It’s Time To Address The Sexual Abuse Of Latino Boys — And Why Their Abusers Are Sometimes Protected

"Masculine pride, or what’s known as machismo in my culture, goes hand in hand with repression."
"Storytelling is about taking off the bandage and just having that wound open to let it heal."
"Storytelling is about taking off the bandage and just having that wound open to let it heal."
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

My story isn’t new, but I didn’t come across another one like it until I saw something on public-access TV about teenage survivors of childhood sexual abuse, or CSA. The group was entirely Latino, like me. I was 13 years old, and I’d never related harder to anything in my life, especially when one of the guys on the show talked about being abused by a woman when he was just a kid. That was the moment I made the connection that I, too, was a victim of CSA — and just one example that demonstrates how sharing abuse narratives can help victims make sense of their experiences.

That instant was a salient one. It was painful, but it marked the beginning of my journey toward truth and healing. It’s one of the reasons why I chose to help others by talking about what happened to me. I had, and still have, so many questions — for my parents, for other Latinos and survivors, and for fellow psychotherapists and other experts. And so, I set out to understand the experiences and unique issues that male Latino victims of CSA face and to understand why their abusers are so often protected.

“I feel like it’s our nature as Mexicans to wonder what people might think,” says a resident of Los Fresnos, Texas, who asked not to be identified by name for this piece. Many of the people I spoke to, especially men, requested an alias or anonymity. Within the Latino community, the topic of child sexual abuse is shrouded in silence and secrecy.

“Until now, this topic had never even existed in my mind,” says Miguel Gonzalez, a fellow Latino who agreed to discuss this topic using an alias. “Our culture wears its sexuality very plainly but is also repressed.” Repression emerged as a theme early in my conversations with fellow Latinos.

“Repression can lead to divorce of the self,” says Misty Solt, a professor of counseling at Southern Methodist University. Her words reminded me of how I became disconnected from my emotional experiences as a boy. The roots of my repression stem from others’ lack of acknowledgement and invalidation of my feelings. My tears were consistently minimized, if not outrightly ignored. I was emotionally deserted, and I followed suit by abandoning myself. This happens to boys a lot, and I couldn’t help but wonder how anybody can heal when this is their experience.

“In these cases, it can be really hard to anchor into those experiences, [but] your body will tell you what you need to remember and when,” she added. Solt is referring to the idea that a lack of memories can create challenges to processing and coping with trauma. But memories aren’t the only clues that trauma has taken place, because our bodies can indicate that something horrible has occurred. Some common physical manifestations of trauma can be hyperarousal around triggers, and a plethora of physical ailments like headaches, chronic pain, tense muscles and more.

Masculine pride, or what’s known as machismo in my culture, goes hand in hand with repression. Strength, in particular, is probably the most highly regarded virtue a man can possess. And not just physically, but emotionally as well. In Latino culture, emotional strength is perceived as an almost total lack of emotional vulnerability. There’s an expectation that men should refrain from expressing emotions like fear and sadness. In this context, repression and strength are almost indistinguishable from each other.

“When I speak to Latino men, they talk about their experience of being abused in an almost joking way, or with an attitude like, ‘It is what it is,’” explained Ana Lopez Wagner, an advocate on the subject of child sexual abuse. “There’s a minimization of what happened. They’re detached from the pain of what’s transpired.”

Wagner has observed the consequences of minimization in her conversations with victims of CSA. “Dismissing a child who discloses abuse is minimization, and is a way of enabling and perpetuating abuse,” Wagner said. “In some cases, it can be a passive way of giving permission to an abuser.”

Her account aligned with my own experience, because I was dismissed when I told my parents about the abuse. Their silence and subsequent stonewalling deprived me of the emotional support I needed to heal. I had to talk about it, and put things under a microscope to figure out my story. Getting there meant getting in touch with my anger.

“[Anger] is not only common, but necessary in order to erect boundaries,” said Marlena del Hierro, a Mexican American trauma therapist. “It helps dispel the shame, and is a much healthier place to be. I think it’s a sign of healing for someone who’s been through this kind of trauma.”

Like other victims, I also self-blamed. But talking about the abuse in therapy, and with trusted friends, helped me release shame. I started to understand — not just intellectually, but on an emotional level — that this wasn’t my fault.

Shame is an overarching theme of latinidad, or Latin identity, and multiple factors can contribute to it. “Loyalty, sometimes blind loyalty, to family, is very common,” says Holly Lockett, a psychotherapist and trauma specialist in the Dallas area. Disclosure and betrayal are often viewed as one and the same when the abuser is a family member. Within the family system, the shamed — or the abuser — sometimes get comfort and protection from the accuser, or the one to bring shame.

