How Returning to Puerto Rico is Helping Me Heal From Childhood Sexual Trauma

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault on a minor Growing up, my brothers and I knew the rules — don’t talk back, get excellent grades, and never say ‘we’re poor

Sexual Trauma Puerto Rico

Photo courtesy of Lola Rosario

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault on a minor

Growing up, my brothers and I knew the rules — don’t talk back, get excellent grades, and never say ‘we’re poor.’ My mami often reminded us that we ‘always had food’ and we always went to school with ‘clean clothes.’ After leaving our father (whom the three of us feared), mami wanted to ensure we had a healthy — I dare even imagine — happy childhood. And to be honest, a part of it was. Since she considered the area ‘very dangerous,’ we weren’t allowed to visit our neighborhood playground in Queens, instead, we’d walk about a mile to enjoy the local middle school’s outdoor gym. When it got too cold to be outside, we’d play card games or hide-n-seek at home. As long as we didn’t make too much noise, mami didn’t fuss at us.

Then there were those few summers spent visiting mami’s family in the countryside of Trujillo Alto, on the northeastern side of the archipelago. Being that money was often tight, we only traveled to Puerto Rico about every other year. Our maternal side of the family is huge — mami is the youngest of 13 children. This meant we had a bunch of cousins to hang out with. And while back in those days, my brothers and I had very limited Spanish, it never got in the way of us having boatloads of fun. Whether looking for tiny lizards near the patio, taking turns swinging on hammocks, or running under a rainstorm, being in Borikén was always a highlight of my youth.

Of course, as a kid, I always knew those trips were temporary. Up until then, my life was pretty ‘normal.’ Sure, there were fights with my brothers — as the middle child and la única nena, we had our differences. I figured this was part of the growing pains of childhood, nothing I couldn’t handle.

That all changed when our household grew by one, when mami allowed her teenage nephew to move in with us. Apparently, he was having a rough time with his parents, so the solution to all of his drama was to leave the Bronx and move in with us, in our already cramped two-bedroom apartment. He was 17.

I was 11 years old when my cousin came to live with us – when he stole my innocence. My younger brother, Ivan was seven and our older brother, Elvis was 13. Mami and I shared a bedroom, and the boys had the other one for themselves. So when our cousin moved in, he stayed in the room with the boys. I don’t remember questioning any of this because mami was always close to her family, and after the divorce, she maintained even tighter relations with them. For him to be part of our living arrangement seemed normal. I remember he used to help me with my math homework whenever he had time free from his job. He was always respectful of mami  and I imagine she welcomed having another ‘almost’ adult in the household, especially one that could contribute financially, albeit even slightly.

The day he sexually molested me, I remember going into my brothers’ room, to sit on Elvis’s bed beside our cousin. In my memory, Elvis is also sitting on his bed. The room is really bright. I don’t recall where Ivan was. Nor do I recall the details of how it was initiated – all I can see in my mind’s eye is the blanket covering me from the waist down. The terrifying image that replays in my head is of my cousin touching my genitals and Elvis smiling at him, asking “Does it feel good?”

It only happened once, but I remember there were other times when my cousin tried to kiss me on the lips. I never told mami what had happened that day. Nor did I approach Elvis about it.

In hindsight, all these decades later, I understand why I spent a lot of time visiting our upstairs neighbor, Nermi. Many years mami’s senior, she was a childless, single Dominican woman who cooked the most delicious arroz con pollo. Sometimes after school and completing homework, I’d ask for permission to hang out with Nermi. Mami rarely objected. My cousin stayed with us I think about a year, then he enlisted in the Marines and left our home permanently.

I erased what he did to me and that’s why I know selective memory is real. Because it wasn’t until a few months before getting married, at 41, that therapy sessions would be the catalyst to unveil the horror of what had happened to me.

Deciding to seek counseling to help me deal with toxic family dysfunction, paternal abandonment, and control issues, I knew I was taking a step in the right direction. What I didn’t know was how much of my past I had been repressing. I never could have imagined how therapy would set life-changing decisions in motion.

It was the end of 2008 when the layers began to shed. And while I can’t pinpoint the exact session (or how many), I do recall the rage of sentiments expressed during some of those meetings with the therapist. So much trauma was uncovered — my father’s violence against my mother, my feelings of abandonment, mami’s favoritism toward my brothers, the bullying I suffered in both middle and junior high school, and the childhood sexual abuse. 

Cumulatively, it was overwhelming. This last point would bring me to an unapologetic mission to confront and remove mami from my life, permanently. Fifteen months after getting married, we left NYC and moved to Austin, Texas. Before we left in May 2011, I asked my older brother to not share the news with mami. I had already decided on the mother-daughter estrangement. Though this last part I conveniently omitted.

