Rolling with the punches

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I belong to a Facebook group called “Living in Mexico Like the Locals” and when the administrator asked group members to name the greatest challenge they faced as newcomers to Mexico, I couldn’t stop writing about my #1 challenge: surviving an abusive relationship with a Mexican man.

You’ll find the text of the story below. Let this be a warning: it is possible to be TOO accepting of cultural norms in a foreign country!

By the way, you’ll see that one positive outcome of my experience is that I was able to get friends to donate to C.A.S.A., a unique and powerful abuse prevention organization in the state of Guanajuato. Please consider making a donation! http://casa.org.mx/en/

My greatest challenge was landing in an abusive relationship, as I’d never encountered an abusive man before, and I was in my 40s! When I first arrived, I began dating a Mexican man who is fluently bilingual, owns and manages a well rated travelers’ hostel, and is divorced with two great kids who are nearly grown now. I rented the apartment in the hostel where this man and his wife had lived while they were married, and everything was fine for a while.

The first sign of trouble was that he told me I sometimes embarrassed him with my poor command of the Spanish language, my poor salsa dancing skills, and what he said was flirting every time I talked with another man in a social situation. He said he could help me acclimate to the culture, but that I should watch him dance and be seen-not-heard at gatherings with his friends. As a newcomer to Mexico, I believed that I probably WAS embarrassing myself and him, and also I wanted to accept him as he is, and what I’d heard about Mexican men is that all of them are macho and possessive. So if I wanted a Mexican man, I reasoned, and if I wanted to become fluent in the language, have Mexican friends, learn to dance properly, etc, I should follow his lead and not judge him for the macho stance.

But soon I noticed he was sitting down at my computer and taking my phone, reading emails and forwarding anything “suspicious” to his own email, and he grilled me about phone numbers from which I had received calls. This was irritating, but I didn’t see it as a danger sign. Now I know that suspicion and possessiveness are precursors to violence.

One afternoon he was out playing soccer with his friends and they were drinking beer. He had told me he would take me out for dinner that night, as it was some special occasion or other, I don’t recall what. Maybe Mother’s Day. Anyway, I got dressed and waited. And waited, and waited. Hours late, he lurched in and said we’d have to go another night. I said no, you will take me out as planned but the price just went up—we’d be going to a fancier place. He dawdled getting dressed, trying to make us too late for any of the nicer places, which close earlier than the bars. And on the walk into town, he tried to physically drag me into every greasy little taco stand, laughing and joking in Spanish about the “puta gringa” spending all his money, and everyone at the taco stand would laugh. But we got to the restaurant and managed to have a civilized dinner, though conversation with a drunk never works all that well.

On the walk home, he said I was walking too slow, then too fast. When we got to the apartment (for which he’d made himself a key, counter to my request that if I’m renting there, it’s my private space), he turned out the lights so the room was completely black, and I heard him getting into bed. I was angry. I needed light to take my contacts out and put my clothes away. I decided to pull out my little digital camera and take a picture toward the bed, in the dark, to show him in the morning how ridiculous he looked with his clothes on in bed, and how unreasonable it was for him to flick off the lights and leave me standing in the middle of the room, feeling around for the furniture. When the flash went off, I got a surprise—he was buck naked. How he’d gotten his clothes off so quickly and silently I will never know.

He leapt from the bed and landed on me, crashing us both into a wooden table and injuring my back. He dragged us over to the wall by the door so he could turn on the lights, then wrested the camera from my hand, pulled out the flash card and hurled the camera across the room. Then he picked me up (he’d been a wrestler in school and still had strength disproportionate to his size) held me in the air for a moment and threw me like a rag doll. Fortunately I landed on the bed, on my back, and then he jumped on top of me, holding me down and yelling accusations. He said he had always suspected that I would eventually try to take naked pictures of him and post them on Facebook (huh???). I was screaming and fighting him but the group of students who’d been staying at the hostel were away on an overnight venture, so no one came to help.

Eventually he got up and ordered me to stay on the bed. He kept his eyes on me, grabbed his clothes, and started to dress. I got up and ran for my U.S. cell phone and called my parents, who called the American embassy and consulate. With my other hand I grabbed my Mexican cell and called the police, but he did the same, and when the police came, he gathered the officers in the corner and showed them the flash card, telling them I had waited until he was naked in bed and started taking pictures. He said this was his home and I was a guest, and that they should arrest me. The police took his side. They said I had five minutes to get out or I’d be taken to jail. It was 4:00 a.m.

Shaking, crying and bruised (but nothing broken), I hurriedly packed up my laptop, put my phones in my purse, grabbed a change of clothes including mismatched shoes, as I discovered later, stuffed my little Cairn terrier and his leash and food bowls into his kennel, and did my best to carry it all to the street, with my boyfriend and police laughing at me and shaking their heads. I called the only person I knew would be awake at this hour, and who lived nearby: the president of the English-speaking Rotary club. I drove to his place in my SUV (which the boyfriend had commandeered for most of our relationship, but I let him drive because he didn’t want to be seen in the passenger seat with a woman driver), and the Cuban woman with whom the Rotarian was living covered me in salves of calendula and other healing herbs.

Three days later, they took me to file a denuncia at Ministerio Público, where the doctor on site refused to photograph my bruises because no bones were sticking out, so I was obviously exaggerating the abuse. When I gave my testimony, the typist skipped much of it, so on paper it read as if I were just some crazy gringa wrongly accusing a Mexican. I made her do it over. We were there for hours. Finally I signed off on it, and then they told me that my boyfriend would be brought in to tell his side of the story. I said no! He’ll kill me! But they brought him in and here’s the rule: He was given a copy of my testimony to read, but I was not allowed to read his rebuttal.

So I hired an attorney from Mexico City, thinking he’d be able to bring some consequences upon my abuser, but his advice was to drop it. He said he appreciated my calling him, but that a local attorney would have far more clout because he would know both the judges and my boyfriend’s family. The deal is, you need a lawyer who can threaten the abuser and publicly embarrass them, or the abuser wins—and there’ll be retribution, which as expats we are powerless to prosecute. I knew my ex would try to drive me away from San Miguel in shame, as he had already threatened to use video editing software to blend my face with porn videos and send them to my father in the States. So I dropped it, and now, 10 years later, I still see this guy everywhere, and he leaves me alone.

The good news is, I gained an understanding of how a strong, capable woman of 40-something could fall prey to abuse, which gave me the impetus to volunteer for the local women’s shelter and to raise thousands of dollars for them in contributions from friends to whom I told my story. And the best news of all is that soon after “the incident” I met another Mexican man who is the love of my life, but we took it very slowly because for a while I refused to date another Mexican. He showed me that the stereotype of the macho Mexicano isn’t true, and that he is not a “naco” like my ex.

Footnote: Never in the course of these events did I think, “I want to go home” to the U.S. My parents begged for me to return, of course, and it took them a couple of years to stop worrying about me, but I knew this was a human thing, not a Mexico thing, and I blame myself for being naive and too quick to accept the unacceptable just to be thought of as “not one of THOSE Americans.” Now I’m in a position to help others. And I’m happy in love with a wonderful, kind, strong, gentle, emotionally stable and gainfully employed Mexican man!

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