While it is easily argued that domestic violence is a public health matter, it has been consistently excluded from news coverage of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent articles from the New York Times and NBC point out that cases of domestic violence have increased significantly on the national level since the emergence of the pandemic; however, the situation of Hispanic/Latinx women in particular has received little attention. A community-based and university course on Latinx Studies gave us the unique opportunity to be witness to these issues. For three months, fourteen students and one professor provided bilingual assistance to the Hispanic/Latinx community of Richmond, Virginia, by collaborating with various local support agencies. Among these agencies was the Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center, an organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic and gender-based violence. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic imposed unimaginable challenges on our work, but allowed us to understand the gravity of social inequalities as they relate to assisting victims of domestic violence in Hispanic/Latinx communities.
Historically, the Hispanic/Latinx population has faced limited access to resources related to health, education, housing, and public assistance. Language barriers, cultural differences, and immigration status have been just a few of the many factors resulting in these disparities. The disadvantage that members of the Hispanic/Latinx community face is twofold: an institutional system that promises inclusion but does not provide linguistic access, and exclusion from mechanisms of government aid in these unprecedented times.
Too often, domestic violence is not classified as a public health issue. However, it is a phenomenon experienced by millions, and given current circumstances, Latina women are at an even greater risk. A study by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported that 26.9% of Hispanic/Latina women experienced domestic or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. It should be noted that approximately half of these cases are not reported due to fear of possible outcomes: deportation and/or separation from children. Reasons why Hispanic/Latina women do not report abuse are not limited to only these concerns, as religious beliefs, cultural traditions regarding gender roles, socioeconomic status, and a lack of Spanish language resources must also be taken into account. According to Elvira De la Cruz, the Director of Latinos in Virginia Empowerment Center, “…[we] as Latinos are accustomed to closeness and more familiar treatment.”
With regard to the pandemic, the stay-at-home order has left victims finding themselves in more vulnerable situations while lacking the comfort of in-person counseling and services. De la Cruz also pointed out that while calls to the helpline have increased, they are often not direct reports of domestic violence: “…victims are not saying ‘I need help regarding domestic violence’ … but instead, ‘now I’m unable to get out of the house, I don’t have access to food… [etc.]”. Pressing emergencies such as zero access to food tend to suppress the urgency of the mention of abuse. This has made it necessary for organizations to consider ways victims may call the helpline using coded-language if their abuser is at home, as “…the stay-at-home order acts as a tool to the abuser to exercise power and control over their victim, who can no longer leave the house, nor execute their plan to ditch an unhealthy relationship because they have no place to go,” stated De la Cruz.
For Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence, access to adequate assistance is crucial, and systematic failures in providing such support have been exposed by the pandemic: “the systems aren’t well-suited to assist a wide range of people[…] you have to go to a webpage, it isn’t in Spanish, you have to send an e-mail–and many people don’t have e-mail […] So really, how can these people request or utilize aid services?” De la Cruz asked. The lack of linguistic tools in both official and unofficial systems for social aid have prevented many individuals from accessing vital information in an unparalleled time. Unemployment, the threat of eviction, food insecurity, and the school year being cut short are only a few among many of the pandemic’s consequences that are made more difficult by a lack of recognizable services.
Thus, many local organizations have seen what appears to have been an “overnight change” in their responsibilities. For some, the restrictions put in place due to the pandemic, such as the mandatory quarantine and social distancing as well as the lack of funds, have limited or paused the services they can offer. Others have found themselves bombarded with unprecedented requests from the surrounding communities. Regardless, the situation has forced organizations to develop immediate and efficient services of unwavering quality to compensate for the cutting of other essential resources. Built on social awareness and compassion, this “stepping up” is completely reliant on the ability to reach a group of people in the language they speak and are comfortable with. This change demonstrates just how the pandemic has brought to light the underlying oppression of the systems in place, in which domestic violence has gotten lost in the mix of social inequalities and exclusion policies. Additionally, during the ongoing lockdown, a brutal reality has surfaced: an idea of citizenship that disempowers many victims who are female immigrants, leaving them vulnerable and silencing their rights. However, the genuine collaboration between organizations, students, teachers and people in general, locally and nationwide, have provided some sense of justice and restored a feeling of belonging and citizenship. With this in mind, there is hope that the ongoing response to COVID-19 marks the birth of a new “us” that will put an end to invisibility.
Please note: A version of this article in Spanish can be found here.
The authors thank their peers from the LAIS 301 “Spanish in the Community” class at the University of Richmond for the intellectual exchanges of the spring semester of 2020. Above all, many thanks to Elvira De la Cruz and Mónica Jiménez of the Latinos en Virginia Empowerment Center for the important work they do every day. For information about this organization, visit http://www.latinosenvirginia.org or call (804) 658-3341.
About the authors
Karina Elizabeth Vázquez is the Director of Spanish Community-Based Learning at the Department of Latin American, Latino & Iberian Studies at the University of Richmond. She has published extensively on Argentine narrative, Peronism, workers representations, and pedagogy.
Sadie Wenger and Danny Frascella are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond majoring in Biology and Spanish. In the future, they plan to attend medical school. They both volunteer at different organizations serving the Hispanic/Latinx communities.