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Guest Voz: A young journalist gives voice to the silent victims of teen dating violence

By Ada M. Álvarez

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For being 23-years-old, Puerto Rican-born Ada Alvarez has accomplished a lot. She is the author of two books, is the youngest novelist in Puerto Rico, has her Masters in Science in Mass Communications with an Investigative and Multimedia Track, named a 2007 Volunteer of the Year and the publisher of a website that garners more than 100,000 visits from around the world.

The reason for her success is her mission to elevate awareness of an old but silent issue — domestic and teen dating violence. Her first book Lo que no dije (What I didn’t say), written when she was 16-years-old, is Alvarez’s effort to stop the silence that shrouds the issue.

Ada Alvarez

“I was volunteering at a newspaper called Tineller at 15 and wrote about domestic violence,” Alvarez said. “I found out about dating violence and saw that my first boyfriend had many of the signs. Based on the investigation I did for that article, I created my novel and advocate on this issue (dating violence).”

Believing that the first step in helping eradicate domestic violence is for people to recognize it and it’s signs, Alvarez created a web site based on her first book. The bilingual site, Lo que no dije, provides visitors with a survey to fill out to determine whether or not they are victims of domestic or teen dating violence, resources to access for help and plans of action to get out of the situation. In addition, Alvarez has chaired over 60 conferences educating the public about the issue.

In 2008, Alvarez came to the United States to pursue her Masters degree. She wanted to write her thesis on whether the dating violence law in Miami was efficient, unlike what could be found in Puerto Rico, and if there were a lot of reported cases.

Yet when the infamous Rihanna and Chris Brown incident happened, Alvarez decided to see if this high-profile case was getting people to pay attention to dating violence. What resulted from her investigation was her thesis “Victims of Silence.”

As she did in Puerto Rico with her book, Alvarez has created a companion web site to her work. The Spanish site, Victimas del Silencio, chronicles her investigation into the issue in the Miami/Dade County area.

Currently, Alvarez is working as part of a teen dating violence prevention initiative in the Miami area while applying to universities to pursue a PhD in journalism. Her wish is to become a communications professor and a women’s rights leader.

(Editor’s Note: Because of the length of the thesis, Latina Lista is dividing the content over three days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday).)


Part 1: Victims of Silence


Fans looked up to them. People couldn’t believe it had happened. Organizations rarely talked about the subject. Schools appeared to be safe from this. But everything changed when the beating was made public.

Christopher, 19 years old, and Robyn, 21, were dating for a year-and-a-half. Based on the police report of the 6th of February 2009, while Christopher was driving in Los Angeles, California; he received a text message from an ex-girlfriend. It started a fight.

Christopher got angry. He stopped the car and tried to push Robyn out. The seatbelt got stuck and when he saw he couldn’t push her out, Christopher grabbed her head and started smashing it into the window.

He got more aggressive and started punching her in her stomach and chin. The car and her clothes had blood stains and he continued punching her saying, “Wait till we get home. I’m going to kill you.” But the difference between this case and other cases of dating violence is that Christopher and Robyn had something different: fame and fortune.

Christopher, better known as Chris Brown, is an R&B singer who has reached the number one position on Billboard’s music charts. And Robyn, better known as Rihanna, has achieved even more global recognition with her music.

The “golden girl of Barbados” has already won more than 16 awards, including “Album of the Year” at the Grammys and “Video of the Year” at the MTV Music Awards. But even with all that fame, Rihanna told police that the incident wasn’t the first time.

The incident between Chris Brown and Rihanna caught the attention of the media and organizations that work against domestic violence. The studies that were done about violence between teens started to get published. This had a specific name: dating violence.

Based on the Council and National Crime Forum of the United States, in the last five years, it has been found that on average, one out of every three teens suffers physical, emotional or sexual dating violence by their partner.

The Prevention Institute of Minnesota released a report saying that working with teen dating violence prevention, before something happens and recognizing the early signs of dating violence, will decrease future cases of domestic violence.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in a study of crime statistics from 1998-2002, found that approximately one woman is beaten up by her partner in the USA every 15 seconds.

News that Rihanna was beaten up not only surprised the media, but it developed a public interest for statistics on this issue. The frequency of reports of dating violence incidents and the actions that resulted from this high-profile incident had a local, state and national impact.

