Debbie Ramirez. Who is she? Do you remember her? She is Puerto Rican. She went to Yale. She came out in the New Yorker alleging that Judge Brett Kavanaugh placed his penis in her face while she was inebriated at a college party; other classmates share stories of how men in Kavanaugh’s social circles used to pick on her throughout their time at Yale.
Before speaking up publicly, Ramirez called college friends to confirm her memories; she had spent thirty five years embarrassed for having touched his penis while trying to get him off of her, and for the fact that she had been drinking.
Ramirez has been rendered invisible in the media uproar surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Why? Is it because she’s Latina? Is it because she had been drinking? Is it because she kept friendships in that social circle?
All survivors face the challenge of not being believed. For Latina women, this is compounded by the everyday dismissal of our experiences of social violence, the ways that we are often hypersexualized by media, in the streets, workspaces. As a Anglo-American peer told me at a college party: “Oh, you are Puerto Rican, like J.Lo. You are sexy, ha!” while thrusting his body against mine, counting with my silence. If I said anything to our colleagues, they could say I was exaggerating and my professional credibility would be at risk.
Like other women, Latinas often face gender and sexual violence by intimate partners, friends, family members, and acquaintances. But Latina survivors face social challenges that further heighten their sense of isolation and fear.
This is Sonia’s story. (Her name and other details have been changed to protect her privacy.)
The stalking. It all began at a conference. I was in the middle of a horrible break up. I had one drink too many. I met him. A senior colleague from another franchise. Somehow we ended up in my hotel room. Everything is so blurry. All I remember is waking up. Full of regrets.
And that was before he began stalking me.
Showing up in my office. Calling me. Emailing me. Skypeing me. I kept saying no. I kept blocking every medium of communication. I kept saying I am heartbroken. I cannot deal with this too. He told people we were having an affair. He told me this was all my fault. “You did this to me. Now, I cannot get you out of my head.” And, sadly, I kind of believed him. He reminded me of someone I had loved and cared for once, someone whose abusive behavior I had excused because Latinas we often have hard lives.
I told my mom about the stalking. She asked me if I was into him; he was successful, maybe I could stop dating women now.
I was scared and confused. And I kept trying to be nice, make him feel better, while saying no, please stop contacting me. And I was worried because he could destroy my career with just a few phone calls.
And I kept silence. I was ashamed. Was it my fault? Is this stalking? I should know better. Who would believe me? It was only hearing of two women who had been stalked by him that I finally recognized the full extent of my experience.
Being afraid of losing social, familial, and professional circles in a society where already racism and sexism work against us is a concrete challenge for Latinas wishing to speak up about gender and sexual violence. We can only wonder how much Ramirez could lose being a minority Latina student at Yale in the 70s, if she had decided to speak up. How many people would have blamed her? How many would have asked her: Why were you at the party? Why were you drinking? Are you not into him?, instead of listening to her feelings of shame.
Latina migrant women also cite issues of documentation and fear of losing custody of children or their family’s support as a reason why they do not report gender and sexual violence. Limited access to resources and shelters that are bilingual and bicultural, or services that are attentive to the needs of migrant women and that will not assume that gender and sexual violence are Latino cultural traits are also deterrents.
But the silence must be broken.
Liz Zadnik & Enid Melendez’s document the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities as documented by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): “1 in 7 Latinas reported experiencing a completed rape at some point in their lifetime. This was also true of sexual violence other than rape–with 1 in 3 Latinas and 1 in 4 Latinos reporting experiencing sexual violence.”
According to the National Latina Network, 1 in 3 Latinas have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime; 63% of victimized Latinas experience multiple acts of victimization.
Trans-Latina women experience gender and sexual violence at higher rates; LBQ women often face the social threat of rape or other forms of sexual violence as a way of “converting” them into heterosexual women. We cannot ignore these experiences and statistics if we care for the health of our communities.
PTSD and trauma-related illnesses are tightly connected to gender and sexual violence among Latina women, as reported in the Sexual Assault Among Latinas (SALAS) Study. If we account for the often traumatic experience of migration, racism, xenophobia, sexism, isolation, and economic challenges faced by Latina women, then PTSD responses to gender and sexual violence among us are not surprising.
The silencing of gender violence then may leave thousands of Latina women vulnerable to debilitating conditions related to trauma-chronic fatigue, muscular pains, suppressed immune systems, weight variations, diabetes, anxiety, fibromyalgia-that impact their overall well-being and capacity to cope with everyday stressors.
To speak up about Latina perspectives on gender and sexual violence is to create a space for our needs to be met. It is public health issue. It is not a betrayal of our communities or loved ones. It is an attempt to build a better present and future for all.
For resources on how to best support Latina women, visit the Existe Ayuda Fact Sheet; the National Latina Network Practice Guidance; and the Sexual Violence and the Impact on Latino Communities Fact Sheet.