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A survivor’s journey

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Editor’s note: On Sept. 4, 2009, Maria-Elena Ochoa, Director of the Division for Women in the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families, interviewed Maria E. Varela, a domestic violence survivor, to prepare a contribution to the Health section of this month’s issue of LPM (see page 58). Ms. Varela felt it was important to share her story, “even if it helped just one person.” What follows is a portion of her story as narrated to Ochoa.

By Maria E. Varela

I was born in a small rural Mexican town. There were 11 of us living in the same house – aunts, uncles and grandparents. My father had to provide for everyone. The summers were very difficult but the winters were very painful.

However, none of that was as painful as living with the violence, where my brothers and sisters were always watching the “golpes,” and our mother’s suffering. We couldn’t do anything to help her. We were always afraid. We didn’t feel safe in the house so we were always outside, even after dark. We didn’t go back in until we felt safe enough to go to bed. My mother tried so hard to take care of us but she was so busy trying to survive. In spite of it all, she was dedicated, tender and loving. My father was good to us even though he was very abusive to my mother.

When I was 13, we came to the United States. I was very depressed living in a country I was not familiar with. I didn’t know the language and felt a lot of pressure. My load was too heavy. My pain was too great. I tried to take my life and as a result was in a coma for a day. When I left the hospital, no one told my parents that I should see a professional or that I might have needed medication for my depression.

After a few years, I married a man who was abusive. I didn’t know what a healthy relationship was like. I had three children and they witnessed the violence in our home.

It took me about nine years to leave my abuser. I knew I had to leave but I didn’t know how. I never contacted the police because I was afraid to make him mad; I was afraid he’d be arrested and lose his job.

Some in my family thought that, “the man is the man; he is the head of the family and one has to subject herself to him.” My mother would tell me, “It’s the cross you have to bear. He is your husband. This is the man that God sent you. You have to tolerate. What are you going to do? Marriage is forever. You must endure. How can you have another man be the father of your children?” People would tell me, “If you were stronger of character, this wouldn’t be happening to you.” People would ask, “Do you love him more than your children?”

One day my brother came over. He asked, “How much longer do you think you can be like this?” My children were standing in the doorway. He said, “Look at your children. Look at how they’re suffering. Look at the hurt in their eyes.” His words were the turning point for me.

And so I left; I was afraid of everything. I was afraid of the unknown. My children were afraid. We didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a job, money or anything. What was I going to do, alone, with three children?

My counselor and my family were there for me, thank God. With professional help, I was able to get out of the dark hole I was in. One year later, I had my own home and I was taking college courses. After three years, I graduated from college with honors.

I got a job with Catholic Community Services of Southeastern Arizona/House of Hope Shelter as a receptionist. I wanted to be a part of the triumphs of women who like me were able to escape. We have the chance to break the cycle. We can give our children the opportunity to live a life free from violence. Now I am the Shelter Programs Coordinator. It makes me happy to see how the women we help, like a dove in a cage, are able to spread their wings and fly.

That’s how I felt when I left 17 years ago. I felt free. It is a beautiful feeling.

Maria E. Varela is the 2003 recipient of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence Courage of Conviction Award; Survivor panelist at the 2007 White House Conference on Domestic Violence; and member of the Governor’s Commission to Prevent Violence Against Women.

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