Two years ago, I stood in front of a crowd of thousands of people at the One Billion Rising in Santa Fe, and I told my story. The air was crisp and clean and I felt I didn’t need to eat, or drink – there was enough to nourish me right there, in that crowd of women and men who were preparing to dance. For so long, I had been ashamed of what I had been through. Now I could talk about it, and I had all these people cheering me.
I told them that in my life, I have seen the worst of male behavior, in two very different ways. Before I was able even to talk, one of my older relatives began to rape me. My best guess is that I was one year old. I had been born with amniotic band syndrome – so I am missing half my left index finger, while on my right hand, my middle finger and ring finger and fused together. I am missing two toes on my right foot, and my left leg was nearly severed and I have two toes fused together on my left foot. That didn’t stop him.
I was raped serially until I was in fifth grade. By that time, I was acting out a lot, and was in trouble all the time at school. Sometimes kids would pick on me because of my disability, and I would fight back. One time a boy called me retarded, and I climbed over the desk and slapped him. Sometimes I did worse things. When you have abuse that nobody has acknowledged, it festers and grows inside of you it has to seep out of every orifice of your body – it has to come out of your pores, it has to come out of your mouth, I would find myself spewing things I didn’t mean. I don’t have that filter – I think the more you cover it up, the more you try to numb it with drugs or alcohol or in my case, as I got older, men and sex and danger.
I didn’t tell my mom about the abuse because I wanted my relative to be punished. I told her because I thought maybe she would understand, and I wouldn’t be in trouble so much. She immediately called the police, and my relative was taken away. I didn’t see him for many years, until – well, I’ll get to that in a moment.
One of the great sources of comfort and joy in my life was my mom’s younger sister, Kat. She was always real fun. She wore tie-die, she never wore make-up – she wore her hair down, carefree. She was not very serious about life, or about anything. She was always laughing, always a jokester. I had my first taste of alcohol with Kat, and smoked joints with her. She lived with my grandmother and looked after her. As I got older, Kat was sliding into a more hardcore drug scene and had started to smoke crack.
I was quite angry as a teenager because of what had happened to me, and by the time I was fifteen, I had started dating an older cocaine dealer, and was firing guns in the street. Kat was involved with a guy called Pato, which means ‘duck’. He was her drug-dealer and her lover. One day, she picked up Pato and another guy took them to my grandmother’s house – she was away, visiting one of her other kids – and they smoked a p-dog. That’s marijuana with crack rocks broken into it.
Later, Pato testified that, as they sat in the kitchen, he had a hallucination that Kat was an alien, or a witch, and would kill him, unless he annihilated her first. He asked the other guy to fetch him a knife. He strangled Kat for fifteen minutes, then took the knife, and cut off her head. They took her body and her head and took it to a ditch. They buried her body there, and then drove 50 miles to the south, where they covered her head with gasoline accelerant, and burned it then buried it.
Kat was missing for two weeks. All we knew is there was an unbelievable amount of blood in my grandma’s house. I know it is wrong but I hoped that somehow Kat had got caught up in a murder – maybe somebody had forced her? – and that would mean she was still alive, hiding out somewhere.
Several things changed for me after Kat was murdered. My family became involved with a group who support the families of homicide victims, and soon after, I became a victims’ advocate in the DA’s office. Your job is to help victims’ families to understand the legal language, and to make sure they are represented and heard. My initial motive was revenge. I wanted to make sure that the man who did this to Kat never got out.
But then I began to read, and think, and I watched a film Eve Ensler had made, called ‘What I Want My Words To Do To You.’ It followed her work with women in upstate New York over eight years. Some of these women had committed serious crimes – murder, bombings. The women went through various writing exercises – they wrote the facts of their crime; they wrote a letter to their mom, telling her the truth; they wrote a letter to their unborn daughter. At the end of the writing exercise, they would see famous actresses like Marissa Tomei and Glenn Close come to the prison and act out what they had written.
