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When US, Newcomers' Values Clash


By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1997


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.

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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."