By Isabella Szabolcs
She spent the night before praying she would have the strength to tell her story and that God would never leave her side. She even wrote on her Facebook wall asking her friends for support and love. Despite her anxiety, she sits determined and ready to be interviewed under her alias Alicia Rodriguez. I can do this, she tells herself. It’s worth it. Despite her polished look with dyed blonde hair, silver eye liner, blush and lip gloss, the makeup can’t conceal the deep lines of pain etched into her face. Only in her fifties, her face bears the heavy weight of suffering.
Her daughter had asked her, “mama, why do you want to relive the horror of your past?” Despite the painful memories of sexual assault, Rodriguez says she’s willing to give the answer. Although her story is sadly not unique, Rodriguez is the exception. Most victims of sexual assault rarely speak out.
One out of every six women in the U.S. has been the victim of sexual assault but 68% of these assaults are not reported to police, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Sexual Assault Program Director at Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Mujeres) Maritza Reyes says this is the problem. “These stories [of sexual assault] are not extraordinary. They happen everyday,” Reyes said. “We really need to look at ourselves as a culture, and a society that we allow this sort of violence to take place.” Victim blaming, she says is a common response. For many of the women she helps, coming out to family members can be more hurtful than the assault itself because of their reaction. It’s not uncommon for society to accuse the victims of lying and provoking the assault, to ask for details and to even tell the victims to forget the attack ever happened. In fear of criticism, these women end up staying quiet and living with the continued effects of sexual abuse, says Celia Guerra Granados, one of Mujeres’ Sexual Assault Program counselors. This is what Rodriguez wants to change. By sharing her story Rodriguez hopes to inspire victims to speak out and for society to listen. It’s a horrific journey to understand how she gathered this strength. It all goes back to where it started in the small town of Nayarit, Mexico. “I’ve had a very ugly life, but a very pretty one too,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez was given away at birth because her father did not want the burden of taking care of a daughter. Her gender was a curse from early on, she says. “It was a tormentful life but a happy one,” Rodriguez recalls. She grew up with her grandparents in a modest two-bedroom home and shared a room with her 20-year-old uncle. She remembers the daytime fondly, feeding cows and going to school. However, when the night came, the horror would begin. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t remember anything before age eight. Her memory has been blocked by trauma. Her psychologists tell her there is no doubt she was abused early on. She takes a deep breath as tears fill her eyes. “When he attacked me, my heart would accelerate. I would close my eyes and imagine it wasn’t him. Even now, when I close my eyes, I see only a silhouette, I don’t see his face,” Rodriguez said. When she was 10, she told her grandmother that her uncle was “teaching her his thing”. Despite the evidence of blood on her sheets that her grandmother so carefully cleaned up, Rodriguez was accused of lying. It took years before they believed her and even then, she was still forced to live under the same roof as her uncle.
At age 14, a glimmer of hope came into her life when she was sent to live with her aunt after her grandmother died. She thought that at last she would be able to get away from the nightmare. However, her illusion was short-lived. At night while she slept, her uncle would creep under the sheets and put his hand over her mouth as he raped her. When she gathered the strength to speak up, her aunt blamed her and kicked her out onto the streets. The same pattern would happen three more times as she went from aunt to aunt for the next two years. Each time, their husbands abused her. Her choice was to either live with the horror or to speak up and risk being kicked out onto the streets. “I felt angry”, she said. “I felt frustrated, I felt full of hostility, full of anger because I thought I would have support but all that support that I thought I would have, was all abuse.”
At age 16, Rodriguez decided she had had enough and got herself a job in a cookie factory and later as a sailor. Her life seemed to have finally turned around. Yet once again, her hope did not last long. She had several happy but short-lived marriages and relationships. Her first love died of a heart attack, she left two and one was an abusive drunk. She sighs as she looks back at the end of every relationship. Despite the abuse she faced with some of them, when she was single she says, “I felt lost, I felt unprotected, I felt like my wings had been cut again.” By the age of 22, Rodriguez had been sexually assaulted too many times to count, dealt with drug and alcohol addictions, a miscarriage and two children. “I was left with a hate for men…because of how much they abused of me. I didn’t just feel hate but a resentment that when I looked at them, I had a repugnance toward them.” After narrowly escaping being raped on the street in front of her two children, Rodriguez decided she couldn’t take it any longer. She left her children with family and decided to cross the border.
“I left Mexico because of anger, because of hate of everything that had happened to me. I thought that by leaving Mexico, all of that would stay behind me there,” Rodriguez said. With the hopes of starting a new life, Rodriguez hired a “coyote”, a human smuggler that helps migrants cross the border. She remembers that rainy night’s journey from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego as if it was yesterday. After crossing the dangerous Rio Tijuana and breaking her ankle from the falls, Rodriguez was told to wait under the freeway for the coyote. She didn’t budge for fear of being caught by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She waited the entire day and following night freezing and without food or water. He never came back. Out of some miracle, an elder woman found her, took her in and looked over her for a couple years. That same woman turned out to be the grandmother of the smuggler. “Thanks to God, I think an angel found me,” Rodriguez said. “So much have I suffered, so much have I battled, that I feel that God has never abandoned me. He has put some hard times on me, but he has never abandoned me.” Within the next few years, Rodriguez married an American, received a green card, got her children back from Mexico and had another child. The American Dream seemed almost at her reach. Yet again, when she was so close to finding happiness, terror struck again.
