BOSTON — After Boston Red Sox outfielder Wilfredo Cordero was arrested last month for allegedly beating his wife, Ana, his first wife, Wanda Mora, offered a cultural explanation.
Ms. Mora, who said she was also abused by Mr. Cordero, explained that her former husband grew up in the housing projects of Puerto Rico. A Puerto Rican herself, she did not condone his behavior. But she described the projects as a macho environment where men and women alike often accepted domestic violence as normal.
As Americans deal with domestic abuse more openly, some immigrants' view of family violence as nobody else's business - beyond the reach of social agencies - is at odds with their new cultural environment, where it is a crime. In Cordero's case, he says he did nothing wrong, and his wife says they will work out their situation.
To counselors who work with battered women and abusive men from many countries, a "cultural defense" is not acceptable.
In counseling sessions, workshops, and informal talks, these workers, some of whom are from other countries themselves, are teaching immigrant women and men to reject stereotyped justifications for violence. They are also helping women to overcome the cultural sense of shame that keeps them from seeking help.
Such efforts are also taking root internationally. "In the last five to 10 years, there has been a major shift in the awareness of the international community with regard to domestic violence," says Leni Marin, program manager of the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco. "It's an exciting time. Cultural shift is happening globally on this issue."
Meanwhile, Debra Robbin, director of education and training at Casa Myrna Vazquez, a shelter for Hispanic women in Boston, acknowledges that cultural norms do vary.
"For some immigrants, domestic violence was legal in their country of origin," she says. "They have no idea people can be imprisoned for it here."
In helping battered women from other cultures, Ms. Robbin adds, "We try to start with where they're at and what they believe. We tell them this is not their lot in life. But in a cultural context, it's hard, because people are often connected by families who say, 'Hey, you married him, this is what you get. Don't embarrass us. Don't say no to your husband.' "
Help becomes further complicated, Robbin says, because within the Puerto Rican community, "it's a very big step for abused women to call a hot line. Maybe they would go to a neighbor, or their church, but telling a stranger something so personal is a foreign concept."
A sensitive approach
To change these attitudes, counselors at the shelter offer "culturally sensitive" workshops, conducted by women from the Latina community. "When they hear information from someone from their own background, it's more effective," Robbin says.
The shelter also maintains a speakers' bureau, offering talks by Latina women who can say, "Here's my story." By connecting with the community this way, the group hopes to reach battered women who might otherwise hesitate to come forward.
In Washington, Christel Nichols, executive director of House of Ruth, a social service agency for women and children, rejects attempts to pin domestic violence on a man's cultural background. "That makes it sound as though he's the victim here," she says. "It excuses the behavior. It's almost like, 'Oh, he can't help himself.' That's kind of a racial slur to me - that if I'm of a certain nationality, I have to act a certain way."
Instead, Ms. Nichols says, she and other counselors at House of Ruth "try to help women and children who are victimized by domestic violence to understand that no matter what socioeconomic group or culture they belong to, this is not normal. They don't deserve this, they are special. They have to focus on themselves. That typically means moving away from the person who is abusing them - physically and emotionally."
Similar approaches exist in communities where Asian immigrants predominate. Last month, a group of Asian women's shelters in California held its first statewide conference on domestic violence.
Called "Gathering Strength," the two-day meeting brought together diverse Asian and Pacific Islander community members. Conference organizers also invited speakers from Japan, Indonesia, Samoa, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, and Fiji to share experiences and successes in dealing with family violence in their own countries.
Among Asian groups, Ms. Marin says, domestic violence produces shame. "If you are a battered woman, you feel so ashamed. It's profound shame, because you feel you have been a failure as a wife, as a mother, as a woman. You extend that to the point that if you report this, it will not only shame you, it will also shame your husband, your children, and your entire community. There's big, big pressure not to report this."
Within the Philippine community, Marin continues, the cultural value of shame "is handed down even to those who have been born in the United States." Women's advocates are working to redefine shame, she says, adding, "Who should feel shameful is not the battered woman, but the community that doesn't support her and help her out. That's shameful."
Shame also plays a role in strategies being developed by domestic violence groups in India. In very impoverished neighborhoods of New Delhi, Marin says, "Women know it's futile to call the police, because they would never come to that part of the city. So women's advocates have banded together to publicly shame the batterer. Once they know the woman is safe and is agreeable to do this, they go out and publicly name her batterer." That serves a dual purpose. It makes the man "socially uncomfortable," and it raises cultural awareness of the problem.
As further evidence of progress, Marin notes that shelters for women now exist in Indonesia, the Philippines, India, and Japan. Battered women in Beijing can call a hot line, and the first shelter in Shanghai recently opened.
Still, to prevent domestic violence from occurring at all, men's groups are working to change male attitudes.
Rob Gallup, executive director of Amend, a counseling program for abusive men in Denver, allows no "cultural excuse" for violence.
"Many of the Mexicans we treat tell us they can go back to Mexico and beat their wives with impunity," Mr. Gallup says. "I'm not sure if that's true. But whatever the culture, we just deal with it forthrightly. We tell them there is no excuse for domestic violence, and it's against the law."
Real men don't hit
Rather than accepting such behavior as macho, Gallup says, "We try to reframe it by saying, 'You're not macho if you beat your wife. You're less than a man. As an adult male, nobody can make you do anything. Nor do you have a cultural sanction to do it. You must control yourself - your actions, your thoughts. There's no way you can control another person. A whole man doesn't hit women. A whole man is able to respect his family.' "
Other counselors second that approach. As Cordero awaits a pretrial hearing on July 24 on charges of assault and battery, fans and sports columnists are joining a chorus criticizing him for what they regard as a lack of contrition.
Making a case for this kind of public pressure and disapproval that encompass "the whole fabric of society," Nichols says, "It's not just the responsibility of legal or law enforcement groups. All institutions need to come out and say there is zero tolerance for abuse."