Opening Pandora’s box

young anti racist activist One of the big traumas in my life was a violent home invasion by a gang of young white men. I was attacked. It was a racist , anti immigrant hate crime. I say anti immigrant although the hoodlums were so ignorant all they could call us was “niggers”, even though they targeted us as Latino immigrants who they wanted to “go back to where we came from”. They descended upon our house in the middle of the night and terrorized us with racial slurs and threats of violence as they banged our windows and beat down our front door. I would keep the torn piece of flannel shirt that I pried out of the splintered door frame in a specially constructed attempt at a sort of Pandora’s box in a specially designated drawer for a long time. I think it was this child’s attempt to contain the evil.

Awakening to them yelling and beating windows and door, I hid my sister and myself but they got to me. My parents were out of the country and the person we were left with proved unreliable and did not protect my sister and me. It was a white neighbor who came over with a shotgun that chased them off and then the police came. I was not the same after that. Afterward,  I struggled with almost nightly dissociation and PTSD. But it was not recognized as that and my parents were given all sorts of ineffectual advice on how to deal with my “night fugues”.  It was the mid 1970’s. I was in still grade school.

My immigrant family had come to the US in the late 1950’s and I was born in the 1960’s. We lived in the South and were targeted with white racial hostility. I lived with continual racist occurrences growing up a Latina brown girl in the South during the 1960’s-80’s, but this was the most extreme and most damaging.  Needless to say, I had trust issues with “white” folks growing up. To this day, I have a residual fear of intimacy with white men. Luckily,  I  love a few white men now, but those sweet souls have had to prove themselves to me; I am forever grateful for their gentle, beautiful spirits. And they make up a chosen circle I call family.

As the above photo shows, I grew into an anti racist activist in my college years and worked in anti-apartheid, anti KKK , and other progressive efforts (this photograph was taken by the wonderful social justice photographer Bud Dorsey). I never told anyone about what I had been through. I could not talk about it. Hell, my family could not even talk about it. We buried it. But it drove me and almost undid me. This was not the only trauma that shaped me, but it was distinct and hugely influential. After college, I worked in a rape crisis center and became involved with community groups for several years. But my unresolved trauma issues took their toll and I burned out and withdrew from political organizing.

Flash forward to today: I am visiting my old hometown. I am here for the wedding of a dear friend. A dear white friend. The wedding is for someone who I just plain love but who I also value as an anti racism ally. She  dedicates her life to social justice efforts. I got to know her through moving in these political circles almost 30 years ago and we stayed connected. Observing her commitment to dismantling racism throughout these decades has helped heal me. But damn, if racism doesn’t  come up to challenge the strides I have made in my healing process. On my second day here, I see this in the local news. Forty years later and this shit is still happening to immigrant Latino families here! It really triggered me. After regaining my emotional equilibrium, it got me thinking. What would it be like to have my hate crime experience witnessed and validated; not just by a therapist, or by one or two friends, but by my communities?

I wonder about all the other women of color  who have been raped , attacked, abused by racists in the course of our North American history. We lead regular lives and keep our personal struggles to ourselves and, if we are lucky, we share it with a few supportive people. But many succumb to the devastation borne of the legacy of these vile attacks. They make up the addicts who never find recovery, the burned-out activists that just disappear, the chronically ill, the suicidal. Some survive and look fine on the outside but lead inner lives scarred and pained.

Now, these casualties are not just the domain of victims of racial hate crimes, they are symptomatic of all trauma survivors. But the malignancy  of being victimized by racist attacks in the US  is insidious. We have to try to heal while also still living in a society founded on institutionalized racism which still spawns racist violence on an economic, physical and emotional level daily. It is hard not to be continually triggered and retraumatized when  when we have to chant “Hands up, Don’t Shoot!”  to protect our young men or when we see immigrant children harassed while fleeing violence and poverty. It’s hard to bring up such a sensitive trauma when a primarily white trauma movement views some of our key issues as political and therefore tangential to the mission of their work.

But I am nothing if not a survivor. And I am hopeful. As well as a bit plucky. I don’t want our stories be a vague anecdote of a racist legacy. So I tell you my experience and I show up and ask for what I need and give back what I can. I call myself a feminist, I am part of a trauma recovery movement. And by starting this conversation, I am reserving a space for my sisters of color who have been raped, assaulted and abused in racial assaults to be mirrored and taken notice of.


6 replies »

  1. This is powerful. I have been the victim of hate crimes since I was five. Not just because of race, but also because of my albinism. Good luck with this blog. I will be visiting often.


  2. Powerful, necessary testimony. Appreciation for your courage to share this Deb and for the way you frame your experience in the context of systemic and brutal ongoing racism against people of color. It is not only an honor to stand with you, my comrade and dear friend, it is a necessity.


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