By Samantha Sheppard, STAR Bilingual Advocate
Beginning September 15th, we recognize Hispanic Heritage Month. At STAR, we are working to expand our reach to increase access to survivors of sexual violence in the Latinx community. I was hired as a bilingual advocate for STAR’s Baton Rouge office earlier this year. My colleague, Bianca Dixon, and I are both first generation Panamanian-Americans. As new advocates to STAR, it is our dream to maximize services to our own demographic and to help our community as much as we can. However, this is easier said than done because of the unique cultural values that surrounds the Latinx community, specifically regarding gender roles and sexual violence.
Something that Bianca and I have in common, besides the country that we call home, is the fact that we both grew up in neighborhoods with large amounts of not only Hispanic people, but immigrants. I grew up in a suburb about 5 minutes away from New Orleans called Terrytown, the demographic makeup of which is about 20% Hispanic. Out of our entire population only about 69% of our residents speak English. Bianca grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, which is 27% Hispanic, and 68% of people who immigrate there are from a Latin American country.
Hispanic populations are increasing across the U.S. By 2050, the projected Hispanic population of the U.S. is expected to be 132.8 million, or 30% of the total population. Nearly 1 in 3 U.S. residents will identify as Hispanic by this time (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008).
First-generation Hispanic American born kids like us are raised differently than most Americans. We come from a community that shares a similar culture, and one component of that is a culture that normalizes and condones sexual violence. This “rape culture,” as it is commonly referred to, from our Latin American countries was transferred and upheld in the neighborhoods we grew up in, despite residing in America.
Rape culture impacts all communities, and uniquely impacts Latinx individuals because it is engrained and hidden so well. Patriarchy is very strong in our community. Before Latin countries were colonized, we had our own form of low impact patriarchy. After colonialism forced rigid ideas of gender, race, sex, and religion onto our people, it resulted in the formation of modern day Latin American patriarchal norm known as machismo. In Latinx communities, there unhealthy levels of masculinity exists. This perpetuates a cultural idea that disregards consent in sexual encounters. This transfers to our interactions with other men outside of our demographic as well.
As a result, Latinx individuals who experience sexual violence are less likely to report the assault as a crime or tell others about their experience. One study found that married Latinx women are less likely than other women to immediately define their experiences of forced sex by their spouses as “rape” and terminate their relationships; in fact, some view sex as a marital obligation (Bergen, 1996).
Between toxic machismo and the climate of the U.S. regarding immigrants, Latinx people who are survivors of sexual violence are left without a voice and are unsure of where to seek help.
Additionally, immigration issues affect the Latinx community. With a voice that is already hushed, Latinx individuals who are assaulted by a non-Hispanic person often face another unique fear. The National Women’s Law Center (2017) reports that nearly 1 in 4 Latinx girls, or 24%, report harassment because of their name or family’s origin and that over half of Latinx girls worry about a friend or family member being deported (NWLC, 2017).
Many people are unaware of how immigration status affects survivors of sexual violence. Those who make the journey across the Mexico-U.S. border travel in highly dangerous situations. Rape has become so prevalent in the immigration journey that many some women take birth control pills or get shots before setting out to prevent the possibility of a pregnancy resulting from rape (Watson, 2006). Immigrant Latinx domestic workers are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they depend on their employers for their livelihood, live in constant fear of being deported, suffer social isolation, and are vulnerable to their employer’s demands (Vellos, 1997). In 2019, there was an ICE raid in Mississippi that ended in the arrest of 680 undocumented people. This uncovered a multitude of sexual harassment complaints at the hands of the owners. Campesinas, or female farmworkers, are 10 times more vulnerable than others to sexual assault and harassment at work; among all the burdens they bear, these are often the heaviest (Lopez-Treviño, 1995).
Latinx people in all settings, despite whether they work at a farm or in a corporate office, need more culturally relevant outreach materials to help them learn and retain their rights. However, there are many challenges that create barriers to the Latinx community receiving services that they need. A few of these barriers include lack of bilingual and bicultural direct service staff and volunteers, lack of bilingual and bicultural trainers, and lack of bilingual and bicultural materials.
The Latinx community is not a one size fits all demographic and we should be treated accordingly. Latinx people can be of any race, color, or origin and we all have varying professions. The best way to tackle issues is to avoid stereotyping, to learn about our cultures, and to ensure that staffing patterns adequately reflect and the demographics of groups being served to form a safe and comfortable space which in return can maximize services.
Are you interested in learning more about how to support survivors in the Latinx community, check out STAR’s new resource, Tips for Working with Survivors from the Latinx Community.
Existe Ayuda Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ovc.gov/pubs/existeayuda/tools/pdf/factsheet_eng.pdf
Bergen, R.K. 1996. Wife Rape: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
Lopez-Treviño, Maria Elena. 1995. “The Needs and Problems Confronting Mexican American and Latin Women Farmworkers: A Socioeconomic and Human’s Right Issue.” (Unpublished on file with author.) Cited by Maria Ontiveros. 2003. “Lessons from the Fields: Female Farmworkers and the Law,” Maine Law Review 55: 157, 168.
National Women’s Law Center. (2017c). Let her learn: stopping school pushout for girls of color. Washington, DC: Retrieved from https://nwlc.org/resources/stopping-school-pushout-for-girls-of-color/
Vellos, Diana. 1997. “Immigrant Latina Domestic Workers and Sexual Harassment.” American University Journal of Gender and the Law 5(2): 409, 413, 419–428.
What Rape Culture Looks Like in the Latino Community. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/rape-culture-examples?page=0,1