I watched that film again and again, and it gave me the courage to look at the man who killed my aunt as a human being. I was able really to put a face to his name and see him as a person, a human being who was born and raised just like my aunt was. I felt I had to forgive him in order to move on with my life. I began to see that the most important thing is actually prevention. Revenge doesn’t bring anyone back. But prevention saves lives. If you can stop a young boy from becoming an offender, you can save women like Kat, or me.
That way of thinking led me to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I decided to contact the older relative who raped me throughout my childhood. I went to his work – he worked at a local hardware store – and he agreed to come to my therapist’s office. He had never been punished back when it was revealed, because he was too young.
He actually showed up, which surprised me, and I read him a statement I had written – a bit like in the film. I read every memory I had ever remembered of him hurting me in any way. And finally he said – yes, I was there, and it did happen.
That’s all I wanted. Because often times, people who survive something like that don’t know if it really happened. You think – am I crazy? Did I imagine all this? But what he said confirmed everything that had happened. And that it was real and true, and he really gave me my life back at that point. When you are in relationships with someone and you aren’t sure what you remember, it’s hard because you think you are crazy. When I was able to have the only other person who was in the room with me at that time confirm – yes, the craziest possible memory you have is real and true, and it did happen – that was really freeing for me. It gave me my memories back and my life back.
That’s when I learned he had been abused too. I began to understand. He’s still got problems. He was recently in jail for being violent. But now I am in his life, he seems to want to change, and he is getting help. He is improving.
I have worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and was the child advocate – it was my job to understand children and stand up for them and represent their interests. I see kids who have been dealing with a lot of trauma, and they need respite. I try to give them what my Aunt Kat gave me – a sense of fun and joy, where we do silly things, like paint nails or carve pumpkins. I like to think that in those moments of joy, my aunt Kat is living on.
I like to paint nails because my hands are different, so I like to share that celebration of my difference with other kids. I know it’s a tiny thing in the big scheme of things, but I think it helps.
I believe that by reaching out to kids who are facing violence and problems we are taking steps to prevent what happened to me and what happened to Kat happening to anybody else. It is far easier to train a puppy than to change a grown dog. I know men are not inherently bad. There have been so many good and loving men in my life, like my current boyfriend. I am interested in creating more good men.
To do that, we all have to come together and be willing to take a deep look at that dark hole we have been overlooking for so long. There’s a lot of secrets, there’s a lot of injustice, there’s a lot of bullshit that has perpetuated violence against women for centuries. Young men and boys are angry – but why? Defeated and humiliated men will try to make somebody else the defeated and humiliated one. Hurt people hurt people. We need to deal with the pain of men too.
To me, One Billion Rising – the day on which we want the one billion women who have been beaten or raped to rise as one and dance – is all about that. It is about love, and joy, and a vision of a society that people will want to join. And for me it is also about reclaiming my body. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I have sometimes been ashamed of my curves, and reluctant to wear tight clothing. I remember when I started growing boobs I was like – what the fuck is this shit?
But when I dance at One Billion Rising, I don’t feel any shame. I feel proud. I feel like I am flying. I know I am dancing for myself, for Kat – and for a world with better men, and better women, and a better way to live together.
As told to the One Billion Rising team.
Jessica Eva Montoya is the Family Specialist at Adelante Program working with homeless families of Santa Fe, NM and Global Coordinator for One Billion Rising Santa Fe.
1 in 3 women across the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. That’s ONE BILLION WOMEN AND GIRLS. Every February, we rise – in hundreds of countries across the world – to show our local communities and the world what one billion looks like and shine a light on the rampant impunity and injustice that survivors most often face. We rise through dance to express joy and community and and celebrate the fact that we have not been defeated by this violence. We rise to show we are determined to create a new kind of consciousness – one where violence will be resisted until it is unthinkable.
This year we are rising for Revolution. We are initiating a new series, “Building to One Billion Rising Revolution,” where we will be sharing stories of extraordinary activists who embody the creative radical shift in consciousness required to bring about CHANGE.
Grassroots Activists who fight for justice and liberation with passion and joy.