Importing Domestic Violence: The Hispanic Connection

There is nothing new about physical abuse, or threats of it, in a sexual relationship. Primitive conflict-resolution techniques can wind up trumping even the most fevered declarations of love.

(Nor is the commission of abusive acts unique to men. Respected researchers such as Donald Dutton, Richard Felson, Richard Gelles, Suzanne Steinmetz and Murray Straus  have shown that women commit unprovoked acts of violence against their male partners at least as often as vice versa.)

But the incidence of violence doesn't just vary by personal situation. It also varies by culture. And the politically incorrect truth is that Hispanic cultures have a high propensity of substituting criminal violence for verbal facility as a way of settling disputes.

As Tufts University's Lawrence Harrison observes: "There is no word for 'compromise' in Spanish, nor is there a Spanish word that captures the full meaning of the English word 'dissent.'" This is both a cause and effect of attitudes acquired early in life.

A few years ago, Liz Claiborne Inc. commissioned Teenage Research Unlimited to conduct a national survey of American youths on their attitudes toward abuse in dating relationships.  The results, unveiled in April 2006 before a Capitol Hill audience that included Senators Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, revealed a disturbing discrepancy: Fully 13 percent of Hispanic middle- and high-school students viewed abuse as acceptable—well above the overall figure of 4 percent.

The key to combating abuse is education, according to Liz Claiborne's then-CEO Paul R. Charron. He called for more widespread adoption of Love Is Not Abuse, a model curriculum that the company developed in 1991 and now distributes to middle- and high-school students at over 350 schools across the U.S.

Needless to say, the fact that for several decades immigration policy has been inadvertently importing such attitudes was off the table.

On one level, one can't begrudge the importance of teaching young people about the signs of controlling and possibly lethal behavior in opposite-sex relationships. Too few people prior to adulthood (if even by then) have acquired the ability to recognize and avoid abuse.

But abuse is learned behavior. And learning doesn't take place in a vacuum. In much of Hispanic culture, intimidation—not just self-defense—by males is considered honorable and thus "normal". It's a worldview passed on from one generation to the next.

And it crosses borders, too. Put simply, we are not all equally at risk.

This is of more than passing significance given that the era of mandatory anti-abuse education has arrived. Rhode Island this fall became the second state to put into effect a new program. Fittingly, the catalyst was the murder of a white woman at the hands of a Hispanic male.

Lindsay Ann Burke was an attractive woman in her early 20s from North Kingstown, R.I. She'd fallen hard for Gerardo Martinez after meeting him at a wedding. He seemed ideal—at first. Slowly, he began limiting her contact with others, growing intensely suspicious of her motives. He incessantly called her at night, kept her from her family, and, on occasion, physically assaulted her. After two years of this, she moved in with her brother to get away from him. Her parents were especially relieved.

One day in September 2005, Lindsay's mother, concerned when her daughter didn't answer the phone, called police. The cops visited the Martinez residence, believing Lindsay could be there in hopes of giving the relationship one last chance.

She was there, all right—dead in a bathtub, her throat slashed. Martinez was convicted in 2007 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Rhode Island legislature, prodded by State Attorney General Patrick Lynch and Lindsay's parents, Chris and Ann Burke—herself a health instructor—responded by passing the "Lindsay Ann Burke Act". The law requires that all public schools incorporate the topic of dating violence into health curricula for students in the seventh through 12th grades.

This idea is set to take root elsewhere. The National Association of Attorneys General unanimously adopted a resolution this past June in support of such education. Nebraska's top prosecutor, Jon Bruning, has announced his intention to push for legislation modeled after the Rhode Island law. Liz Claiborne Inc. and Redbook magazine are jointly promoting it.

The first state to adopt such a program was Texas in 2007. Again, it's not hard to find Hispanic reasons. Let's hope students there won't grow up to be like Antonio Perez or Marcus Abrego.

Mr. Perez, a San Antonio resident, on February 11, 2007 fatally shot his wife, Teena, in the chest, and then killed himself with a bullet to his head.

A week later, Mr. Abrego, also of San Antonio, upset with something or other, dragged his girlfriend, Dolores Bibiano, up a flight of stairs, beat her, broke her spinal column, and left her for dead behind a wooden fence at the couple's apartment. Paralyzed from the waist down, she has a slim prospect of recovery. The pair had three children, all of whom witnessed the attack. Abrego currently is awaiting trial at an unspecified date.

Yes, we all know that such incidents can occur even in the "best" of homes. Yes, we all know immigration from Hispanic or other countries is not the only source of domestic abuse in the U.S.

But it's time to raise—forcefully and frankly– the strong possibility that certain ethnic groups have more trouble than others in adapting to our behavioral code. Empirical research beyond the horror anecdotes makes a case that, on average, Hispanics as a whole are less capable than non-Hispanic whites in handling disagreements within a sexual relationship.

(What these studies say about blacks is a subject for a separate article).

