Ear to the Ground: Mercedes Fernandez
I remember I was at the airport in Lima, holding my daughter's hands very tightly. And my relatives were there, everybody was crying. And I was leaving. I was so embarrassed because the fact that my husband cheated on me. I decided to leave the country, take my daughters and start all over.
I came to Chicago because I had relatives here. The first thing I noticed is that it was not easy. It was very hard to adapt to this new environment. I used to be a professional back home. Work in the law field and journalism, being an advocate for women. And all of a sudden I'm here in this country living in a basement. It was very difficult for me.
We were alone. I felt very scared because it was only my daughters and me living by ourselves. The three of us without legal status.
Was there room for love in this picture? Yeah, there was room for love in this picture. I met a gorgeous man. He was really handsome, dark skin, big black eyes, and very well-mannered. He was a professional. He was really Prince Charming.
We became a couple. I moved to his house. He gave me a beautiful son.
To me the relationship was normal at first. But soon it became an emotional rollercoaster. About the same time, I met my friend Maria.
MARIA: I remember a girl dropping her daughter off with treats for Halloween. You were very nice, well groomed, very soft spoken. You asked me where I was from and I asked you and then we became friends because of our kids.
Maria is from Ecuador. She's one of my best friends. She was coming out of a difficult relationship, too.
I knew about emotional abuse from my work. I knew domestic violence is not just when you are beaten physically. Still I was blind to the red flags in my own relationship. But Maria could.
MARIA: Oh, I saw a very controlling man, financially controlling you, controlling what type of friends he wanted you to have. When he would talk he wanted to put you down.
My friend Maria gave me a book. It was called Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Love Them Too Much. And I was asking myself was I that woman?
After that I went to the office of Mary Rose. She's a family therapist for Metropolitan Family Services.
MARY: Six and a half years ago when you first walked in my door, you cried a lot. You were a woman, clearly of high intelligence who was in extreme amount of pain, emotional pain. You're a person who functioned at such a high level previously in your life that to have descended to the point when you came first to my door, I know was very painful for you.
My Prince Charming never beat me. Emotional abuse? Yes. He threatened to have me deported. I never thought it was going to be like that
I can recall telling my daughter, Maria, I'm packing a bag with our belongings just in case we need to escape.
MARIA ALEJANDRA: The first thing I remember is being in my room with Silvana, I remember hearing Akbar's voice getting louder and louder.
One day tired of his abuse and I decided to speak up and confront him. His reaction was to grab me by the neck.
MARIA ALEJANDRA: And I remember him saying something like, like 'who is going to hear you' or 'nobody is going to care.' And then I just said really loudly, like 'I can hear you' or 'I know what you are doing,' and then I said, "Mom, do you need me to call the police,' I remember saying that.
She did call the police, and I filed a complaint to take the case to criminal court. I remember that day in court. I was asking myself what am I doing here? In Peru, I was the one who used to take victims to the police department or to the court.
And here I'm with all these people around me trying to explain the judicial system. The only thing I wanted is to prevent this man from taking my son away from me. So I said to the judge, “Your honor, if you grant un-supervised visitation to this man, he can take my son away from me and send him to his country. If he does something like that are you going to bring him back to me?"
I won my court case. But actually I was alone. I felt lonely, depressed. I became the head of a household of five. I had a lot of responsibilities. And I remember taking any kind of job in order to put food on our table and a roof over our heads. I work as a caregiver for elders, at a bakery, as a laborer unloading trucks. But my therapist Mary Rose said I had made it out.
MARY ROSE: You did get out, not everyone does, some people stay in their abusive relationships for the rest of their lives. It takes a while to sort of build up your self confidence and to the point where you feel you can leave. But then you need some specific things like a place to go, a way to provide to yourself financially, a way to provide for your children. Food, shelter, clothing.
After I won the court case I was able to get relocated into an apartment. And thanks to my son's father, now I got a U Visa. The U Visa is for immigrants who are victims of crimes like domestic violence. Since I helped authorities prosecute the crime, they legalized my immigration status.
Life is getting better. I got to work as a journalist for a Latino newspaper. Today, my son is a loving boy. My daughters are honors students and they've shown me how strong they are by learning from this experience.
MARIA ALEJANDRA: Being older I see that, it's never right for somebody to try to restrain you, to tell you that you aren't good enough, or smart enough, and so now I know that if I'm ever told that automatically that is not someone I want to be with, whether is a friend, a boyfriend, any kind of relationship, I know right away that that person doesn't have good intentions.
But, still there are invisible wounds and they hurt once in a while, especially when I ride the trains, and I see these women by themselves with their children and you can tell that they are suffering.
When I have to write articles about domestic violence, immigrants, separated families, I feel sad. Sometimes I end up crying with the people I interview. Because it's very sad and I can relate to them. And like me there are more Mercedes, or Marias, Rositas, Yolandas that come from different countries and they suffer the same thing. I want them to know there is a way out.
As a journalist, now I'm the narrator of these stories. But I will never forget that once, I was the protagonista.
For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Mercedes Fernandez.