Taking the Crime Out of Passion (And Helping the Women We Love)

I don’t mean to be a Valentine’s Day killjoy.

Let Cupid’s arrows fly where they may, because not only do I love love, I love singing about love.

As a jazz and cabaret vocalist who has performed in clubs from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I relate to the haunting melodies and heartfelt sentiment in standards from the Great American Songbook. Songs made famous by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. And yes, many of my favorite tunes have codependent lyrics that an upstanding feminist would think twice about singing: “Black Coffee,” “Mean to Me,” “Body and Soul,” “I’m a Fool to Want You” and plenty more.

These torch songs are part of my musical repertoire. And so is the grief of tragic love.

As a never-married, middle-aged woman, I have loved hard in my affairs of the heart and have experienced the pain that comes with the ending of such deep relationships. But when singing, it’s not my own romantic loss that allows me to feel each gut-wrenching lyric about a mad love. That love-gone-very-bad story belongs to my mom.

At the age of 47, she died at the hands of her lover. The year was 1979. I was 18 years old and in my second quarter as a freshman at UCLA.

Several years prior to her murder, she had dodged the bullets that would one day pierce her skull and shatter my soul. She had broken up with her abuser; I was relieved and grateful, yet, to my fear and dismay, she allowed him back into her life four years later.

She was dead within four months of his return.

Growing up in Santa Clara, California, during its pre-Silicon Valley days, I was a first generation Mexican-American daughter who had no inkling of the work begun earlier that decade by Gloria Steinem and the women’s movement. Not only did feminists recognize “spousal abuse” as a major social dilemma, they were instrumental in the establishment of domestic violence (DV) women’s shelters and hotlines in this country.

What I did know was that during the late 1960s, being the daughter of a divorced immigrant woman made me feel like I didn’t fit in. My younger sister and I were the only kids in our working- class neighborhood who were not ensconced in the traditional nuclear family.

Though I never witnessed the physical abuse, I hated her boyfriend just the same. Hate—such a strong emotion and a word that my muy Catolica mom would not allow her daughters to use. Resentment was another emotion I felt, this time towards my mom for unintentionally making me her protector.

“She can’t talk. Please don’t call her any more!” It was a phrase I got used to shouting into the phone receiver before hanging up on her abuser. 

How could she have fallen in love with him? I would often ask myself. I loved my mom, yet I was too young to understand such serious matters between men and women.

Her abuse made me feel alone and helpless. I could not share my secret about what was happening to her with anyone.

I did not know where to turn.

I was too ashamed.

As the confused, loving daughter of a victim of domestic violence, I could have used a support network or a number to call. I would later discover, through counseling, that the frustration, fear, shame and anger that I had experienced as a family member and “bystander” were normal.

Thankfully, since the late 1970s, there has been much public discourse about DV. It was not until the high profile case in 1994 involving ex-football jock O.J. Simpson and the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, that I began to notice a change. No longer was the topic of domestic violence considered out-of-bounds for social discussion.

Up to that point, I had already broken my personal silence about what had happened to my mother, but I was secretly grateful for the media frenzy that led to the national conversation about this issue.

The dialogue around DV has grown to include sexual violence and reached new heights last year after pro footballer Ray Rice assaulted his fiancée. Since then, the National Football League has initiated a campaign, together with NoMore.org, to bring awareness to these crimes. On this year’s Grammy Awards telecast, President Obama appealed to musicians to use their power in helping end violence against women and girls through his administration’s ItsOnUs initiative.

Many of us have heard the statistics about DV in our country:

1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

3 or more women die each day as a result of violence by an intimate partner.

With such frightening numbers, there’s a good chance that either you or someone you know has experienced, is experiencing or will experience violence by an intimate partner.

Intimate partner violence is tragic, but what is doubly tragic is the realization that these relationships were once filled with love, romance and passion. These are men and women who shared loving and intimate Valentine’s Days … and nights.

Like the complicated layers of a relationship, so is the public conversation about domestic and sexual violence. But no matter the multitude of opinions regarding the social change needed to combat the perpetuation of these social ills, I remain hopeful.

As we near Valentine’s Day, a holiday that celebrates love and romance, take heart by knowing there is help if you, or someone you know, needs it. A good starting point is the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Each state also has its own coalition. The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) is available 24 hours.

As a bystander—family, friend or community member—who notices signs of domestic violence, Help for Friends and Family and Know More Video Project are helpful resources. Green Dot is an organization dedicated to violence prevention education through nationwide bystander programs.

Today, the YWCA of Silicon Valley-Domestic Violence Support Network is one of the most well-known and proactive in California. How I wish my mother and I could have had that resource available to us 36 years ago.

Maybe she would have had a lifetime of honoring Saint Valentine each and every February 14th while proudly listening to her daughter sing “My Funny Valentine.”

Photo of the author’s mother courtesy of the author.


Sylvia de la Sancha is a vocalist, memoirist, feminist, mother, grandmother and former Special Events Manager for the Feminist Majority Foundation.