by Iris Lafé
I had long forgiven my father. For the sake of my battered mother’s dignity safely folded the skeletons in the family closet as good little Puerto Rican girls and boys so often do. Five decades later and our homecoming to their native Puerto Rico (1999), the dreadful specter of domestic violence returns to haunt me again—this time, in high definition. In this essay, I explore a silent tragedy ravaging La Familia Puertorriqueña of the 21st Century: Femicide.
My story begins with a visit from The Muse. While languishing in the remote, rural quiet solitude of my aging parents’ Barrio down south, my heart cries out for the battered mujeres of Puerto Rico. I was expecting her.
“There’s a reason you came back to the troubled homeland when you did,” she prompts. “Family violence, child abuse and benign neglect, the traumatic ripple effects on victims and to society is a subject you know all too well. Remember your experience. Don’t be afraid. You lived it and carry your mother’s memories deep inside the well of your anguished soul. You both survived, as a single mother you broke that cycle of abuse and your only daughter remains virtually unscathed. But look at the future, getting bleaker by the day for the next generation of women and girls, if they survive at all. Be the light, tell your story and break the silence.” The Muse emboldened me and possessed my disenchanted body right on the spot.
Day after day I was riveted to the Spanish local TV news. During breaks from my 24/7 caregiver duties, I began to chronicle my life on the island, to document what I was witnessing—it became a feverish compulsion—a reflex and residue from my California days in broadcasting and the media: Where’s the story? Get the story and get the scoop. Switching channels, clearly, from the missing coverage on mainstream networks beaming down by satellite, I had the scoop.
On the U.S. Caribbean colony—population 3.7 million “Forgotten Americans”—violence against women had reached unbridled, unconscionable proportions. From January to June 2011, in only six months, an unprecedented nineteen (19) mujeressuffered brutal, gruesome deaths, mortal mutilations and slayings reminiscent of a Stephen King novel—an abomination to our noble society.[i]
Despite La Ley 54 (domestic violence protection and prevention act of 1989) Puerto Rico had the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 murdered at the hands of a spouse or partner and the numbers kept climbing, ending 2011 with 30 femicides, scrutinized in an ACLU report.2 These are terrorizedwomenthe police failed to protect (whether by omission or commission) among the total of 1136 men, women, and children violently murdered that year.[ii]
The vivid scenarios of families trapped in violence, condemned to unmitigated poverty, beamed me back to my childhood household in 1960s New York.
The sweltering Lower East Side tenement, exuding the aroma of festering refuse from the back alleys, made me gag each time I scurried past the dingy hallways into our fire escape window apartment #1. The humble hearth Mami, the dutiful domestic—Boricua clean freak—whitewashed using her penetrating Pine Sol cleaner and irresistible sautéing sofrito vapors rising from the stove. Her story I’d begun to write:
Everything I am, ever was or ever shall be I owe to mi santa madre. Mami was a saint— “Saint Tolerance.” She put up with my father´s “casca rabia” irascible, grumpy temperament, early years of matrimonial hell, always on her knees, praying without cease at her overworked altar of Catholic Christian faith. Holding high hopes for a miracle, that one day, Papi would stop getting drunk, using her as his punching bag; while she still loved “el macho de la casa” (her sole provider) unconditionally. To the day he passed away, she justified, “tu Papá es bueno.” Your father is a good man, her misty eyes imploring me to forgive him, her final dying wish.
It hadn’t looked that way to me. I’d seen “The Hulk” crush her face into one bloody pulp. From the age of five in Loisaida, I witnessed the “War of the Lópezes” time and time again. The silent and sullen type, under the influence Papi was “a bad drunk,” your standard Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Generous shots of rum fueled a strange combustion unleashing the beast, a cruel monster of a two-legged kind. No civility whatsoever, he fumed and roared, the foul-mannered brute he became, ¿Pendeja, cómo dejastes que’se nene se queme? Idiot, how could you let the child get burned? he charged. No questions asked of Mami, as if she were chattel, less than human to boot, and beat!—reared on erroneous illusions of greater male entitlement.
Earlier, my curious brother reached up to the hot stove toppling the simmering pot of yummy habichuelas (beans) onto his 3-year-old frame. An ossified Papi arrived from his midtown-Manhattan garment district job pushing clothes racks (earning a paltry $35 a week) to find little Junior badly burned.
A sewing machine operator (he forbade to keep her factory job) Mami was busy too; in the living room sewing piecemeal to earn some cash to feed her hungry brood. The roach-overrun cupboards were bare again. Accidents were common with my hyperactive brother. Impatient for dinner on the table, he wiled into the kitchen to silence the grumbling in his belly. Mami feared Papi squandered his meager earnings again—drinking.