The difference between domestic and dating violence is not much. The Association of Psychologists found that dating violence precedes domestic violence and it could even have greater consequences because it affects teens in their formative years, especially their emotional health. In fact, the emotional damage can be so great that the person
condemns herself for the situation. If not treated, the victim can enter a cycle of abuse and negative behaviors that not only puts her life at risk but creates very low self-esteem.

Victims of physical violence in a relationship are at higher risk for smoking, using drugs, becoming bulimic or anorexic, having risky sexual behaviors and considering suicide, based on a psychiatric study done by Dr. Decker Silvermans about teens and illness.

Comparatively, girls who have experienced physical and sexual violence versus those who haven’t been abused are three times at greater risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease in their lifetime.

Leona Smith, from Peace Over Violence, commented that Rihanna’s case: “is confusing and that is good because it makes people think and question things. Young people say their songs are good and that he seems like a nice person, (but) they don’t understand how they can do this.

“However we think that dating relationships shouldn’t be taken seriously, when on the contrary, they could bring proof of what is good or not from the beginning. They (Christopher and Rihanna) aren’t a good example of a couple on the news and this incident opened the space so that schools and parents are asking themselves something that has always been important to ask: What is a healthy relationship?; What is normal?; How should it be?, What do you really know of your partner and how do you handle emotions?”

Florida law, Chapter 741, states that dating violence is an action that is done regularly, out of reason and justice between individuals that have or had a continuous and significant relationship of intimate and romantic nature.

Violence between boyfriends and girlfriends is considered as dating violence when the partners do not live together. A couple that lives together or that live in different places but have a child, do not fall under this category; it is then considered domestic violence. If they don’t share a home, which is the case of many teens and people who are older that live separately, it is dating violence.

Violence in a relationship based on the World Health Organization’s definition, refers to any action or omission that damages the partner physically, emotionally and sexually, with the intent of having domination and control over the other.

Attacks include damaging self-esteem by insults and putting the partner down, manipulation and it can get to the point of beating up the other person. Based on programs of intervention of violence in Minnesota, what sustains the cycle of violence, particularly the emotional element, is an affect based on fear, where the victim’s behavior converts to obedience under that type of control.

“It’s a problem that is hidden and it’s getting worse while we pass through these difficult times”, said Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

For Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, what is surprising was the reaction of the younger population to the news of Chris Brown and Rihanna.

A questionnaire distributed to teens by Pangea Pulse of the Tampa Tribune revealed 60% of the respondents believed that Rihanna should leave Chris Brown, while 24% said they should try to get back together. The other 16% stated that “she must have done something wrong for that to happen,’ and one wrote, “I don’t think he is capable of doing that, maybe she has issues and she fights a lot and tried to blame Chris to damage his career.”

O’Neill responded to these comments: “This shows how teens see chauvinism and violence as something normal in their lives, to the point where they victimize the aggressor and blame the victim. They don’t see that violence should never be justified.”

The New York Times did another poll with the Public Commission of Health in Boston with 200 teens where 46% said that Rihanna was responsible for what happened and 52% said they both were to blame, even when Rihanna’s wounds needed medical treatment.

María Rosario, an 18-year-old Hispanic from Harold Washington College is in the ninth grade and said that she has seen different friends fighting with their boyfriends. “I think it is in our culture. It is very common to hear that men should be the one “in charge” and I have heard that frequently, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for them to be abusive.”

María says that her 19-year-old friend has been in a violent relationship since she was 14. “My friend blames herself when he hits her. She makes up excuses and justifies why she was hit. I have tried to convince her to leave him but she hasn’t. I feel that I can’t do anything else.”

The Department of Justice made an interesting observation in seeing who is affected by dating violence. A study released in 2005 showed how people 18-24-years of age were less than twelve percent of the population in the U.S. Yet, between 1998 and 2002, as dating violence victims between those ages, they represented four times their percentage of the population at 42%.

A person that has unjustified or repetitive bruises, loses interest in things that they liked before; changes their appearance or behavior, becomes reserved and wants more time alone; starts to get secretive; shows anxiety when receiving phone calls or starts taking drugs or drinking could be a victim of violence, based on Silvermans medical investigation.

