It takes patience, tenacity and time to build trust with domestic violence survivors and their stories

Published on
December 21, 2023

Reporting on domestic violence in the county of San Luis Obispo, California was an intense undertaking. When I first pitched my idea, I asked myself: Who are the most vulnerable survivors of domestic violence in my community? In my mind, the answer was undocumented Latina women. I imagined the adversity of not being able to speak English, the fear of someone reporting my citizenship status, the challenge of having children to care for, a job I could not take time off from. If a woman faced all these challenges and had an abusive partner? That would be a nightmare. It would take a lot to get out of a situation like that. 

I started educating myself. I remembered a quote from Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” So, I sought out the helpers. Who was out there in the community working to assist undocumented survivors of domestic violence? 

I’ve been in my community a long time and know a lot of people here. The first step I took was to contact a public defender I know well. He’d just been in court that morning dealing with a custody battle between a Mixtec couple; the translator wasn’t available, so the hearing was postponed. 

“Talk to Melodie Rivas,” he told me. He gave me her number, and texted her that I would be reaching out. 

Rivas, also a lawyer, proved to be an excellent start. She had started working earlier in the year with the San Luis Obispo Legal Assistance Foundation to help survivors obtain restraining orders. As our interview wrapped up, I told her I was hoping to interview survivors themselves. Rivas said, “I know someone who might be willing to talk with you.” 

Even though I speak very proficient Spanish, I was still concerned whether I would be able to earn the trust of both the survivors and the helpers. I imagined their skepticism: Who was this journalist, and what did she want? My bachelor’s degree is in Latin American Studies. I had lived a semester in Queretaro, Mexico, a year in Santiago, Chile, and two years in Mendoza, Argentina. And I waited tables for many, many years in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, bantering daily with the Mexican cooks. I had learned to speak Spanish, but it had never proved more invaluable. Slowly, people let me in. 

One woman I spoke with, Erica Rulvalcaba-Heredia, had been the director of the Center for Family Strengthening for many years, and as part of that role, she oversaw the Promotores, a collective that supports Hispanic community members. She was an important source, but when I originally got her on the phone and described my project in English, I could sense her hesitance. When I switched to Spanish, she warmed immediately and offered the names of individuals I should speak with at various organizations. When I hung up with her, I had never felt so grateful for all the years I put in learning Spanish. 

Still, it took a long time and a lot of conversations before the dots connected. It took me a couple months to get close to survivors, to really hear their stories. Rivas, the lawyer, told me a local woman she had helped in obtaining a restraining order was willing to talk to me and to tell her story. “Elle” is white, educated, and well-connected. At the end of the interview, she told me that she was often the only white survivor in the courtroom: “I thought, over and over again how I had an attorney I could call and ask a favor to tell me what to do. I have very powerful friends. Had I not, I never would have made it through.” 

I was so grateful for her trust and the story she shared with me. The first episode of my series is based on that interview. But my conversation with Elle really motivated me to find a survivor willing to share her story who did not have access to such resources. 

I applied for the Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund’s engagement grant, and fulfilling it threw me out of my comfort zone, but it was incredibly rewarding. I used funds from the grant to host three events at Lumina Alliance, a local organization that helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. I made fliers in Spanish and tried to spread the word. The fliers stated that the meetings would be in Spanish, that food and child care would be provided, that we would share stories and learn about the resources Lumina offers. 

For the first meeting, I ordered food for 20 people. I had no idea how many people would attend, but I grossly overestimated how many vulnerable women would be willing to come out on a weekday evening to share their most intimate stories with a journalist they didn’t know. Almost no one came to what my spouse jokingly called my “domestic violence party,” except for one person, whom I’ll call Lulu. She showed up with her teenage daughter, and over the course of an hour, told me in Spanish some of what had happened to her. Her daughter sat quietly by her mom’s side. I did not record the conversation. At the end of the meeting, we all ate together. There were a lot of leftovers, and I encouraged Lulu to take some. Before we said goodbye, I handed her my business card that I had made in Spanish just for this project and told her to call or text me if she wanted me to record her story. 

Two weeks elapsed before she texted me to let me know she was ready to talk. We met in a park. I started recording, and in Spanish she started telling her story, which began in a small mountain village in Guerrero, Mexico. I heard about the boyfriend who became her husband, how he abused her, how she left him, and then left him again, and finally left Mexico to escape him and came to San Luis Obispo. How he followed, how she took him back, how they had children together, and how she left again. She finally left one final time, with the children. The principal of her children’s elementary school helped her; the police helped her. But it was the Women’s Shelter — now Lumina Alliance — that took her and her children to a safe place, found her an apartment, provided therapy, and helped her obtain a restraining order. Slowly, and with immense difficulty, she put her life back together. She worked two jobs for years, raising her children alone. Eventually, finally free of her abusive relationship, she healed. Our conversation lasted four hours and her story was riveting.

Did it make practical sense to speak with her that long, knowing that I would be distilling our four-hour interview into an audio story of less than five minutes? No, it didn’t. But she needed to tell me the whole story — and I needed to hear it. The fresh batteries I put in my audio recorder that morning failed before the end of the interview, but it was OK. I kept listening. She recounted moments of terrible pain, and when she cried, I kicked myself for not carrying tissues in my bag. But she also laughed — and I laughed with her. I found Lulu and her story remarkable and was so grateful she trusted me enough to sit with me and tell me the most intimate details of her life. By the time we finished speaking, I understood why we refer to survivors as survivors

My three audio stories about domestic violence survivors in San Luis Obispo County aired on KCBX radio, our local NPR affiliate. A few days later, my phone rang. It was Erica Rulvalcaba-Heredia. She wanted to congratulate me for the stories — to thank me. She also wanted to tell me about an organization she had just started to help Latinos here in San Luis Obispo: Corazon Latino. 

“Your work isn’t done, Melanie,” she said in Spanish. Her words were kind and playful, but also serious. I understood what she meant: I had joined a cadre of incredibly courageous women intent on helping other women who still desperately need assistance. They had let me in.