"Rally against domestic violence

Cuban-born actor-turned-activist Victor Rivers did not always know the strength in his own name, but he grew up to be the very incarnation of triumph. Terrorized by a violent father, left to his own devices by the police who declared his home life a “private family matter,” he’d joined a gang and become the kind of kid society tends to discard. As a teenager he was on the path to prison – or death.

Rivers told his family’s story to 240 attendees at Thursday’s Latinos Speak Out conference, where he was the keynote speaker. The conference brought service providers from all over Indiana to network on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Latino community.

The Latino Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, in partnership with the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service, organized the event. The only such statewide coalition in the country, LCADSV works to raise awareness and address the root causes of domestic and sexual violence in Latino families.

Marlene Dotson, LCADSV board president, said conference attendees came from law enforcement, hospitals, shelters and community centers throughout the state. Some organizations had been laboring on parallel concerns without knowledge of others in the field. For the first time, service providers were able to pool their knowledge on the Latino community’s needs in this arena.

Workshops covered topics such as marital rape, HIV-related concerns, emergency health care, and immigration and legal factors. 

“I believe this conference is a great beginning for the Latino community in regards to domestic and sexual violence,” Dotson said. “It is so important for service providers to understand our cultural background when they address these issues.”

This year’s Latinos Speak Out was indeed just the beginning; the coalition intends to make it an annual event. And later this month the organization is sponsoring a rally at Monument Circle. While the conference was geared toward people providing direct services to Latino victims of domestic and sexual violence, the Sept. 23 rally will be a grassroots event, Dotson said, to raise awareness in the Latino community.

Outreach efforts like the upcoming rally are critical because domestic violence continues to be the most underreported crime in America, and the Latino community confronts added language, legal, and cultural challenges. If a battered woman speaks no English and has been acculturated to stay with her husband until death, she is less likely to break free. When immigration concerns are added to the mix, she faces triple jeopardy.

To help keep women like this from falling through the cracks, the LCADSV provides cultural competency training for healthcare providers, social service professionals, youth workers, therapists and educators.

Bilingual service providers must be more than translators, according to Dotson. In addition to fluency in two languages, sensitivity to cultural differences is key. “If they are not culturally attached to the community, they need to at least receive training so they understand the cultural issues,” she said. Domestic violence is still a taboo subject in the Latino community in particular, so gaining the trust of victims is crucial.

Few have done more to raise awareness among Latinos than Victor Rivers, spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence and author of the book A Private Family Matter.

Putting a face to the “quiet crime,” Rivers described himself at 12, going to the police office to plead for help as he stripped naked in front of the officers, who were horrified at the welts, bruises and burns on his body. He evoked his mother, a woman who came to the US in hopes of a better life, and instead endured years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband.

“This nightmare was daily life to my mother, my brothers and sisters, and me,” Rivers said.

Calling for an increase in spending to educate and protect families, he said, “We need to help young boys not to become batterers or worse.” Nearly 95 percent of current prisoners started out as victims or witnesses to violence, he noted.

Rivers told the assembled listeners, “You are my hope. You have completely altered the landscape for people in families like mine.” He cited hotlines, Spanish-language outreach materials, education and literacy efforts, and improvements in law enforcement.

“For those of you in the trenches, promoting strong, loving relationships in the Latino community…if you wonder if you can truly make a difference, I hope you remember my story.”

Many considered his path predetermined, but Rivers’ life has taken him to a completely different place than prison: that of advocacy for families enduring the hell he once knew. Because of the intervention of people who showed him he mattered, today he embodies the hero implied in his name.




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