Editor’s note: In continuing our series on gender and violence issues, Frontera NorteSur offers the second of two articles on a New Mexico community organization that struggles against domestic violence in the Spanish-speaking immigrant community.
Kent Paterson | Frontera NorteSur
Claudia Medina had little inkling of how her life path would change when she came to New Mexico a quarter-century ago. An older sister who had already settled in Santa Fe told her that the University of New Mexico (UNM) down the road in Albuquerque would be a good place for a Spanish-speaker to pursue graduate studies while mastering English.
Earlier: Immigrant women rise against domestic violence
So the daughter of Medellin, Colombia, packed up her bags and headed to the Duke City. At UNM, Medina enrolled in a community planning program while honing up on her English skills. In 1995, the dedicated young woman was hired by UNM for a project at the Escuelita Alegre, a bilingual pre-school in Albuquerque’s South Broadway district, where a large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants resides.
Medina heard something from the parents of the 80 families served by the school that surprised her.
“They told me the No. 1 problem was domestic violence, and there was (no anti-violence service) in Spanish,” Medina recalled. Based on the feedback, a small anti-domestic violence program was started at the school.
Then a life-jolting tragedy struck. One day, Hilda, a school participant who had suffered violence at the hands of her husband, was murdered by the man. Suddenly, small children were left without their mother.
“That made me feel like we really need to do more,” Medina said.
Although Hilda’s body was sent back to Ciudad Juárez for burial, the young woman was not forgotten on this side of the border. Her murder planted the seeds of a new project that step-by-step has made a lasting impact in the immigrant community and beyond. Enlace Comunitario, or Community Link, the Albuquerque area’s only anti-domestic violence program for its large Spanish-speaking population, was thus born.
In an interview with FNS, Medina, who is Enlace Comunitario’s outgoing executive director, traced the history of how a fledgling program in a pre-school grew into an organization that eventually served thousands of people and transformed countless lives. And she reflected on the deep-seated domestic violence problem, with its particular oppression of women.
Incorporated in 2000, Enlace Comunitario’s 31 full-time staff and many volunteers serve the numerous needs of domestic violence victims while working hard to educate the larger public about the problem and how it can be curtailed. According to Medina, the work is supported by a $1.7 million annual budget drawn from 24 government, foundation and private sector sources.
“We have served more than 5,000 victims and their children but also reached thousands of people through our prevention efforts,” Medina said.
Enlace Comunitario’s co-founder describes her agency as a full-service place. Clients get individualized attention on all aspects of their lives from counseling to legal help and more. Media awareness and community educational outreach, much of it done by volunteers called promotoras, round out the work.
While Enlace Comunitario focuses on the Spanish-speaking immigrant population, the organization has an open-door and works with people from diverse backgrounds. In Medina’s time, speakers of Korean, Lao, Mayan, Tewa, and Navajo (Dine) have been lent a helping hand. English speakers who show up for assistance are referred to other programs but allowed to stay with Enlace Comunitario if they feel more comfortable with the group, according to Medina.
In her many years at the helm of Enlace Comunitario, Medina has become more than familiar with the workings of a legal system that’s historically fallen very short in delivering justice to victims, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.
The holder of a law degree, Medina said the system has “improved,” but some perpetrators of violence are still treated too lightly and should be charged with more serious crimes.
On the other hand, Medina added, many abusers are community members, breadwinners or family members. Their removal from the household, or deportation from this country, creates a whole new set of problems. For this reason, many victims of domestic violence do not want to see the abusers jailed.
As a main course of action, Medina puts more stock in preventing domestic violence in the first place. “I would put more resources into the prevention side than the criminal justice side,” she said. “I believe there is redemption.”
A massive effort at prevention, comparable to the anti-drunk driving campaigns of recent years, could yield important results, she contended, but so far the state and society haven’t committed the necessary resources or shown the necessary will to elevate the elimination of domestic violence as a public policy priority.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, Medina and her partners in the New Mexico Coalition against Domestic Violence have anecdotally noted an increase in domestic violence.
For Medina, however, gender is the principal variable in domestic violence.
“Gender equality is the root cause of domestic violence. It’s not poverty, lack of education,” Medina insisted. “95 percent of victims of domestic violence are women. They are the ones suffering the lack of safety, but society is allowing this to happen.”
Fully one-third of women in the U.S. experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, she added.
In Medina’s view, gender equality and human rights are “one in the same.” Structural barriers such as inequality and the current immigration system impede progress on the eradication of domestic violence, she said.
An “ingrained” societal belief that women are simply less valuable than men perpetuates domestic violence, the community advocate added.
In her perspective, upgrading women’s economic status is essential for moving forward, “If you have tools to be economically independent, you are less likely to stay in an abusive relationship,” she added.
For Medina, immigration reform is a must-do. Like other Enlace Comunitario staffers, Medina underscores how living in fear in the shadows silences undocumented women who are victims of violence. “If they had immigration status, they’d be more open to calling the police, she continued.
A committed activist, Medina has collaborated with many other organizations and causes, helping found, for instance, Albuquerque’s pro-immigrant El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos. Widely recognized for her community work, Medina was the recipient of the 2013 Woman to Be Reckoned With Award by the local YWCA.
As 2013 draws to a close, Medina and Enlace Comunitario are undergoing a big change. Maintaining that it is time to pass the leadership torch to other hands, Medina is stepping down this month as the organization’s longtime executive director, though she plans to continue for a spell in a consulting capacity.
“I see myself as a de-facto Enlace person forever. This is a great organization, and I will do whatever to help them out,” she assured. “Everybody here has a great heart. That’s what makes me feel proud about being part of this team.”
As for the next stage of her personal life, Medina is open to the possibilities. The Colombian native-turned New Mexican has learned that life’s plans and paths can change in directions one never imagines.
“I never thought I would be working on this issue in my life,” Medina confessed.
After all her years with Enlace Comunitario, Medina envisions a future some might call impossible, but it’s one she considers achievable if society just commits its brains, energies and willpower. Locally, she calls for nothing less than a violence-free central New Mexico.
“It’s a dream, but you have to dream big. It might not happen in our lifetime but maybe the next generation,” Medina ventured. “We have to create a whole new generation of kids who aren’t into violence, bullying- individuals that hate violence. I hope that my grand-children, great grand-children, will grow into that kind of environment, where violence is not the answer.”
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico