Names have been changed.
When I was 9, I moved to New York to be with my parents and sisters. Like many immigrants from Central America, I took a two-month journey north across Mexico and crossed the border illegally into the United States.
My aunt started the trip with me, but she missed her family in El Salvador and went back home. I was left to take this dangerous journey with five men, including El Coyote, the leader. During the day we stayed hidden and rested in houses that looked abandoned. At night we traveled in cars.
I had grown up in the countryside of El Salvador with my grandmother. Life there was beautiful. I was surrounded by nature, which felt like my sanctuary.
But I felt trapped by the norms and rules for girls there. In school, the girls were seen as fragile and had to wear skirts and dresses. If a male gave an order, a girl had to obey.
In 3rd grade, I tried to take extra academic courses, but because I was female, I was denied. I got into trouble seeking equal opportunities—I was sent to a male guidance counselor, who told me over and over that girls weren’t supposed to step out of line. As I got older, this control by men only grew worse.
On the journey to the U.S., El Coyote was assigned to take care of me. I believe he tried to, but some of the other men took advantage of me when he was away. I don’t remember much of the abuse because the men gave me pills first to make me go to sleep. So everything is like a fog, as if parts of my memories don’t exist. This journey broke me from the inside out.
The Family of My Dreams?
El Coyote drove me from the southern border to my parents’ New York apartment in a brown van. New York was not what I expected, and neither was my parents’ home. We pulled up in front of two identical buildings. The brown bricks and the dirty sidewalks made the neighboring buildings look luxurious.
A man in a navy blue T-shirt, dark jeans, and black sneakers was standing out front. I stepped out of the van and introduced myself to my father. He hugged me. He took me up to our apartment and was a total gentleman. He took me out to eat and bought me new clothes. He was everything I’d hoped for in a father.
Later that day, I saw my mom for the first time. It was like looking in a mirror. Besides looking just like me, she was nice and sweet. She introduced me to my sisters. Joanna, 3 years old, was cheerful, like she had a grip on happiness. I loved her at first sight. Bianca, who was 5, was more hesitant to speak to me, but I loved her too. Being with my family was everything I’d imagined.
For weeks I wore a smile that no one could take away from me. I believed I had it all. I liked that my father took an interest in the way I dressed and how I interacted with others. I liked sitting on his lap and him kissing me.
But within a few months of my arrival in New York, my father began to rape me. At 9 years old, I felt special as well as hurt.
I was my father’s toy, for him to use whenever he wanted. He did it every day; more often if he was in a good mood.
Home Was a Prison; School Was a Sanctuary
For almost four years that was my life. Through my school years, I lived in two different worlds. School was my sanctuary and my home my prison. I made it my mission to get good grades, as this was one aspect of my life I could control.
But the daily abuse took a toll, and I felt worthless, overwhelmed, and angry.
Eventually, my grades fell and I began to withdraw. I had no interest in anything. I wanted it all to end and began to wish I was dead.
When I was in 5th grade, my mother yelled at me for my low grades. She called me “a waste of time and space” and said that I didn’t work hard enough.
In tears, I said “Daddy is hurting me and I don’t like when he touches my body.” She answered with a blank stare. Then she called me “a liar” and a “disgusting little girl.” I wanted someone to hear me. I was expecting more from my mother.
For a while I struggled to make sense of what was happening to me. My mother’s response made me believe that it must have been my fault.
Then, in a health class on a Friday afternoon in 5th grade, one of my peers shared her story. Sonia began, “As a child, I was abused by my uncle and I am a survivor.” For the rest of the class, the teacher talked about consent and abuse. I was finally able to put into words what was happening to me.
But I only said the words to myself. My father had made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone, so I kept it our secret, like he’d asked.
In 6th grade, all the feelings of pain, guilt, and shame I had suppressed over the years came bubbling up. I couldn’t control my emotions or my actions; I became a walking hurricane. I destroyed every friendship I had. I wasn’t able to connect with my peers. I even put glue in my best friend’s hair because I felt that she was too happy.
I Could Breathe, and I Told the Truth
As a result of my behavior, I was sent to see the guidance counselor, Ms. K. The first time I stepped foot in her office, I noticed a beautiful silence. The window was open and I felt the air whispering. Ms. K had students’ drawings of nature, buildings, and their families taped up on the walls, and they brought life to the room.
In that room, I could finally breathe with no worries. Ms. K and I locked eyes. The pressure of the silence compelled me to speak
“Hi. I have an appointment with you.”
Ms. K said, “Hi, nice to meet you.”
Out of nowhere, I started to cry.