“Yo no tengo la culpa.” It´s not my fault, Mami pleads Papi to hear her out. “You don’t help me raise these children. You’re their father.” It never failed, on pay day, Papi took a detour to the liquor store for his panacea and was plastered by the time he got home, swearing ¡hijo eh putas!, those sons of bitches, without a care our little hearts were pumping fear. An in-your-face Mami dares to “sass” her Lord and master! “¿Pa´ qué fué eso?” She went there? Not again!
Papi clenches his teeth, huffs and puffs arrogance. His sledgehammer fist craters the walls, crashing into Mami’s lovely cinnamon-colored face, rapid fire licks meant to show her who´s boss. The heavyweight punches dislodging her front teeth vanished her cheerful alabaster smile. “Why don’t you leave that man, he will kill you the next time,” I begged my inconsolable mother, afraid I could be next, to suffer the wrath of a drunken, domineering father. A future feminist was burning inside the “Mini-me.”
“I can’t. I will not raise my children without a father,” she despaired; Adam’s Rib beaten but not broken. Down her swelling face cascaded red rivulets of tears.
Loving, as it were, Papi was a tormented man from the time he learned he was a “castaway”—a love-child kicked to the curb. “Yo no tengo familia,” I have no family, he bemoaned to me on his death bed. “Ello sí.” Of course you do. “You have us, Daddy,” I retorted consolingly, switching from Spanish to English, like we always did since the time I was a little girl, feeling the sting of his rejection all over again. And yet, I empathized with his frail human condition.
Hijo de crianza (adopted by next of kin) Papi never knew his biological parents. Emotional baggage he was not up to the task of handling in marriage; Mami captured his heart at the tender age of 17—she was 27. He piled his arrested development issues on her, inflicted bodily and emotional injuries no child should grow up seeing as my three siblings and I did during the formative years. Early childhood traumas leave an enduring emotional scab that can harden one’s heart.
On July 14 2011, reported our daily Primera Hora, outraged women advocates, representing the organization Coordinadora Paz Para La Mujer, a women’s collective of emergency shelter and service providers; and the civil rights coalition Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres, MAMPR, (General Mobilization of Women of Puerto Rico) denounced the government for not doing more to confront this issue and declared Un Estado de Emergencia Nacional (National State of Emergency) to stop the killings, demanding government action.[iii] Decrying the failures of La Ley 54 for lacking the muscle (and greater goodwill) of a male-dominated police and judiciary on the island; for not observing the tactical plans and protocols implemented, since 2005, by La Oficina de la Procuradora de Las Mujeres (Women’s Legal Advocate Office); for sanctioning the consequential violation of victim’s rights: bottom line, for being part of the problem, not the solution.
Puerto Rico suffragettes earned the right to vote in 1935. Eighty years later, women victims of gender violence fall victim to another crime, the cavalier machismo attitude judging that “the woman asked for it” including my own Papi until the thrashings stopped.
I pondered Mami’s fate, had not the NYC police handcuffed him and placed him behind bars, shielding her from her abuser. Not so in the case of la colonia:
- 20,000 domestic violence incidents, on average, are officially reported each year
- 130,000 women and girls subjected to family violence each year eschew the unresponsive system.[iv]
According to the ACLU, 107 femicides over the five years 2007–2011highlight the new normal today.[v]
My Mami’s action in defending herself scared my Papi straight. The thrashings stopped. To my parents’ credit, true love killed the beast.
[i] González, Leysa Caro. “Emergencia nacional por muertes de mujeres víctimas de violencia doméstica.” Primera Hora. 14 de julio de 2011.
[ii] Alvarez, Lizette. “Economy and Crime Spur New Puerto Rican Exodus.” New York Times. Feb. 9, 2014. [iii] González, Leysa Caro. “Emergencia nacional por muertes de mujeres víctimas de violencia doméstica.” Primera Hora. 14 de julio de 2011.
[iv] Mollmann, Marianne. “A Step Backward for Puerto Rican Women.” Women’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Puerto Rico Daily Sun. August 4, 2011.
[v] ACLU. “Failure to Police Crimes of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Puerto Rico.” June 19, 2012.
Iris Lafé is the pen name for an emerging Afro-Latina writer who reports on 21st Century “Colonial” Puerto Rico from her perspective as a Diasporican returnee to the homeland in stylized personal vignettes. A Writer’s Well Literary Competition winner (2012), contributor to herkind.org Global Woman, and former writer KCBS News Radio (SF), Lafé is a Bronx Science alumna, holds a BA in Black and Puerto Rican Studies from Hunter College, and works and lives in the San Juan Metropolitan Zone with her daughter. Currently editing her back-to-roots memoir, Lafé can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org