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By Juhie Bhatia
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Latino groups fighting domestic violence have grown from memorializing a murdered bride to actively recruiting men to their cause. Third in "Dangerous Trends, Innovative Responses" series.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Roughly 300 people, including over 70 women in white wedding gowns accompanied by a cadre of men in black business suits, gathered in the late-September sun on a Washington Heights street corner. They were there to talk about violence: the intimate kind.
The gathering and subsequent march through three low-income sections of New York City commemorated a death that shocked the community: On Sept. 26, 1999, Gladys Ricart, a Dominican immigrant, was murdered in her Northern New Jersey living room as she stood in her wedding gown, surrounded by her family, and made last-minute preparations for her wedding. Her murderer was a former boyfriend, a wealthy businessman from Washington Heights.
Each year on Sept. 26, the New York City Annual Brides' March Against Domestic Violence, featuring women dressed as brides, parades through predominately Spanish-speaking sections of the city, demanding an end to domestic violence.
"The march goes into the community, versus an auditorium or university. When you take it into the streets of Washington Heights, the Bronx and East Harlem, people turn their heads, stop, listen and ask questions," said Adelita Medina, executive director of the New York-based National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, known as Alianza. "You can't have girls in gowns and not have people turn around."
The march was inspired by Josie Ashton, a Dominican woman from Florida who was outraged by Ricart's murder. Ashton quit her job and spent three months walking from New Jersey to Miami in a wedding dress in order to draw attention to domestic violence. The first Brides' March in 2001 was the send-off for her 1,600-mile journey.
The striking feature of the march, in addition to the women in wedding gowns, is the increasing number of men who participate, reflecting a deliberate strategy on the part of the march's planners to involve men in the domestic violence movement.
The men walking in the march were asked to wear black to represent mourning for the many women who were killed at the hands of other men. Brides' Marches were also organized this year in Milwaukee, Wisc., on Sept. 17, and in Lawrence, Mass., on Sept 26.
Victor Rivas Rivers, whose family emigrated from Cuba to the United States, joined the march last year. As recounted in his autobiography, "A Private Family Matter," he witnessed the extreme abuse his father inflicted on his mother, but also was on the receiving end of what only can be described as torture.
Today Rivers is an author and the celebrity spokesperson for the Washington-based advocacy organization, the National Network to End Domestic Violence. His advocacy is part of what he calls a "new solution to an old problem."
He and other advocates agree that getting more men involved is key to raising further awareness of domestic violence issues in the Latino community and combating the problem.
"Work on the issue of domestic violence has been done mostly by women, but men have to join the struggle," said Grace Perez, a founding member of the annual Brides' March and a steering committee member of New York Latinas Against Domestic Violence. "Advocates are not saying it's just men who are responsible, but men are committing the majority of the violence, killing their significant others and leaving children orphans. So it's their issue as much as our issue."
One in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Its prevalence in Latino populations is harder to pin down. One study found higher levels of partner abuse among Latinos than in white populations (23 percent versus 15 percent), but other studies found no difference, according to Alianza.
"There are elements in Latino culture, like all cultures, that prevent domestic violence and help women in trouble and there are also traditions that don't help and can promote the violence," said Alianza's Medina. "It's not that domestic violence happens differently; it's how we handle it."
The emphasis on family, for instance, means that a woman will likely have a strong extended family to turn to for support, Medina said, but it can also encourage the belief that domestic violence is not the business of the wider community. Respect is also double-edged. Elders and men are supposed to be respected, she said, but then men grow up expecting this respect, whether they deserve it or not.
Rivers agrees. "Latino men, and men in other cultures, are brought up in a culture where men dominate and we've seen that it's a man's right to put a woman in her place," he said. "It was difficult for my mom. The woman stays with her man no matter what. It's her duty to serve her man. This has changed for the modern Latina woman, but we have a huge immigrant population and many of these women continue to follow that course."
Though the number of men in the march and the movement is encouraging, advocates said, it can't stop there. "Any man with a heart would be moved by Ricart's story and join the march, but it's only one day," said Rivers. "How do they live their lives for the rest of the year? How are they changing? How are they influencing family members? Ultimately change has to come from the male part of the equation."
Men can create this change by being positive role models for young boys and other men, he added. Part of this requires not standing by silently when their peers disrespect women.
Latino men also have to realize the true sense of "machismo," said Jerry Tello, an author, national consultant and founding member of the National Compadres Network, a group based in Santa Ana, Calif., that reinforces the positive involvement of Latino males in their families and communities. Through his work Tello teaches boys and men that the first lesson of manhood is honoring women. "It's not enough to say don't hit your wife, girlfriend or sister. You need to treat her with dignity," he said.
It's also not enough to just stop the violence, he added. Most really violent men are wounded, often having been sexually or physically abused or abandoned. So truly ending the violence involves healing and treatment too.
"It's not just about getting men involved, but getting them involved in a way that touches their culture, spirit and values, so their wounds and values are rebalanced," Tello said. "If you don't heal the wounds, they'll be passed on to our children and grandchildren."
Juhie Bhatia is a writer based in New York City.
This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.