“I’m just tired.” I said, but I felt as if I was going to explode. I left her office, but came back later that day. Something about the peace in Ms. K’s office gave me courage. I walked in and asked Ms. K, “If someone touches your body without permission and it hurts sometimes, is it then your fault?”
Her eyes filled with tears. She asked “Is anyone hurting you?”
“It’s not your fault.”
It was the reassurance I needed. I asked if I could write down what was happening because it hurt to say it out loud. She placed a piece of paper in front of me and handed me a pen. Sitting on the brown chair, I felt as if the world stopped. I felt I was ripping my family apart as I wrote that I was raped by my father.
When my father got home around 5 o’clock, I ran into his arms and apologized for breaking our promise. He pushed me out of his arms and slapped me. Even though his glare was terrifying, he also said “I love you” and kissed me.
Then he went into his bedroom.
Moments later a woman knocked on the door and introduced herself as Ms. Gomez from Child Protective Services (CPS). She asked, “Where’s your father?” I let her in the house and pointed to the bedroom. By the time I could process what was happening, she told me to get ready because she was taking me and my sisters somewhere safe.
The first night, Joanna, Bianca, and I stayed at a close friend’s house. We had dinner together and saw a movie and then went to sleep. It was a relief to know that my father couldn’t hurt me.
Finally Safe at Home
The first few months were hard because the agency didn’t have a stable home to keep us in, so my sisters and I bounced from one foster home to another, until we landed in a house in Queens, five and a half years ago. For the first time in years I felt safe, and I’m happy to say I still live there.
My foster mother looked like a good person, and she is. She is short, with curly hair, and she loves the outdoors just like me. After a year there, I started calling her “Grandma.”
Even with her support, though, I didn’t talk to anyone about the abuse. Everything was a trigger for me. I couldn’t stand people hugging me. The smell of certain foods made me upset. I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid to trust anyone.
My agency sent me to therapy, but all I did was stare at my therapist’s face. I didn’t see how talking was going to help. My father had gone to jail for sexually abusing me, and my mother was angry at me for breaking up the family. I felt guilty.
My sisters lived with me at Grandma’s until two years ago, when they moved back with my mom. We got closer in foster care, and I miss them. I had to cut ties with my mother, which hurt, but it’s helped me move forward.
Three years ago, I gave birth to my son Anthony. His father was an adult I didn’t have a relationship with, and he was never going to be part of Anthony’s life.
How I’ve Healed
Last year, at age 17, I finally started to feel like I had some control over my own life. Balancing my teenage life and mother life was hard when my son was first born, but as he got older, I got better at balancing both worlds. Grandma has supported me in every decision I ever made, and she helps me with Anthony.
I also have grown less fearful of men. After all the abuse I suffered, my heart beat fast when any man got close to me or talked to me.
Then, starting when I was about 14, I went through a phase where I wanted men to notice me. I would flirt with men who objectified me on the streets, even though it felt scary. At first it gave me a feeling of control over them.
But then talking to the men felt like victimizing myself all over again so I stopped. I figured out that I had to heal from within; trying to get men’s attention with my body wasn’t helping. What did help was finally connecting with a therapist and also getting close to some nice boys and men. My best friend Stephen is someone I trust a lot, and I look up to my science teacher Mr. Alton.
Up until I was 17, I kept getting new therapists. There didn’t seem to be any point in telling person after person about all my suffering. I started seeing Ms. Hernandez, my current therapist, last year. Ms. Hernandez got to know me as an individual and designed sessions just for me. We drew pictures together, talked about my stressors, goals, and coping skills.
Doing those things together helped me get comfortable with my emotions and thoughts. I began to trust Ms. Hernandez and opened up. Finally, I was honest: I told her about my nightmares, the shame and guilt that I carried, and the loneliness I felt. In therapy sessions, I learned to let myself feel the pain.
It wasn’t easy. It hurt a lot to feel it all in therapy. But feeling the pain helped me find the roots of my fears and triggers. And then I could direct my attention to those parts of my life that needed healing. I found ways to cope instead of disassociating from the pain. I’m not saying that the pain goes away; it just becomes easier to manage when you stop avoiding it.
Even though I was told over and over, by people including my foster mother, therapist, case worker, going all the way back to Ms. K, that the abuse wasn’t my fault, it took until about a year ago for me to finally believe it myself: I was a child, and I had no control over what happened to me.
Now going into my therapist’s office feels like heaven. There’s no judgment, just understanding. It’s easier to focus in school and I’m an A+ student. I build healthy relationships with my peers. Facing the pain with the help of supportive people has helped me grow strong and feel free.