Legacy of Rape
Legacy of Rape
A #MeToo Essay by Mireya Vela
In the early 1940’s, in a rural city in Mexico, my grandfather was arrested by the sight of my sixteen-year-old grandmother. She was stunning with bright ribbons twisting her long braided hair. She wore the indigenous garb of the people in that region—embroidered blouses and skirts that caressed her ankles. She covered herself in rebosos.
. I don’t know much about what my grandfather did. I’ve heard stories about where he was from and what he did, but those stories are as fluid as the lies you tell children to get them to fall asleep. I know that one day with the help of friends, grandfather abducted and raped my grandmother, effectively claiming her as his own.
Bride abduction was a common practice there. It was barbaric. It was savage. It was romantic. A man wanted a woman so desperately that he took her for himself. He settled it with her family after the fact.
“He stole me,” she said to me when I was twelve, “I loved my home. I just wanted to be with my mom. I ran through the mountains to get away.”
Her sandals moved the earth as she pounded her way through the hills, while her skirts moved and raised the powdered earth. The sounds of her breath were too loud, breaking through her throat, and coming between broken sobs.
She’s never been a quiet woman. She’s a woman that yells at the television during news and movies. She is loud and obnoxious passion.
He catches her by the braids and drags her to the ground.
She exclaims her emotions into the vastness of the mountains. Her cries echo, reverberating off the hills and back at her.
After he rapes her, she can’t go home.
“Nobody wants you after that,” she said to me.
She told me this story over and over even before I was a teen. It was as if she needed to relive it, control it, talk it out to banish it from her mind for a bit, so she could go back to curling her short hair—hair too tight on her scalp. She barely turned the spongy curlers once around each piece of hair. Hair too short to grab with a fist.
Grandmother was a violent staple in my life. Her feelings about that violence moved around her, like that dust that had covered the edges of her skirts.
The story about that night unraveled with each telling. Each time, the story became more lurid. It was a mass of violence and romance and violence. It was the beginning of a marriage. It was awful but not that bad. Fifty years into her marriage with my grandfather, she took responsibility for her vanity but wasn’t sorry for it every time. She blamed herself for being beautiful or him for being an animal. She hated him. She loved him. He was the father of her children. He was hardworking and a good provider.
As the years progressed, her story folded me in. Where once it had been an experience my grandmother had gone through, it changed into something that would happen to me. Eventually.
I don’t know how many siblings my grandmother had. They were reportedly cruel hard people. I don’t know how many men stole women or how many women were stolen by men.
I knew my grandfather was a rapist.
“My sister was stolen,” she told me. She was stolen by a group of men. When they had her alone, they flipped for her. They tossed a coin. That’s how she ended up with the husband she has now. He was a really nice guy. She wouldn’t have ended up with such a nice man otherwise. She was a mean woman.”
If your father’s mother is raped and your mother is raped and your aunts are raped, where does that leave you? The promise of rape looms.
One in six women will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. I wonder how many times these six women will be chronic victims of rape?
Before they became common place, her gifts of beautiful lingerie and switchblades confused me. She gave me a beautiful white enamel switchblade one year. I was sixteen.
“Stab between the ribs,” she said.
She gave me a hatpin—a long needle I could make myself pretty with, but also use as a weapon.
“Stab them when they try to rape you.”
When. That word caught between us. It became a promise.
Women are trained into this type of acceptance.
“Kiss your relatives.”
“Hug creepy Uncle Manny.”
“Don’t be uppity. You’re rude. Go sit on Uncle Joe’s lap.”
“Uncle Manny gave you a gift. Show proper gratitude.”
“Liar. He didn’t touch you. That’s your imagination. Why are you always such a drama queen, looking for attention?”
Whittle down the women. Take of all the rough edges till they are smooth and fit into the palms of men.
My mother had her own technique.
“No, you’re not.”
“No, you just ate.”
“I feel sad.”
“People like you don’t feel sad.”
To this day, I bristle uncomfortably when my experiences are invalidated.
Whittle the women down and fold them in. So that women know their place, their role. So their self never develops. So they are never individuals and never forget their legacy of service.
Perhaps that’s what my grandmother was really telling me every time she gave me lingerie.
“I’m terrified of being raped,” my mother told me. I’m in my early twenties and struggle to connect with her fear.
Who the hell gives a shit if another woman gets raped? We all get raped.
“I’m afraid to leave the house. It’s my greatest fear.”
I casually tell her, “No one is going to rape you, mom. You are past the average age range to be raped.”
“Old women get raped all the time.”
“You have to stop watching the news. Those women with their boobs hanging out aren’t
journalists. They are eye candy with lies. That show isn’t legitimate news.”
In my mid-twenties I’m a fifth grade teacher at an elementary school. I’m living in my hometown of El Monte, California, where the abuse rate is high and the domestic violence is too. Housing is an issue. “A roof over your head” is loosely interpreted. People live in garages or on couches.
I’m struggling to meet the needs of my students. I’m struggling to take care of myself in this atmosphere. Every time I have to fill out an abuse report for the Department of Child and Family Services, I reel and need to vomit. When the cops come to pick up the kids, the children are always frightened. But I can’t ignore the wire hanger welts on a child’s skin.
One of my students is living with my uncle’s girlfriend. We aren’t directly related but that doesn’t matter. They share four children. My uncle and his girlfriend don’t live together. They are one of the reasons why the domestic violence in El Monte is so high.
Uncle’s girlfriend and their shared children share a two-bedroom apartment with another family. This isn’t surprising. Everything gets shared here. Everyone is just trying to get by.
Cousins share asthma inhalers. Mothers share medications. People share information or resources or gossip. Or whatever is needed.
One of the children in that shared household is my student.
One day, the girl tells me, “I heard from your grandmother that you are a whore.”
The words come at me like the ground. I’m falling. Someone must have dragged me
down by the hair.
“I’m not a whore,” I say. My voice squeezes out from my throat. I sound pathetic and not
credible. “I’m not a whore” is exactly what a whore would say.
I feel violated. I go home and tell my father. I ask him to please talk to his mother.
My mom says to me, “That’s silly. You are overreacting. You know she doesn’t mean it.”
My father talks to his mom, but it doesn’t matter. Her words hold true in her mind. This isn’t the first time she’s called me a whore and it won’t be the last. The fact that I’m her only grandchild that went to college doesn’t matter. The fact that I’m a respected person in the community doesn’t matter. The fact that I work so hard to help families doesn’t matter. I became a whore to her a long time ago. Perhaps it was my divorce or my newfangled ideas about feminism. Perhaps it’s that she isn’t sure whether that story she told me so many times was about her or about me. Or perhaps to her, we are all that woman running through the mountains, thick braids bouncing behind her, skirts tripping her progress.