Susan Reyna

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Susan Reyna learned in May that she had a won a grant to help fund her work with victims of domestic violence in a community of mostly migrant Latina women, all she could think of was how far she and others had come.

“I thought of the abuse I watched my mom go through; what I survived,” said Reyna, a third-generation migrant worker who witnessed domestic violence and experienced sexual abuse as achild. “We’ve come so far since those first days; we have brought domestic violence as a health issue to a national level!”

Reyna was awarded $120,000 by the Boston-based Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program award, to enhance MUJER, Inc. (The program’s name in Spanish means “woman.”) MUJER, in Homestead, Fla., is now addressing what has been considered the greatest obstacle that Latina women face when trying to escape domestic violence: fragmentation of services.

MUJER offers comprehensive care to victims by partnering with a network of over 15 other community agencies that provide serves ranging from legal aid to healthcare.

While data on domestic violence is still inconsistent, most studies find that the incidence is about the same in all socioeconomic groups–about 1-in-4 women experiencing it in the course of their lifetimes. Most studies that focus on migrant workers, however, agree that while women in this group may not suffer a higher incidence, they are less likely to reach out for help.

Higher Barriers in Seeking Help

“Undocumented Hispanic families, or families that are migrant farm workers face the most barriers and fears when seeking help,” says Teresita Salvador, coordinator of the Refugee Project run by the Miami-based Florida Department of Children and Families. “Often the complexity of navigating the system will send a woman back to an abusive and dangerous situation.”

“In this community, I know stats are higher than the average of 1 in 4,” said Reyna, referring to the prevalence of domestic violence in the mostly migrant population of Latina women that MUJER serves. “For every one woman who reports, there are many, many who don’t . . . That has to change, and we’re making sure of it.”

Part of the solution is addressing the women’s concerns about their legal status. “Fear of deportation keeps these women from seeking help. It is invaluable to have like-minded women around at a difficult time, who can comfort them and reassure them that they are doing the right thing,” said Reyna.

With its emphasis on linking all the services that a domestic violence victim needs–and providing her with counselors who can speak her language and understand her circumstances–MUJER, according to Catherine Dunham, the national program director for the Community Health Leadership Program supported by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “provides us with an excellent example of how to successfully respond to the specific needs of a group where culture and transiency are very real impediments to breaking the cycle of violence.”

Comfort and Connection

In addition to guiding women to such vital services as legal representation, shelter and child care, MUJER’s counselors, according to Reyna, strive to provide a sense of cultural comfort and connection.

“Breaking away is harder for Latinas–especially those recently arrived–whose culture discourages them from speaking out,” Reyna told Women’s eNews. “The idea of ‘lo que debo hacer’ (what I should be doing) or ‘el que diran’ (what people will say), keeps many women in situations where they are suffering tremendously.”

Reyna’s History

In the mid 1970s, at age 19, Reyna found herself a single mother of two. For emotional support and problem solving, she and a group of seven other friends, all Mexican-Americans, began to meet. That process sowed the seeds of an organization that grew into MUJER, an acronym for Mujeres Unidas en Justicia, Educacion y Reforma, or Women United in Justice, Education and Reform.

From a volunteer organization without consistent funding, Reyna has seen MUJER flourish. In 1996 she became MUJER’s executive director and now supervises seven full-time staff members who focus on families in the rural deep south of Florida. Since its inception, MUJER says it has helped more than 50,000 people mitigate the effects of domestic violence.

MUJER is completely grant funded by organizations such as the National Council of La Raza, the largest national constituency-based Hispanic organization based in Washington, D.C.

Spreading the Wealth

In a characteristically generous move, Reyna divided the $120,000 the Robert Wood Johnson award among some of the local and national agencies with which she partners.

We Care of South Dade, for instance, an umbrella organization for all the social service agencies in the county received $5,000. Another $5,000 went to the Open Door Health Center, which provides health care to the poor and uninsured of south Miami-Dade County. The Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, a statewide nonprofit organization committed to victims and survivors of sexual violence, received $3,500. For her own organization, Reyna has earmarked $70,000 to build a $1 million permanent community center for MUJER, for which funds are now being raised.

In their push to help Latina women escape domestic abuse, Reyna and others have a champion in Admiral Dr. Christina Beato, acting assistant secretary for health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Beato, a mother of two and herself Latina, has identified domestic violence–along with cancer, heart disease, clinical depression and HIV–as key public-health problems to be overcome by the Latina community.

Last May in Miami Beach, Beato was the keynote speaker at a forum organized by the National Latina Health Network, an organization in Washington, D.C., that strives to close the “health gap” between Latinas and the rest of the U.S. population.

“Children who experience domestic violence, even just view it, are at significantly more risk to turn into aggressors or victims themselves when they become teens and adults,” Beato told an audience of over 200 health care professionals. “We have to remind ourselves, ‘si, se puede’ (‘yes you can’). We can break this cycle of violence in our community by providing appropriate services and education for people to use them.”

Belisa Vranich is a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of “The Seven Beliefs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help Latinas Recognize and Overcome Depression,” published in English by Harper Collins in 2003 and in Spanish in 2004.

For more information:

M.U.J.E.R., Inc.:

Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program:

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