The religiosity that’s so common in Latino culture also plays a significant role in the experience of shame. In particular, the pervasiveness of Catholicism implies that there’s only one right way to live virtuously. Rigid expectations create opportunities for failure, especially in the moral sense.

“It’s common for Latinos to try to find answers through religion or prayer, but often that’s not enough, and sometimes a client has to work through religious trauma before working on the abuse,” Lockett said. This kind of trauma can take various forms — like sexual abuse from a priest or the loss of a church community — and often increases shame.

Reducing that shame is critical for the purpose of breaking the cycle of abuse, in the intergenerational sense, because shame keeps victims from taking a closer look. “If you do a generational trauma timeline, you can go back to the beginning,” Lockett said. “When you’re able to find out what your ancestors had to go through, you start to understand what gets programmed into our DNA.”

Generational trauma is a term that’s slowly made its way into social consciousness, and it also refers to the ways that trauma may be stored in our genes. “Some babies are born traumatized because of their genes,” Lockett said. The shared family experience — especially when others in that environment also experienced abuse — can create more vulnerabilities.

Nearly 78% of Latino youth have experienced adverse child experiences, including poverty, neglect, abuse or household dysfunction, according to the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The research also found that Latino youth are more likely than any other group to have these types of experiences.

When it comes to CSA in Latinos, the data is inconsistent. There is little consensus in the literature about whether estimates of its prevalence in nonwhite groups are too low or too high, and by how much, according to the Joshua Center on Child Sexual Abuse Prevention at the University of Washington. Methodological differences across studies partly account for these inconsistencies. For example, some studies differed in their definition of sexual abuse, some relied too heavily on self-reporting, and others had sample sizes that were simply too small.

These findings make sense to Lockett, who also identified poverty and immigration as common themes in her work with Latinos. “If you’re born poor or an immigrant, you’re more likely to be exposed to trauma,” Lockett explained. This is something that’s echoed in immigration narratives. The first generation to arrive in the U.S. is especially likely to experience poverty and all the vulnerabilities that accompany it.

As risk factors came clearly into view, I began digging further into why abusers in Latino communities are often protected.

“Adults tend to protect adults before believing children, usually because they don’t want to break up the family,” Wagner said. “It’s an important institution in Latino culture, and people don’t want to break something that works for them, regardless of how it is.”

Lockett shares this view. “[Clients] will often say things like, ‘I can’t do that to my uncle, grandpa or whoever,’” she said. Loyalty to family is a common thread among Latinos that creates barriers to speaking up and being supported.

So how can Latinos break the cycle of intergenerational abuse? Sharing narratives is one important way. “To me, storytelling is about taking off the bandage and just having that wound open to let it heal,” Wagner said. “I learned that I had to be more vulnerable for the people who needed to hear me say this, because I look like you, and you can relate to me.”

I talked to Melinda Sanchez, an old friend of mine from the Rio Grande Valley, who was the only Latino person I spoke with who grew up having these kinds of conversations. “My family talked about consent and sexual abuse, but that’s because my mother was abused, as were her brothers, back in Mexico when they were kids,” she said.

In Sanchez’s case, an understanding of what could go wrong was a source of protection for her growing up. “I knew that if anything ever happened, I’d have the support of the grown-ups in my life,” she said. But she acknowledged that this was atypical for people living along the U.S.-Mexico border, which is where we both were raised. She believes that education about sexual abuse, consent and interpersonal boundaries can go a long way in keeping people safe from abuse.

“I didn’t know what boundaries were [growing up],” del Hierro said. “Twelve steps and my counseling [graduate] program helped me learn boundaries.” Her words resonated with me because I didn’t have a clear understanding of what boundaries were until adulthood, either. Examining my early experiences, and getting angry, played a crucial role in asserting these kinds of barriers. In my case, anger pushed me to ask questions. And in the face of stonewalling, it’s what made me threaten to sue my parents if they wouldn’t tell me my abuser’s last name (and it worked).

Like many Latinos, my parents chose to protect my abuser despite warning signs that things weren’t right. But eventually, I realized that more than anything, they chose to protect themselves from shame.

So how should you respond if someone you care about tells you that they’ve been sexually abused? Lockett has some ideas. “If you love someone, keep your mouth shut and hold space. … All you can do is love them, protect them, and be there.”

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