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Latino Play on Sexual Abuse Moves Community

May 02, 1985|VIRGINIA ESCALANTE | Times Staff Writer

"Una Familia Buena y Sana" (A Strong and Healthy Family) is no ordinary theatrical presentation.

An unprecedented drama dealing with a subject that is often taboo among Latinos, the play is about a family's ordeal when they discover that their children have been sexually abused by a relative.

Shocked, the respectable family does not know what it will do.

The mother wants to punish the abuser, but an 11-year-old victim cries: "I don't want him to go to jail. I don't want anybody to hurt my family. I don't want anything to happen to him. I love him."

The grandmother takes charge of the situation, saying that the family must think before it acts. But, tears streaming down her face, she carries the family's sorrow forward, offering it to the audience. Her grief and her family could easily be theirs.

Part of a concerted effort to protect children and strengthen families, the bilingual play was created by the Latino Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Project, the first program of its kind in the nation.

Jerry Tello, project director and a psychologist who is credited nationally with creating model prevention programs, developed the project after he reviewed child sexual abuse prevention programs and found that "there was nothing available for Latinos, nothing culturally sensitive or linguistically relevant." Those programs that were translated into Spanish were still based on the values of the dominant society.

"What it comes down to is that you can give parents, families and the community all the information in the world and they may appreciate it immensely," Tello, a sexual abuse therapist, said, "but if it's not something they can relate to, understand and be able to integrate into their family process based on their values, customs and traditions, they will not be able to truly integrate it into the care and protection of the child."

Twice a Week

Since December, the play has been presented twice a week for schools and social and health agencies where it has been hailed as a landmark in prevention programs. Some families have asked for help after seeing it.

Teresa Contreras, director of the East Los Angeles Rape Hotline, which is sponsor of the project, said the program was created in response to the escalating number of calls regarding child sexual abuse.

With increasing media coverage, she said, "families are recognizing that they need some help and direction."

The project, which began in July and is due to end in June, has reached more than 5,000 people, surpassing the objectives of the program, Contreras said. The agency will continue the project if it receives more funding, she added.

Financed by an $80,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning, and aimed at reaching all segments of the Latino community, the project also:

--Has provided intensive training about child sexual abuse for teachers at Sunrise Elementary School in East Los Angeles and Winter Gardens Elementary School in Montebello.

--Recently began a pilot program using songs, stories and puppets to teach children at those schools about abuse.

--Is creating a network of schools, health and social agencies.

--Has compiled a referral list of bilingual/bicultural health, counseling and police agencies for parents.

Performed in the realistic teatro style popularized by playwright Luis Valdez ("Zoot Suit" and "Corridos") and designed to teach the values of Chicano culture, the play was written collectively by the cast--Andrew J. Espinoza, Alva A. Moreno, Norma Alicia Pino, Raquel Salinas, John Taboada and Concepcion Velasquez--all of whom are involved in some type of social service in the Latino community.

In an hour, they become a real family composed of the grandmother who still nurtures children, a wise grandfather prone to cutting his toenails on the coffee table, the mother, beautiful in her words and gestures, her playful children, their beloved uncle and a godparent who celebrates life with dancing.

The project was undertaken, Tello said, because "we want to give Latino families an understanding of the problem within the context of our own culture as well as a certain level of acceptance--not only that sexual abuse is something that occurs, but that we can do something about it."

Coming to grips with that reality may be difficult for Latinos who regard children as a special gift, celebrating them with numerous festivities that acknowledge their value to the family and the world.

When it comes to sexual abuse, "we tend to think about (the) McMartin (case currently in court)," said Suzi Rodriguez, head of the sexual abuse prevention team at the San Fernando Valley Headstart agency where 80% of the children are Latino. "It's safe to isolate our thoughts to that kind of situation. We don't want to think about it happening in our families."

In the play, for example, the grandmother fears her suspicions, saying that the kids must be getting ideas from television.

"No," she says, "no, because those things don't happen in families like ours."

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