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What’s driving a surge in domestic violence in Puerto Rico

Welcome back to Flux, a twice-weekly newsletter from GEN about the powerful forces reshaping America.

When Suliani Calderón Nieves pulled out of the driveway of her apartment complex in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, on the morning of May 18, 2018, her two children in the back seat, her ex-partner ambushed her car and shot her point-blank before turning the gun on himself.

Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017, and over the next year, the number of women killed by their partners doubled. The government promised swift action. But as Andrea González-Ramírez details in her yearlong investigation into the police response to domestic violence on the island, a tangled and ineffective court system, and lawmakers’ continued lip service to women’s advocates, little has been done to protect Puerto Rican women from their abusers.

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I recently asked Andrea about how she began her investigation, which was supported by Type Investigations and the Ida B. Wells Fellowship, and why a culture of machismo prevents lawmakers and law enforcement from taking women’s lives seriously.

— Michelle Legro, Deputy Editor, GEN

The night before she died, Suliani Calderón Nieves attended a literary reading where she read her poetry and later posted another poem to Facebook, “Life hits you, you think you learn the lesson and it hits you again.” Photos: Erika P. Rodriguez

When did you first hear about the increase in domestic violence in Puerto Rico?

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I became aware early on that intimate partner violence was both very common and extremely taboo to talk about. I know people who are survivors and have seen for years the frustration there is among advocates who feel the government is not doing enough. It eventually became an issue that I wanted to explore as a journalist.

After Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, organizations began sounding the alarm, saying they feared a spike in incidents and lethality. Maria disrupted all areas in boricuas’ lives, from having power and clean water in their homes to accessing health care and employment. Advocates said these conditions would inevitably force victims of domestic violence to remain with their abusers, who would likely become more violent due to stress.

A year after the storm, I worked on a story for Refinery29 that took stock of how bad the crisis of violence against women had gotten post-Maria. What I found was domestic violence had become far worse than the government expected. Today, advocates fear the same crisis has been brewing as the island struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.

After M, 23, called 911 on her abusive partner, the police claimed she didn’t mention the incident was related to domestic violence. Instead, it was mislabeled as a home dispute.

Tell me a little more about machismo culture and how it can affect women’s lives in Puerto Rico?

When we talk about machismo, we talk about how Latinxs are socialized to believe in a rigid version of masculinity. This leads to a clear demarcation of man versus woman: The man is the provider; the woman stays at home. The man can have sex with whoever he wants and be cheered while women are deemed dirty and unworthy if they do the same. When a man hits a woman, he is putting her in her place because he knows best. This belief system has no space for equality between the genders, and this seeps through every part of Puerto Rican society.

Then there are the systemic ways machismo is upheld, like the crisis of gender violence or anti-abortion sentiment. There are also obstacles which are much harder to pinpoint, like the fact that women make up only about 15% of elected officials or that it’s widely accepted to make sexist jokes about women on TV. Machismo is what allowed former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to call one of his political opponents a puta — a whore.

The good thing is that a younger generation of Puerto Ricans seems to be pushing back against those ideas. That’s one of the reasons why Rosselló is not the governor anymore.

M received a protective order against her emotionally and physically abusive partner. But Puerto Rican police didn’t enforce it.

How did you find the women you spoke to for the story? How did you approach them and make them feel safe telling you their stories?

I found M through Twitter after putting out callouts across social media. She was not the only survivor I spoke to, but there were a few things that made her stand out. First, she had documentation related to her case, which was crucial for the purpose of verification. She was also at a different stage of handling her experience, which was important to me because I didn’t want to re-traumatize her through the many conversations we had. And M was also willing to invest her time speaking to me, which is a pretty big ask. I understand why survivors wouldn’t want to commit to reliving the most horrible moments of their lives over and over again.

There’s no one-size-fits-all for interviewing survivors and making them feel safe. In M’s case, we developed a rapport before talking about the heavy stuff. Our first phone call was off-the-record, and I mostly talked about my work while she asked me anything she wanted. When we did our big sit-down, she chose a place where she felt safe, and we took breaks throughout.

I had done some prep with other reporters who’ve covered gender violence who told me the trauma signs to look for and how to help M out of that mind space if needed. Journalists don’t usually do this for a variety of reasons, but I told M from the beginning she had the option to pull out of the story at any point, no questions asked. Her mental health and physical safety are more important than my piece.

>> READ: “In Puerto Rico, an Epidemic of Domestic Violence Hides in Plain Sight,” by Andrea González-Ramírez

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