When faced with sexual abuse or domestic violence, immigrant women in California are faced with limited options: their immigration status often makes them a target for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), so reporting abuse can put them at serious risk of deportation.
That’s where women like Valentina and Mily Trevino-Saucedo come in. (Valentina’s name has been changed.)
When immigrant women in the 90’s told Valentina that they were afraid to go to the police with claims of domestic abuse because they were afraid of the legal and individual risks—including losing their children to deportation or potential retaliation from their partners—she opened her doors to them, transforming her own home into an underground safe house where migrant women could seek refuge and advice.
In the years since, she found an ally in Trevino-Saucedo, the co-founder of the Latina-led farmworker advocacy group Líderes Campesinas, who helped the women Valentina knew find the courage and power to speak their truths and advocate for policies that protect survivors.
In a profile of Valentina’s efforts by California Sunday Magazine, Lizzie Presser sheds light on her journey toward helping survivors like her—and the impact of the current political moment on her unique activism.
Valentina opened her house to women, in part, because no one had for her. She’d arrived in California from Mexico in 1980 to be with her husband and almost immediately became pregnant. The violence started with slaps in the face. Once, he threw a can of tomatoes, which hit her in the eye; she covered the bruises with black oversize sunglasses. On one of the worst evenings, her husband came home drunk, and Valentina encouraged him to eat dinner, hoping it would cut the alcohol. Instead, he smashed potted plants on the kitchen floor, poured beer over the shards and soil, and shoved Valentina to the ground, yanking her long hair back and forth over the mess, like a mop.
Without family in the States, Valentina’s world was limited to cobbled-together jobs and weekends with her young kids. She wasn’t aware of any shelters, and when she called the police, they told her husband to take a walk. The priest at a nearby church said if she kept praying, it would get better. It didn’t, and after a few years, she began preparing to leave. She took night classes toward a nursing degree and applied for legal status under President Reagan’s amnesty program, secretly putting away savings.
When she found letters her husband kept from a lover, that was it. She took her four kids from their stucco home in a residential neighborhood to a dark two-bedroom apartment wedged between a butcher and a travel-insurance agency. She was haunted by nightmares of her ex pointing a gun and cried nearly every day, talking out loud to herself, asking how she’d get by. She worked days at a rural health clinic, nights as a janitor, and Saturdays and Sundays selling jewelry or food samples at supermarkets.
She hadn’t grown up with violence in her home, so when her husband had hit her, it seemed foreign. Now, it was beginning to feel as if she were seeing it everywhere. At the clinic, she noticed bruises on her patients’ necks and overheard hints in colleagues’ conversations. She drew them out when they talked about men in their lives, picking up cues in the cadence of their voices. Soon a small number of women were asking for her help. A medical assistant called in need of a ride to the hospital after her husband branded her arm with an iron. A woman she’d sold jewelry to moved in with her two sons for a month.
Valentina knew to listen, to give guidance but not judgment if the women didn’t want to leave their relationships — it had taken her years to divorce her husband. What she could do was give the women a place to stay, the kind of reprieve that rich people could buy. She lent money, gave food, tended to the women when they arrived after beatings. Once, her kids came home to find her stitching someone up. Her son complained that she’d mistaken their home for a hospital. To Valentina, it was more like a shelter.
In the age of Trump, such an activist refuge has become even more critical, especially for immigrant women who are under attack.
Valentina and Trevino-Saucedo won a key victory in 2008 with the introduction of the U Visa, which closed a key loophole in the protection of immigrant women who were survivors through the Violence Against Women Act. Now, the Trump administration is threatening to limit opportunities for all visa applicants, and their allies in Congress are stalling on re-authorizing the landmark legislation that establishes and funds resources and protections for survivors of domestic violence.
The reverberations of such misogyny in the Capitol are already clear: According to the California Sunday Magazine report, the number of reports to Los Angeles police related to sexual abuse and domestic violence have dropped by a quarter.
Since the 2016 election, Valentina has noticed an increase in the number of women seeking help from someone like her instead.