  • In 2005, the University of South Carolina's College of Nursing released the results of a survey of more than 300 Hispanic women across South Carolina. Fully 70 percent of the respondents had experienced domestic abuse during the previous year.

About three-fourths of these women did not report incidents, citing at least one of the following reasons: embarrassment; lack of fluency in English; fear of losing children; fear of losing income; and fear of deportation.

About that last one—in about a third of all cases, women believed that talking to police and/or health care providers would result in their removal from the U.S.

Tena Hunt, one of the study's principal investigators, admitted that around 95 percent of the women surveyed were "undocumented" (PC-speak for illegal). Yet that finding didn't seem to trouble her nearly as much as the supposed inadequacy of social services targeted to their needs.

"They don't want shelters", she remarked. "They want to learn English. They want transportation and legal help". Another researcher, Irma Santana, former director of South Carolina's Hispanic Outreach, complained: "Women are not being educated…Health providers should be educating the Hispanic community that domestic violence is not permissible. It's a crime here". [South Carolina study: domestic violence prevalent among Hispanics, May 5, 2005]

Apparently, neither Ms. Hunt nor Ms. Santana can bring themselves to understand that 95 percent of these women had also committed a crime simply by being in the U.S.

But that's no surprise. Social services agencies and research groups are fairly stuffed with mass-immigration boosters who operate on the assumption that America has a duty to address pathologies among immigrants already here, regardless of legal status or even ability to assimilate. Immigration, by implication, is a right. 

The National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, better known as "Alianza", is the lead organization in this area. Here, too, one finds the paradox: oppose the pathology, but not the people who inflict it.

At an April 26, 2005 luncheon at Manhattan's Tavern on the Green, various speakers spoke of the need for Hispanic men to take a stand for healthy family environments. The ramped-up multimedia campaign, in its own words, "celebrates Latino values of community, family, passion, and compassion", and "shows why domestic violence DOESN'T fit in Latino communities".

But if Latinos are supposedly so steeped in warm communal values, why do they so often behave in diametrically opposite ways? Alianza doesn't seem interested in addressing this contradiction.

What Alianza does seem interested in is expanding Latino-oriented social service delivery in this country.

On October 1, 2008, to kick off Domestic Violence Month, the group called for additional funds for women's shelters. It claimed: "Several factors, including discrimination and lack of bilingual/bicultural staff, have led to an underutilization of shelters and other domestic violence services by Latinas/os affected by domestic violence".

This appeal, steeped in the clinical language of gender-neutral egalitarianism, implies that the main roadblock to reform is American policy—not Hispanic folkways. If only we Americans can be made to understand these folkways, goes the argument, the assimilation process would go much more smoothly.

A niche industry thus has arisen to connect Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Hispanic Research Inc., an East Brunswick, N.J.-based marketing firm, for example, offers these pearls of wisdom on its website (www.hispanic-research.com):

  • "Hispanics tend to be conservative/traditional in their cultural lifestyle. The men's "machismo" clearly separates the Latino male from his Anglo counterparts. The female also plays a very different role from that of the Anglo female. These traits are especially evident in new immigrants."

  • "Most Hispanics exhibit a similar longing and nostalgia for their country of origin. "

But why don't Hispanic immigrants, at least those possessed of a machismo sensibility, express their longing by, well, returning home?

Even more to the point, why did they come here in the first place?

Apparently, these are not polite questions to ask at the dinner table—at least not to company founder Ricardo Lopez.

Immigration enthusiasts argue that, rather than close the gates to newcomers, we should invest more in education and other areas to promote assimilation and hence discourage domestic abuse among immigrants already here.

Yet, even without the likes of MALDEF and the National Council of La Raza promoting their noxious brew of ethnic triumphalism and separatism, these types of preventative measures work more easily in theory than in practice.

Susan Mattson and Ester Rodriguez of Arizona State University's College of Nursing, for example, have concluded from their research on Hispanic immigrants that it is precisely in situations where one partner assimilates and the other doesn't that the capacity for violence is greatest. The male in particular becomes prone to violence if his partner becomes aware of her legal rights and sheds the born-to-suffer fatalism of the old culture.[Intimate Partner Violence in the Latino Community and Its Effect on Children, ]

Joanne Klevens of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admits: "Role strain, especially as a result of immigration and acculturation, might be unique to Latinos, and its importance, and the importance of male dominance among Latinas experiencing IPV [intimate partner violence], deserve more research".[An Overview of Intimate Partner Violence Among Latinos, Klevens VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN.2007; 13: 111-122]

Let's put this less euphemistically: America is importing domestic abuse.

Education and outreach programs might mitigate some immigrant dysfunctional behavior. But greater selectivity in whom we admit to this country will accomplish this goal faster and better.

Ingrained patterns of belief and behavior don't simply dissipate by crossing someone else's border.

Just ask the parents of Lindsay Ann Burke.

Carl F. Horowitz (email him) is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Va. He has a Ph.D. in urban planning and policy development.