The human voice is one of the most powerful and dynamic tools we possess. Just from our mouths, we have the ability to speak words of love and life, and in the same breath, we can spew words of hate and death. We all communicate differently which makes our voices so unique. But what happens when our voices are silenced?
Growing up in the Bronx during the crack epidemic era was one of the toughest things my parents had to deal with. We were surrounded by poverty and crime, but they worked diligently to give me the very best. I attended Aquinas High School and was a straight-A student. My mother, who was a beautiful, fierce Puerto Rican woman taught me about the power of my voice. She would constantly tell me, “Don’t you let anyone take your voice away.” As a result, from a young age, I knew I could speak up and not be afraid to express my opinion.
When I was a junior in high school, my life took a turn no one prepared me for. I fell in love for the first time with a man who was a few years older than me. He didn’t resemble anyone I had dated before. He was mysterious. He was attractive. He was my first love. But he would also turn into my worst nightmare.
I don’t recall the time frame of when the abuse began, I just know it happened very aggressively. When anyone is being abused whether it be sexually, emotionally, verbally or physically, your mind and body go into shock. It can’t really process the vicious acts that are taking place at the moment. When he slapped me for the first time, I froze. I didn’t cry or move. I stared at him for a while and cupped my swollen cheek. When I looked him in the eyes, I saw pure evil.
I was hoping that it would never happen again. For the next three and a half years my life would be a living hell and my voice stripped away.
Absolutely no one knew of my abuse and I suffered in silence. By my senior year, my grades declined and slowly I was dying inside. Then the day came where I thought I would take my last breath. I caught my boyfriend with another girl and of course, he made me feel like I was crazy. He was a master manipulator. We started arguing, which then escalated to one of the most intense beatings.
I had on a white t-shirt. Within a few hours, it was red. I was certain I was not going to make it out alive. For a moment I thought this is how my life is going to end, in the hands of someone whom I thought loved me. My parents raised me better than this. How could this happen to me? I was a tough girl from the Bronx who was not afraid to fight. But this was one fight I didn’t train for.
When I frantically ran out the door to escape, I was hoping someone would hear my screams, but no one did. He grabbed me by my hair and said, “now you’re really gonna get it.” By dawn, the beatings finally stopped. I looked as if I had been in a boxing match for 12 rounds. He walked over and grabbed a first aid kit and began to wipe my blood with the alcohol pads. He looked up at me and told me, “I don’t know why I do this, but I love you.” Still, I could not leave him.
It wasn’t until I woke up in a very depressed state and knew I wanted to take my own life. I did not want to wake up and deal with the pain he caused me. I was a teenager who was supposed to be thinking about going to college and becoming successful. But here I was contemplating suicide. I figured if I drink a whole bottle of pills and a bottle of alcohol, maybe I won’t wake up. My parents still didn’t have an inkling their daughter was being abused. I got on my knees and I prayed the most transparent prayer.
“God if you can hear me, I need you to save me from this man. I don’t want to die, and I need help leaving.”
Sometime later, I found the courage and strength to leave my abuser. I reclaimed my voice.
It wasn’t until after filming the movie “Freedom Writers” when I realized I had my own story to share. It took me almost ten years after my abuse to feel safe enough to tell my story publicly. But I had a huge platform and knew I could use it for good.
To date, I have spoken on hundreds of stages, reaching thousands of people talking to them about intimate partner violence. I authored a book called Your Voice Your Choice, which tells my story of my abuse. But I am most proud of my 18-year relationship with my husband, Jose Castillo – 12-years married with two beautiful girls.
If there’s one thing I know for certain — real love does not abuse. It does not make you feel less than. And when a woman begins to own her voice, she becomes unstoppable. When I connected with Zayda Rivera, a journalist and Reiki Practitioner, I had no idea she was a survivor. Once I learned her story, we knew we wanted to do something together.
Our goal in hosting the event “Hidden Scars: A Conversation About Domestic Violence with Spiritual Healing” on October 23 in New York City, is to create a safe space for anyone who has experienced abuse or knows someone who has, especially women of color.
After all, 1 in 3 Latinas have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime, Black women experience domestic violence at rates 30 to 50 percent higher than White women, and almost 50 percent of Native American women have been raped, beaten, or stalked by an intimate partner.
We want attendees to take back control of their lives, know that they are not alone, and feel confident in a brighter tomorrow. It is a place where we will come together to share and heal. Healing happens in community. Healing happens when we can be vulnerable and not be judged.
Love does not abuse. You are worthy of love.
If you or someone you know is being abused or think they are, visit the National Hotline for Domestic Violence or call 1-800-799- 2933.