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Lean in close, I need to share a secret with you. To fully understand it, I'll need to take you back to 1963, to the root of the darkness: a place where one of the most painful experiences in my life once festered. I was a bubbling five-year-old in Mexico City and, like many children, I was afraid of the dark. Nightfall unfurled itself like a vast canvas on which I painted my troubling thoughts. I'd nudge awake my younger sister Margarita, already soundly sleeping next to me, and ask her to accompany me to the bathroom. I'd pray and pray for the fears to go away, but they remained my constantcompanions. I didn't fear some unidentifiable bogeyman lurking in the shadows; no, he was a lot more real than that. While I struggled to fallasleep, the source of my fears was most likely roaming the streets. Night after night, I'd consume the darkness of my secret like a vial of poison, waking up with an acrid taste still stinging my tongue. The morning sunlight would play on my face -- signaling the start of another school day -- and the sweet smell of my mother's cooking would waft through our small house. The spell would be suspended until the following night when the vicious cycle began again like a deeply scratched record that only I could hear.
My grandmother was eighty-seven years old when she passed away in 1996; she would never know the secret that swelled inside me, her beloved nieta. At the time, I believed the revelation would have been too heavy for her to bear -- crushing not only her, but also my entire family. It was a cross that, unfortunately, didn't become lighter with the years. I dragged it around so that no one else would have to. Now I know that some crosses were never meant to be carried alone, especially not through darkness. It would be eighteen years before I would gather enough courage to share the secret for the first time, tearing through the dark canvas of the night to set down my cross. It was only then that the healing would begin.
Casting Off the Cross
His beautiful mustache twitched to life as articulate words flowed from his mouth. To my nineteen-year-old heart, this was not only love at first sight, but I was certain I'd marry this man. Alex didn't know it at the time, but he had captured my heart during the closing ceremony of Encuentros (Encounters), a religious retreat.
Flash forward four years: it's a week before our wedding, a time when I should've been a carefree twenty-three-year-old about to marry her first love. The darkness that had plagued me since I was a child began to come to life in my dreams. I'd wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, feeling as though someone was suffocating me with a pillow. These weren'tprewedding jitters, I couldn't be surer of anything. My body was telling me it could no longer carry on with the weight that had grown on me like a tumor. If I was going to live the rest of my life with Alex, I'd have to find the words to share my darkest secret. He was the first person I'd tell and no amount of rehearsing could've helped. I was plagued with doubts about how he would handle the news. I worried about how I'd change in his eyes. I knew I could lose him.
It ended up coming out in one long monologue, punctuated by guttural sobs. I took a deep breath and...
"I was five years old. I had already learned my letters and numbers, so my mother was able to get me into the first grade by telling the school that my birth certificate had been lost. It seemed to do the trick. At our school, first graders were released an hour earlier than other students. My mother didn't want me to cross the busy main boulevard to reach our house, so I waited for her at my grandmother's place near the school. One day my grandmother's brother -- a slovenly, perpetually unshaved man in his late forties -- came out of the cramped room that connected to the house and told me that my grandmother wouldn't be home for some time. I didn't know much about him other than he'd always leave early in the morning and return late at night. Anyway, he told me to come and sit on his lap, but I said no, that I'd just wait for my mother. He insisted, grabbing me by the shoulder. Then, then..."
Alex held me close, sensing how difficult this was for me. He waited calmly for me to continue.
"Then, he started to touch me down there and all I could do was shout no, no. I cried and cried. It didn't make a difference to him. Sometimes at night, I could still feel his breath on my ear, whispering that this was our secret. I was confused, but each time I resisted more. He then tried to lure me with chocolates or a few cents. I told him that I didn't want them. It didn't matter; his hands would creep down again. One time I went to the bathroom and through a small crack in the window, I could see his feet pacing, waiting. I began to fabricate any excuse possible for my mother to pick me up at school. Then I started to stay at my aunt's house that was even closer to the school. I felt like this was somehow my fault. I was deeply ashamed."
I looked up from my knotted hands into Alex's eyes and prepared myself forthe worst. Although it was probably only a few seconds of silence, it felt like an eternity. My mind raced with the concerns that had weighed on me since our engagement: What if I wasn't a virgin and he didn't want to marry me? What if he'd look down on me? What if he was angry that I hadn't told him sooner? What if he did marry me out of pity, then divorce me? Oh my God!
"You have the right to leave me, I might not be a virgin," I said, breaking the silence, while attempting to steady my breathing. Tears continued to drench my cheeks.
With gentleness and caring true to his nature, Alex wiped my warm tears away, reassuring me that none of this had been my fault. He was sorry that I had lived with this burden for so long. He held me close, telling me that he loved me for who I was; something horrible that had happened to me when I was a mere child could not change that.
I realized then that I would forever be in love with this gentle soul. I felt an indescribable, almost physical lightness after sharing my secret for the first time. It was one of the most painful, but ultimately cathartic experiences of my life. It had taken years to gather the inner strength to shed light on what I had believed would remain a repressed and inarticulate darkness until the day I died.
A week later, on September 19, 1981, we were married in Saint MatthiasCatholic Church (our local church) in Huntington Park, California. It was a beautiful ceremony that I will forever remember. I never felt more certain about anything in my life as I did on that day. Nothing else seemed to matter. I imagined creating a family with Alex. Although he was only twenty-four at the time, I knew he'd be a wonderful father. The future it turns out would be full of surprises -- some of them wonderful and others devastating. At that moment, however, surrounded by the most important people in my life and linked arm-in-arm with this wonderful man, I couldn't imagine being any happier.