Rodriguez divorced, married a new man, had three more children and eventually moved to Chicago, living on the streets at times. She thought she had left behind the terror of sexual abuse in Mexico but in the U.S. she became the victim of domestic abuse. At the beginning everything was fine, but then things changed, her husband changed. He began drinking, beating and raping her sometimes in front of her children. In one of these assaults, she became pregnant. Her nightmare had begun all over again but this time even worse; she couldn’t get away even if she wanted to. She attempted to escape but her husband beat her so brutally that he broke her clavicle. When she tried to get help from the police, they didn’t believe her; they told her she was crazy. It was during this period that she became severely depressed and attempted suicide four times as did her daughter. “I was tired, tired of living this life,” Rodriguez said.
After enduring decades of trauma, most may wonder how Rodriguez was able to turn her life around. How did she overcome the horror story that had become her life? There was not just one but many turning points for Rodriguez. Her last suicide attempt was one of them.
She had prepared to turn on the gas in her apartment and kill herself with her two-year-old son but on the way home he had begged to go a different route. They passed in front of a church where a pastor was holding a funeral service. The pastor spoke about the suicide of an individual who had been too depressed to continue with life. “Depression makes us do things to the point that we don’t think of the consequences on our family, ” she recalls him preaching. Upon hearing his words, Rodriguez broke down. It was at this moment, she says, that she found God, began going to church regularly and changed her outlook on life. She got a restraining order on her husband and started working two jobs in restaurants to support her children. To make ends meet, she worked tirelessly getting only two to three hours of sleep at night. However, this came at an enormous cost. She had a heart attack after continuing this routine for several years and it did not just end there.
Rodriguez only remembers being hit on the back of her head and waking up the next day on the ground. She remembers the dizziness, the pain she felt all over her body, the blood and being rushed to the emergency room where she underwent extensive surgery. It was a rainy night two years ago when Rodriguez came back home to Englewood from her second job. As if her life could not get more tragic, doctors told her she was drugged and gang raped with foreign objects. As a result, she contracted human papillomavirus and was told that as a diabetic with high cholesterol and blood pressure and hyperthyroidism, she only had 10 years to live. “I cried for five hours straight asking myself, why, why, why? … I am a happy person but I wasn’t myself when I found out,” Rodriguez said. “I was scared to die before but not anymore…I’ve had a hard, cruel life but until today, everything I’ve suffered, God has given back to me in double.” She wants to make the most of her last 10 precious years.
Rodriguez still deals every day with the pain of her illness and the consequences of years of abuse. She has to take medications, exercise regularly, reduce the stress in her life, go to the doctor every few months and get therapy at Mujeres. They have helped her psychologically and have given her the constant support she never had in her life. Her counselors say Rodriguez’s life is shocking but if she can overcome the trauma, anyone can. “I’m not going to stop with my life, I’m going to keep on fighting,” Rodriguez said.
The night after her first interview, Rodriguez’s daughter asked her mother the same question she had asked before.
“Mama, if it hurts you so much to remember your past, why are you doing this?”
“I want all those women like me to see and read that they aren’t alone,” Rodriguez replied. “There are people who can help us. Just look at how much Mujeres Latinas has helped me. There are people who don’t have the courage, and they just need a push. I hope that when they read my story they think to themselves, if she can do it, I can. If she had the courage, I will have it too…That could save lives.”
“Mama, you are a heroine, but unfortunately, you had to pay a huge cost, you and your children did,” her daughter responded.
Rodriguez takes a deep sigh and pauses. Oh my God, she had thought to herself. The nightmare is repeating itself. Rodriguez learned just a few weeks ago that her last husband had raped her own daughter multiple times.
“You won’t forget it m’hija,” she told her daughter. “You have to talk about it so you can get over it.”
Rodriguez wishes she had gotten this advice herself when she was young.
Reyes says that victims of sexual assault don’t speak up out of fear that they won’t be believed. “Sometimes we don’t speak because we’re embarrassed, threatened. I shut myself in my world because I was scared, panicked,” Rodriguez said. “Yet, if you don’t talk, you feel like you’re in the dark.” This is not the solution, Rodriguez says. “It’s time for us to come out of this darkness, it’s time to confront reality… If we don’t come out, it will turn into an epidemic that will never be stopped.”
Rodriguez wants women to know that there is no reason they should put up with an abuser; they are human beings with feelings and rights. She emphasizes over and over again that only by talking can the cycle of abuse stop. “Otherwise, how else are you going to get help?” she asks.
“People ask me how I had the courage to confront this life, and I say as long as I have God with me and faith, I can,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just telling yourself, I can do it… You just need strength. I started asking for help and then I was able to free myself…I told my story, I liberated myself from my executioner. I left my mistreatment. I said this was enough.”
However, it’s not just women that have to speak up but also society that has to listen and be supportive. “Sexual assault needs to be highlighted so people can know that help exists. That other people who’ve been through this are there to help them,” Rodriguez said. “Even today, I may fall but I get back up. I still fight. I am a strong woman. I consider myself a female warrior, a female fighter. This is how I will continue until the days of my life are over.”
I can do this, she assures herself one more time before the interview comes to a close. It’s worth it.