The exact dates of the abuse are just hazy shards of memory, but Maritza will never forget what happened.
Two uncles and one of her father’s cousins. The abuse starting when she was just 6 years old. And her saying nothing at the time, or in the years afterward.
That was many years ago.
But now Maritza, whose full name is being withheld to protect her identity, has broken the silence within her family. Aided by the support of a church group for sexual abuse survivors and driven to heal completely for the benefit of her two young children, Maritza has begun to talk about her experience, earned her high school diploma after seven years and started to look into enrolling in college.
“I’ve got to do it for my kids,” says Martiza, a lively articulate woman with dark hair and tattoos on her forearms.
A Chicago native, Martiza grew up in the Little Village neighborhood. Every summer, she and her family would travel for a month to southern Mexico, where her father grew up before moving to the United States.
Maritza’s voice grows animated and her eyes glow as she describes her calm and peaceful summer vacations there. But the idyllic became far less so when the sexual abuse started. First, it was an uncle. Then, another uncle. And finally her father’s cousin.
To this day, Maritza says she does not remember exactly what happened but is certain she was abused.
She told no one for years. She says she was silent because she felt in some way that it had been her fault. Also, as a young woman, she felt men had their needs, and it was her duty to accommodate them.
Such thinking is not unusual, according to Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of “Child Abuse and Culture.” While emphasizing that she has not met Maritza and thus can not speak specifically about her experience, Fontes said that, within Latino cultures, such beliefs are common and affect both men and women. At the same time, she noted that self-blame is a widespread phenomenon among sexual abuse victims, and that variations of the idea that men are entitled to abuse young girls exist within other cultures, too.
“Self-blame and feeling responsible is common to many people who deal with sexual abuse,” Fontes said, adding that it “can have a cultural flavor. –˜Men have their urges’ is common in many cultures, including Latino. Other cultures say that men have a right to do what they want with their children.”
Maritza did try to broach the topic with her mother when she was 14. But her mother’s response that Maritza should have told her at the time of the abuse so that she could have done something about it stifled further discussion.
The next year, she dropped out of high school and had her first child, a boy whose middle name is tattooed on her left forearm. At 16, she was married. Her daughter followed a year later.
And at 19 her husband’s brother molested her. Her husband did nothing about it when she told him about the abuse. She filed for divorce.
Her family took her husband’s side. During the split, her husband also ripped up and threw out several notebooks into which she had poured her feelings about the abuse.
In December, around Christmastime, she told the family. Only her sister believed her. Sort of.
With all these blows, it would be understandable if she fell into despair. But instead, she did just the opposite.
Starting in November, she got connected with a church group. While there, she drew inspiration from an older woman who found healing through telling her story of abuse to the members. Gradually, Maritza has begun to share her own experiences.
Fontes explains that telling what happened in a caring and supportive environment in which the storyteller is believed is a fundamental element of many people’s healing processes and can lead to the person feeling stronger. “Most psychotherapy of any kind includes some sort of telling of the story of the trauma,” Fontes said, explaining that from her understanding in Maritza’s case, “It’s not called psychotherapy, but it’s therapeutic.”
“Sometimes, through telling the story, the story no longer puts the person in a panic to think about it. Telling it makes it less powerful. The person is able to live a better life despite the abuse. It isn’t as strong,” Fontes said.
Maritza has become stronger in several areas, one of which is academic. After a lengthy hiatus, she resumed her studies and beamed as she described passing her GED earlier this summer. Another part of her healing has been working toward forgiveness. She said she has forgiven one of her abusers.
As for her future, she is moving forward with her education and is considering attending DeVry University to study computer forensics. Maritza realizes that she is partially, but not fully, healed. But she is proud of the growth she has made thus far, believes in the journey she is undertaking and has confidence in her destination.
“I know where I need to go and believe I will get there,” she says.