My then-husband and I began a new life. I once again started therapy sessions — I still had many of the same unresolved issues. Fast forward to 2016 and I’m divorced and back in New York City and I felt prepared to speak to mami. It had been five years since we last saw or spoke to each other. She was elated at the chance to reunite. I was guarded but left the door open. Reflecting on it now, I realize I truly wanted to try having some kind of connection with her. It lasted a few months — we went grocery shopping a couple of times, she cooked for me, we laughed, and seemed like we could again become mamá e hija.

Then one day, it hit me — I needed to confront her about what her nephew had done to me. It was the summer of 2016 — nearly four decades had passed since I was sexually abused. It was time to unleash my rage onto mami.

When I arrived, she asked if I was hungry, but I told her I wasn’t and asked her to sit down because I had ‘something important to tell you.’ She looked worried but was clearly unprepared for what I was about to say. Sharing the horrific details of my nightmare, I described being in my brothers’ bedroom, sitting on the bed. Crying inconsolably, I spoke of how her nephew terrorized me under the sheets. 

Tears caressing her cheeks, she whispered, “I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Shouting, my words intermingled with my own tears, “Stop the crying, your tears mean nothing to me!! You didn’t know because you didn’t want to know. You didn’t know what happened to me because all that mattered to you were your boys, your nephew — everyone else. I was never your priority. You didn’t protect me!”

I told her that I was revealing my pain because I had held it in for too long and was tired of our family ‘brushing things under the rug.’ Then she did something that sent me even further over the edge, she tried to hug me and asked if I ‘was hungry.’ She didn’t get it at all. Angrily telling her that I wasn’t hungry, I left.

Returning Home to My Ancestral Land

Several months after that day, I reconsidered allowing mami back into my life. We gave the reconciliation a try and on the surface it seemed to be working. But, I realized that she wanted to simply forget the past and move forward with our mother-daughter connection as if nothing had happened. Then I remembered something crucial — in her tight-knit family, they always supported each other, no matter what. I remembered that I hadn’t answered her with what I really wanted to ask: “If I had told you what he did to me, would you have been brave enough to send him to jail? Would you have fiercely defended me at all costs? Would you have called the police and filed charges?”

I never asked her that question, but it doesn’t matter anymore.

On November 30, 2021, I decided to leave  Charlotte, North Carolina, and return to my ancestral roots, to Borikén. Being here has meant many things — a very difficult one has been telling certain family members about the sexual abuse. I remember when I shared it with one of my female cousins (with whom I lived for a short time in Trujillo Alto), her reaction was one of surprise and seemingly, compassion. But one day, a few months after I had revealed my nightmare, as she was tweezing my eyebrows, she had a memory. She started to tell me something about that cousin (the one who sexually assaulted me). She completely forgot (or chose to ignore) what I had asked her months earlier — do not ever mention him in my presence!

Returning to the place where mami grew up has brought up the trauma in a way I hadn’t expected. It has made me begin to question anew. For years, I only blamed mami, but what about Elvis? He too was responsible – his silence made him complicit. I still sometimes ask myself  ‘How could this have happened? Where was mami? And why was the door closed?’

Nor do I understand why returning to this ancestral land has caused my memory to revisit such a dark place. After all, it didn’t happen here. There are moments when the emotions hit me light a freight train, they intermingle with my mild depression and I find myself with a cascade of tears caressing my cheeks. I let them flow — it’s a part of my healing process.

It sounds cliché to say los ancestros me cuidan, but there is nothing to convince me otherwise. Here is where my ancestors lived, the ones that were kidnapped from Africa and the colonizer ones that are part of my lineage. I have zero doubt they helped me find my way back so I can do the work so integral to my healing – allowing me to bring gentle yoga and mindful meditation to women. My first such initiative was Yoga Tambó, a 2022 joint project with my friend, Yuma Inarú Pouerie wherein we combined yoga with the Puerto Rican folk tradition of Bomba for collective healing.

At the beginning of this year  we agreed to put Yoga Tambó aside, while I focus on offering community yoga sessions on my own via a new project called Om Borikén. Following a similar format as the original initiative, this time around I’ve added an affirmation-conversational component at the end of each session whereby I had out cards with inspiring quotes, asking each participant to reflect thereto. Then we open the space to anyone who might want to share their thoughts about the card they chose vis-à-vis the yoga & meditation portion or anything else going on in their lives. I created Om Borikén as a refuge, an opportunity to come together as femmes, as a collective, to honor this ancestral land, to support, connect and heal – together and individually.

I haven’t forgiven mami nor Elvis for not protecting me, and I  haven’t absolved the monster who stole my innocence. And while I hear a lot about the power of forgiveness in healing trauma, I choose to give myself all the self-love, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness necessary on this journey.

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