In the fall of 1981, I was approached by a group of women who asked me if I would work with them to develop the first battered women’s shelter for Latina women in Minnesota. The idea of working cross-culturally with women appealed to me. I was also interested in providing technical support that could help develop and strengthen community-based organizations. This was an interest wholly consistent with my understanding that one avenue toward community empowerment is the creation of self-sustaining organizations that can effectively respond to the unmet needs of community residents. So, over many dishes of red beans and rice, we defined a plan of action that laid out what needed to be done to make Casa de Esperanza a reality.
I busied myself with the mechanics of the project: identifying potential sites, negotiating financial arrangements, and setting up administrative protocols for operating a battered women’s shelter. I intentionally stayed away from policy and programmatic decisions: these were areas I thought could best be handled by other team members who were battered women advocates, who knew what they wanted, and who had more knowledge of the issues involved. At the time, my understanding of domestic violence, spousal abuse, family violence, battering, and sexual assault,—violence against women, in general—was quite limited. These were all new terms to me, and they appeared to have their own particular set of meaning within the anti-violence movement.
One day, several members of the team, on their way to the hospital to visit a woman who had been beaten by her husband, asked me to join them. The woman had received an order of protection against her husband for prior assaultive acts, but he broke into her house and beat her anyway. I was not prepared for what I saw upon entering her hospital room. I had never seen a person so thoroughly brutalized. There was an immediate disconnect. I could not grasp how someone who would