coffee groves and New York City’s tall buildings. Called “Our Journey Blossoms,” the mural features domestic violence survivor Leticia Reyes Garcia. It covers a wall in the Sunset Park neighborhood and is part of a larger effort to address domestic violence affecting Mexican immigrant women in New York.

As these women struggle to adjust to their new lives in New York City, some also face abuse from their domestic partners, a problem that local organizations in Brooklyn consider to be a domestic violence epidemic. Across the US, a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds, and one in three Latinas has experienced domestic violence, according to the non-profit organization National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Groups such as Mixteca Organization in Sunset Park are finding ways to address the issue in the growing Mexican community, while social workers and artists also are doing their part.

Garcia’s life, like those of many Mexican women in New York, is marked by migration. Born in Mexico’s southern state of Veracruz, where she grew up harvesting coffee and corn, Garcia married young and had three children before leaving her husband, who she says was abusive. After meeting her second partner, she migrated to the nearby Mexican state of Puebla where she had another child.

Economic hardship made her decide to leave Puebla for the US in search of work. Garcia left her children in Mexico and traveled to the Brooklyn community of Brighton Beach in 2005.

She says her new life in the United States also was marked by abuse.

“He never permitted me contact with the outside world,” Garcia said in Spanish. She says she was not allowed to build relationships with others nor to work and that she only knew the four-block radius around her home.

The couple had two more children together, Anna Laura and Brizeyda. Anna Laura was born with gastroschisis, a birth defect that causes organs to develop outside the baby’s body, a condition that obliged Garcia to make constant hospital trips. During these visits, Garcia says, she struggled to communicate with nurses and staff. As a result, Garcia would sneak off sporadically to take English classes in a nearby school.

Garcia says she decided to leave her partner two years ago after he struck her during a birthday party for Anna Laura’s friend. After leaving the relationship, Garcia began therapy provided by Sanctuary for Families, an organization that advocates for survivors of domestic violence.

“When I started my therapy sessions, I felt guilty, like it was my fault. I knew from my aunts that my uncles hit them. My former mother-in-law would say her husband beat her, but she stayed with him until he died,” says Garcia. “I didn’t want a relationship like that, so I always spoke out.”

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Leticia Reyes Garcia shown here during the painting of the mural in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Photo by Nidia Bautista

Garcia now lives in a Brooklyn domestic violence shelter and is working to pass a set of high-school equivalency exams known as the GED. She also has become active at her daughters’ school as president of the parent association, a school organization designed to involve parents.

Through multiple visits to therapists for herself and her daughters, Garcia connected with organizations like Mixteca that offer services to the Mexican community.

Mexican immigration to New York has been growing in the past few years. According to the US Census, from 2000 to 2010  the Mexican population here nearly doubled from 186,872 to 319,263. The US Census also shows that Mexican immigrants make up the third largest Latino group in New York City, after Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. And, according to a recent Migration Policy report, New York City is among the top destinations for Mexican immigrant populations. Recent studies also show that the Mexican immigrant population is booming, and experts predict the group will become the largest minority on the East Coast in 10 years.

Mixteca was founded in 2005 to provide resources to this growing population in Sunset Park. It offers adult education, domestic violence awareness, and HIV and Aids prevention, among other services.

Narcisa Loza, the domestic violence coordinator at Mixteca, says that domestic violence greatly affects Mexican immigrant women. A social worker and graduate of New York University, Loza was involved in creating Mixteca’s domestic violence program, which provides therapy and counseling for Mexican immigrant women like Garcia.

While domestic violence affects women of all backgrounds, Loza says that undocumented status, stigma and cultural patterns that normalize violence against women make Mexican immigrant women particularly vulnerable.

“Some of these women come here undocumented, many arrive with many kids, and they often migrate with their husbands,” said Loza. Men often take on the task of learning English, she said, and they learn to navigate the city while denying their partners’ independence.

“They (the women) become manipulated, and in some cases, some fall victims to sex trafficking. They are very vulnerable,” she said.

Mixteca’s program grew out of its focus on HIV testing, after health coordinators identified domestic violence as a growing issue within domestic partnerships. Eduardo Peñaloza, Mixteca’s former executive director, said the group shifted focus toward preventing and addressing domestic violence in the community.

“Our organization was not founded with a feminist or woman-centered lens. However, our increased focus on women’s struggle with domestic violence and gender violence was a result of listening to the community’s needs,” said Peñaloza.

Peñaloza says the story of Mexican women’s migration to New York is complex. While women continue to face sexism and violence in their everyday lives, like they did in their communities in Mexico, he said, their migration to New York City has given them access to reproductive health rights and resources.

Mixteca’s domestic violence program, sponsored by the New York Women’s Foundation, the Mexican-US bilateral program “Together We Can,” and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was launched in 2012. Last year alone, Loza served more than 100 women for Mixteca.

In addition to therapy and counseling, Mixteca has been involved in creative projects that highlight immigrant women’s resiliency. Last September, the organization worked with artists from Mexico and Colombia to create the mural that features Garcia. Colombian muralist Michelle Angela Ortiz organized a focus group of 20 women at Mixteca to create a public art piece that addressed Mexican immigrant women’s life in Brooklyn. The group, which included Garcia, decided to focus on the empowerment of migrant women.

Ortiz and other artists then painted the mural with the help of volunteers over the course of three weeks. In an interview during the painting of the mural, Ortiz said that public art helps to bring visibility to the migration stories of Mexican women.

“It is important to create spaces where community members can come together to share their stories, especially when we’re dealing with an anti-immigrant climate in the US,” said the artist. “It’s important to create spaces to talk about immigrant struggles and our triumphs.”

Loza, Mixteca’s domestic violence coordinator, said that Garcia has overcome the stigma and shame associated with her experience with domestic violence.

“She was really broken down, but she has grown so much,” she said. “I was happy when I saw Leticia was involved with the mural. I know she is going through a lot, but the mural was an opportunity for her to shine, and I think she did.”

As volunteers put the finishing touches on the mural, Garcia said that, despite her experience with domestic violence, she sees her activism around women’s empowerment as a personal triumph.

“It is a drastic change to migrate from a rural town to New York City. While we face problems back home, these problems, like domestic violence, follow us,” said Garcia.

“But I can only speak for myself,” she said. “I was a victim of domestic violence, I have struggled to learn a new language, and I don’t have a formal education. Nonetheless I move forward, and seek resources and help.”

“And that’s exactly what I want to teach women,” she added. “If we want to achieve what we set out to do, we can.”

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