That night and for many nights that followed, we would not consummate our marriage. Everything was smooth sailing up until a certain point when I'd get too tense and couldn't go on. No amount of coaxing seemed to work. The fact that I had the blessings of my family, the church, and the state didn't make a difference: I could not share this wonderful experience with my husband. One month passed, then another, and another. Three months had gone by and we were both frustrated and upset. My husband tenderly suggested that I see a doctor and I promptly made an appointment. The doctor said that, physically, there was absolutely nothing wrong. His expert advice: a couple of glasses of wine to relax me. Not surprisingly, the wine didn't have the intended effect. I continued to freeze. The doctor suggested I see a therapist. I couldn't have agreed more.
It was soon to be New Year's Eve -- the first one Alex and I would celebrate as a married couple -- and I wanted that night to be "the" night. When we returned home after bringing in 1982, I began to sob uncontrollably. I told Alex how horrible it made me feel that I couldn't show him how much I loved him.
"Rosario, if all I wanted from you was sex, I would not have married you," he said, pushing a strand of hair behind my ear. "I love you for who you are."
Those words permanently engraved themselves into my heart; it felt as though something deep inside me shifted. Alex had validated me with pure, simple, and loving words. My fears dissolved as though a spell had been broken. That night, I became Alex's wife. It turned out that despite my worries, I gave my virginity to Alex.
Afterward, I turned off the bedroom light. I felt a sense of peace as I wrapped the once-frightening darkness around me like a warm blanket. I slept more soundly than I had in years.
Now Is the Time
So now, at forty-eight, why have I chosen to publicly reveal such a private part of my life? Maybe because the more we talk about such atrocities, the less they will happen. Maybe it's so at night, when I wonder how many children and now-adult victims are also awake at this moment, they will have a bit more courage to tell someone their own dark secrets. Maybe it's a reminder to others that no matter what traumatizing event they've had toendure, time and support can help them move beyond it.
I have accepted that certain scars will always mark me and I've vowed that I'll no longer go out of my way to hide them. That would be playing the true victim. Healing takes time and love from the people in your life you can trust. Until the moment I shared with Alex what happened, I had beenliving a double life. Telling just one person made all the difference. I do have one major regret: keeping it hidden for so long. To think that I carried such a weight on my shoulders for nineteen years now seems unfathomable. Once I conquered my fear of revealing my secret, it becameincreasingly cathartic to share it with people. Each time I share myexperience with someone, I feel a bit lighter.
This will be the first time that most of my family, friends, and colleagues will learn about what happened to me as a child. People whom I have known my entire life will be reading about it at the same time as people I will never meet. Many will be shocked, having never suspected a thing; this is atestament to how hard I've tried my entire life to appear worry-free andhappy, especially when I was a child.
Everyone has always seen me as such a strong person that the last thing I have ever wanted to do was let them down, or be seen as a victim, even if that is exactly what I was. I never wanted people to pity me. Later, I entered politics and did not want to risk politicizing something so painful. I marched on as long as I could, head held high, trying hard to never look back and to rationalize my continued silence.
My reasons for silence varied. Life seemed difficult enough for my family and finding out that their daughter had been molested was the last thing they needed. I was afraid that something bad would happen to my family, or some sort of scandal would erupt. I wished death on the man who molested me many times -- and then one day he did die. The pain of what he did to me lived on, but I had been taught never to speak ill of the dead. Then I convinced myself that it would just go away. It happened so long ago that it would somehow fade into the recesses of memory. At the very least, Ipredicted, the pain would diminish.
Now I know that such traumatizing events should not be forgotten. I also know that it isn't just one thing that helps with the healing. It started with my believing that what happened to me was nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. There is a world of difference between saying something isn't your fault and that you shouldn't be ashamed and truly feeling it and moving on. It continued with my sharing my experience as a lesson for others. After I initially talked about what happened with Alex, it was another four years before I could bring myself to tell my mother what her uncle did to me. The silence that surrounds these social taboos, especially in the Latino community, is deafening and rests on the collective shoulders of thousands of children and adults. I have met many people who have sharedtheir experiences with me and, unfortunately, their stories are variations on the same theme. In almost all cases, it's a family member or someone close to the family who abuses a child's trust. There is no way around it: when something this devastating happens so early on in life, it fundamentally alters the way a child will perceive the world. Often the marks are even evident well into adulthood.
Not too long ago I met a voice coach who, upon hearing my voice, gently suggested I had been molested. I was shocked. How could he know? It became evident that the scars that wounded my spirit were recognizable to those trained to see or hear them. All hope is obviously not lost. Millions, like me, are proof that early adversity -- in any form -- can be overcome successfully, but the burden should not be carried alone.
The memories of my childhood are otherwise pleasant. My family's abundance of love was enough to carry me through the other comparatively mundane pangs of growing up. I have always spoken about the two gifts my parents gave me: work ethic and faith. My father's work ethic knew no bounds and my mother's faith always gave the family hope. These were two gifts that would need to keep on giving in order to meet the challenges of our voyage to the United States.
Copyright © 2007 by Marín & Marín LLC
Excerpted from Leading Between Two Worlds: Lessons from the First Mexican-Born Treasurer of the United States by Rosario Marin
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.