Breaking the Silence 

Local nonprofit is training Spanish speakers to help victims of rape.

From age five to eleven, Monica was sexually assaulted by her grandfather in Mexico. "That was very damaging for me," recalls Monica, now 31, through a translator at the Alameda County Family Justice Center in Oakland. "It's something that has happened a lot in my family."

Then, three years ago, Monica, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was attacked again while at a bus stop in Oakland. A man was masturbating and grabbed her. The incident triggered memories of her childhood trauma.

She told her story to a psychologist who once had visited her English class at the Native American Health Center. The psychologist recommended she contact Bay Area Women Against Rape, located in Oakland, the nation's oldest rape crisis center. The center provides a 24-hour hotline, counseling, and escorts to the hospital, police department, and courts. It also helps women apply for protective visas, and conducts outreach and education. "I received a lot of support," Monica recalls. "My self-esteem got higher. I began to assess that it wasn't my fault." At that point in the interview she broke down, wiping tears onto her gray pinstriped pants. Translator Kristina Molina leaned over to console her in Spanish.

Molina, 32, is currently the center's Latina outreach coordinator and the only Spanish-speaking employee. She worries that many Latinos keep silent about their sexual-assault experiences. Yearly, more than 300,000 women and nearly 93,000 men are raped, according to the National Violence Against Women survey. And a 2000 National Institute of Justice study found that only 15 percent of Hispanic women report the crime.

After making presentations at places like Head Start and La Clinica de La Raza, Molina found herself counseling as many as fifteen Spanish-speaking women per week, though a typical caseload is five. Now, thanks to her efforts, Bay Area Women Against Rape is training thirty Spanish-speaking volunteers to provide comprehensive services. They graduate August 11.

One of them, 45-year-old Doris Molina of San Leandro (no relation to Kristina), says she got involved after hearing one of those presentations about a year ago. "I feel that it's very important to support the survivors who are going through this trauma, to advocate for their rights, and to make the community conscious," she says through a translator.

Alfredo Lopez, 42, volunteered to become a counselor because he feels it's necessary for men to be involved in what is typically women's work. "It's really important because we always think that this kind of issue happens to others, not us," he says.

When Kristina Molina began volunteering in March 2006, she noticed that only four of the center's sixty counselors could speak Spanish. "We saw that we were receiving more Latinos," she recalls. "There is a need."

Other Alameda County crisis agencies are also experiencing that need. Vicki Thompson of Tri-Valley Haven says she's seen an increase in demand for services in Spanish, but a position for a bilingual counselor has been open several months. Gloria Jenkins, chief of social services at Alameda County Medical Center, says Highland Hospital's Sexual Assault Response Team has two Spanish-speaking advocates. She notes that only about 20 percent of their patients are Spanish speakers — Highland also has translators available, Jenkins adds.

But Kristina Molina believes the presence of Spanish-speaking counselors will encourage Latino survivors to seek help. "Because we don't have the staff to back up Spanish-speaking callers, we do very little advertising in the Latino community," she says.

Shame, fear, and lack of support are obstacles for any rape victims, Molina says, and the burdens are worse for some Latinos. "They don't speak the language, so they're very isolated," Molina says. The man who raped one of her clients warned her, falsely, that the police would report her undocumented status if she went to them. And some victims distrust the police because the authorities in their home countries are corrupt.

Navigating religious beliefs also plays a role in counseling. "Sometimes they feel they need to forgive the perpetrator," Molina notes. She says counselors respect the person's beliefs, but also advise them that "God is not going to punish you." Sometimes, callers are more concerned that they lost their virginity: "They see it as an act of sex and not assault. We talk about myths out there that are supported in the community."

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