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Latina Victims of Abuse Have a Newfound Voice

L.A. program expands Spanish-language services to reach women unwilling or unable to speak out.


It's been 12 years, but her pain remains raw and the details are as vivid as ever: the way he punched her face because she was afraid to ride a horse while pregnant; the time he smashed her finger with a belt buckle because he wanted her to wash his clothes; and that unforgettable final night when he threw a hot pan of food at her feet and struck several blows to her face, her blood splattering on their kitchen's beige walls.

Elvira Jimenez was a 21-year-old, pregnant newlywed then, two months from motherhood in a rural Mexican town. She had witnessed the occasional beatings of her sister-in-law and was advised by her mother-in-law to stand by her violent husband because, after all, "that's what women who love their husbands do."

But Jimenez loved herself, and the baby girl she was carrying, more. She moved to her parents' house, delivered her daughter and got a job. Three years later, she crossed the border and settled in El Monte, finding work as a housekeeper. She never saw her husband again, but she still weeps when she recalls the memories.

"My daughter gave me the courage I needed to leave," says Jimenez, 33, who is slowly healing with the help of a counselor from the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. "I'll never forget how he hurt me, but I do feel better now. That's why I want to help other women who are experiencing what I went through."

For three decades, the private nonprofit organization headquartered in downtown Los Angeles has helped victims of domestic violence or sexual assault by offering free counseling, self-defense classes, educational workshops and referrals to shelters for women who fear they are in danger. As the city's Latino population swells and more Spanish-speaking women are reporting crimes, the commission has made an increasing commitment to helping them, said Executive Director Patti Giggans.

"This population was underserved," Giggans said. "There were no places that women who spoke Spanish and very little English could turn to to deal with these kinds of trauma."

At first, the commission dispatched Latina workers to churches, shelters, schools and clinics in East Los Angeles and Pico-Union to inform immigrants about the organization. It has also created and expanded a Latina services program with a tireless advocate as its coordinator: Imelda Talamantes. Hired in 1997, Talamantes has forged relationships with police agencies, hospitals and civic groups, which in turn have made increasing referrals to the program.

With her compassionate touch, Talamantes has helped center such clients as Jimenez, who now volunteers to give pep talks to women like herself. In January, Jimenez will undergo an additional 72 hours of training to become a commission counselor.

"My life as a married woman was very sad," Jimenez said. "I didn't realize that even when he wasn't hitting me, my husband was still abusive. It's such a helpless feeling. I try to tell other women that there is help, that they can come to [the commission]. So many of them feel there is no way out."

Two years ago, Ana Santamaria joined Talamantes, and the commission became the only service agency of its kind in Los Angeles to train Spanish-speaking volunteers in their native language to counsel survivors and their families and assist them through the legal process. Since the Latina services program was created, the commission's Latina clients have nearly doubled from 531 to 950, and Giggans is now searching for a third coordinator to meet the public demand. In all, the commission serves more than 22,000 women in crisis each year.

Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department responded to more than 52,000 domestic violence calls citywide, according to police records. Nearly 1,300 rapes were reported across Los Angeles. No ethnic breakdown of statistics is available.

"When people tell us how this program has changed their lives, it's like giving us water," said Santamaria, who has personal experience with domestic violence. "I have such a passion for this work. To do this, a counselor doesn't have to be Latina. But she should be someone who understands our culture, our deep-seated family secrets and our taboo topics, especially the macho husband and that antiquated type of thinking that this is your man--a cross you must bear."

Talamantes and Santamaria did not meet until 1998, but their lives had been preparing to converge for eight years. In 1990, while taking a psychology class, Santamaria finally got the nerve to end her troubled marriage. That same year, Talamantes, married for 22 years, put her vows to the test. She trained to be a domestic violence counselor and applied her classroom lessons to her life. Strong and firm, she refused to let her husband control or manipulate her any longer. With time, he accepted her new attitude and even grew to admire it.

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