The Association of Schools of Social Workers of the United States also did a study between 2005 and 2007 that showed abuse got worse with time. It escalates from threats to hitting, stalking, rapes and in extreme cases, death.

Looking for answers

Lucely Aramburo, a 22-year-old known as Lilly, disappeared on June 2, 2007. Her best friend Janet Forte and her mother, Lucely Zaldivar, described Aramburo’s past boyfriend as abusive. Her mother explained that since she had started dating Christen Pacheco, she went from using pot and heroin to constantly using cocaine.

Lilly was Pacheco’s girlfriend for two years before they got engaged. She had a son with another guy named David Lamaso, who gave up his parental rights. When Pachecho and Lilly started going out the baby was just months old, and it was her son, Palden, who inspired her to go into rehabilitation. However Aramburo’s mother says that Pacheco insulted Lilly constantly.

“She didn’t do anything and every time the violence got worse she took more drugs. The police can’t accuse nobody for her death because they haven’t found a body and they don’t know where she could be. I just want to find my daughter,” said Zaldivar.

“I had problems with the (news)papers that were coming out saying Lilly had disappeared. She was 5 feet tall and police even said they were looking for a woman of 5’11; that is a big difference,” said Janet Forte, Aramburo’s best friend and creator of different web portals dedicated to Lilly’s disappearance.

“She was like my little sister. She loved animals, art, music and she even was in the show Sábado Gigante when she was a little kid. She had hopes for herself and her son, but Christen ended that. I don’t doubt that the violence made her (drug use) worse,” said Forte.

Janet and Lilly’s mom are convinced that the investigation of Lilly’s disappearance was not given the proper attention by authorities because she was an addict, caused by her domestic violence situation which made her depressed and use more drugs.

Pacheco picked Lilly up at a rehabilitation center two days before she disappeared. He told police that she left the house at 2:00 a.m. saying she was going to pick up flowers. The ex-marine, specialized in engineering systems and artillery, said he was devastated after her disappearance. However, Lilly’s family said they saw how violently he treated her and has since heard that he has gotten into trouble because of his drug usage. No one knew that in 2001 he was accused of domestic violence but the charges were dropped.

“I’ve been going to every activity I can to look for my daughter, hoping she is still alive. I know she suffered a lot in that relationship. He threatened her with taking away her child and he got away with it. They fought so much and it was so loud that Palden was put into foster care.

“The Department of Children’s and Families took her son but didn’t investigate anything related to domestic violence because they just saw her as an addict. When they took away Palden, she got depressed and started taking more and more drugs. She tried saying something to me once and then stopped. I thought that maybe we could talk another day. That is why I tell parents to be very aware of what’s happening to your children so that nobody goes through what I’ve been through.

“I can’t accuse Pacheco for Lilly’s disappearance. He has been interrogated and there isn’t any proof, but I do know that because of the violence she used more drugs and got worse. The problem is I don’t know if she is dead or alive, because there isn’t a body and without a body nothing can be done. It hasn’t even been in the local news, and what I want is justice for my daughter and for my grandson,” said Zaldivar. After Lilly’s disappearance Zaldivar requested the custody of Palden.

On October 10, 2009, Zaldivar and Forte brought banners to the Annual Awareness Walk for Domestic Violence of Miami Dade asking if someone had seen Lilly. Her friend gave out flyers that had the number of the detective working the case, in case someone knew something.

The honeymoon phase

Leone Walker developed a social theory in 1970 called the cycle of violence that is still being used as the model for cases of dating and domestic violence. It starts with an increase of tension till an accident occurs, then comes reconciliation, commonly known as the “honeymoon phase” that includes a period of tranquility; till violence starts again.

This happens after an incident or beating; the aggressor sees him/herself in danger of being dumped and abandoned and promises it won’t happen again. The dependency of the couple creates a sense of relief where she or he tries to convince him or herself that it won’t happen again and that everything is going to change as promised. That’s why after a violent incident occurs many couples get “closer.”

This does not heal the wounds that have been inflicted and studies show that unless therapy is received, the cycle will be undoubtedly repeated. Rihanna and Chris Brown weren’t the exception.

(Editor’s Note: Part II of Victims of Silence will be published on Saturday)

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