To mark Domestic Violence Awareness month, Santa Cruz County’s recently formed Commission on Justice and Gender launched a Healing Campaign to give survivors of domestic violence a platform to tell their stories.
It was Jasmine Najera’s 18th birthday when her boyfriend attacked her for the first time. Najera was a student at UC Santa Cruz, and remembers feeling heavy with guilt, deeply embarrassed and ashamed.
“I was being manipulated,” she told Lookout. “It was very easy for me to be secretive about what was going on because I was away from my family.”
But Najera couldn’t hide the bruising on her face. With the encouragement of her roommates and aunt, she reached out to Defense de Mujeres, now named Monarch Services, where she received emotional support and learned how to take steps to protect herself.
Now, nearly 30 years later, Najera is the co-president of Monarch’s board of directors and an active social worker. She’s also a member of Santa Cruz County’s recently formed Commission on Justice and Gender, which recently launched a Healing Campaign in order to give survivors of domestic violence a platform to tell their stories.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in four women — and nearly one in 10 men — have experienced some kind of violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime, but when most people think of domestic violence, their minds flash to the latest news about a woman being killed by her husband, or other horror stories.
Starting this October, to mark Domestic Violence Awareness month and its theme, #Every1KnowsSome1, the commission aims to shed light on how many people in our community experience this kind of violence — and how many people survive and heal from it.
According to Najera, every time she shares her story, someone comes forward saying they’ve experienced something similar.
“It’s about empowering folks to use their voice,” she said. “The more that we can be vulnerable and share, I think it just creates more community, and more of that familiarity.”
‘They’re not alone’
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Santa Cruz County has seen increases in domestic violence-related calls, as well as more severe types of violence. These calls for assistance surpassed 1,000 in 2020 for the first time since 2005.
And as of Sunday, county law enforcement had already received 216 domestic violence-related calls this month alone. At 25 calls, Saturday saw the highest per-day number so far in October.
Experts say the rise in violence is a result of people being stuck in their homes with their partners during the pandemic.
“There’s all of this complex trauma that people are dealing with,” Najera said, highlighting how Santa Cruz County has seen five femicides — or female homicides — in the past 12 months. “Unless we really stop and talk about what this means, people just gloss over it.”
Friday was the one-year anniversary of the murder of Brenda Becerra, a 24-year-old Watsonville mother who was suspected to have been killed by her 47-year-old husband, Cesar Hernandez, who is awaiting trial.
“There were many times when she was crying for help,” Becerra’s cousin, Alma Aceves, said of her.
Becerra moved in with Aceves’ family in Watsonville at age 15. When Becerra started a relationship with and later married Hernandez, who was more than 20 years her senior, her family didn’t approve.
“(But) it’s hard to intervene between a marriage,” Aceves said. “In the end, it’s their decision (whether or not to leave).”
Now that Aceves has seen a family member in an abusive relationship, she recognizes how widespread domestic violence is. She supports the county’s campaign to tell stories of resilience — which aims to show people experiencing domestic violence that there is a way out and to help prevent situations like Becerra’s.
“As a community, we should get together and help support each other, and let them know that they’re not alone,” Aceves said.
Filling in the gaps
In its campaign, the gender and justice commission is asking people to consider what has helped them heal from the stigmas and shame associated with domestic violence. The commission also hopes to gather information on what services are needed in the community that could help survivors thrive.
“We’re hoping that, through people telling their stories, they can tell us what’s missing,” Najera said.
Santa Cruz County has two organizations that, among other services, provide support to people experiencing domestic violence: Monarch Services and Walnut Avenue Family and Women’s Center.
But even though many people might know these resources are out there, Najera said it’s often just hard to make the first step and pick up the phone to ask for help. It can be even harder to leave a relationship with domestic violence, she said, especially with the lack of affordable housing in the county.
“We aren’t necessarily saying, if you’re in a (domestic violence) relationship, you have to leave your partner because that’s just not realistic, especially here in Santa Cruz County,” Najera said.
Both the Monarch and Walnut Avenue organizations provide options for people in need of safe shelter, along with other support services.
As someone who went to Monarch for help many years ago, Najera feels empowered now serving on its leadership team and helping others share their stories.
“We just want to create a community of folks that are saying we’ve asked for the help, we’ve received the help and we know that there needs to be more help out there,” Najera said.
Throughout the month of October and beyond, survivors of domestic violence, and witnesses, are encouraged to share their stories of healing in writing, video or audio recordings. Individuals can choose to remain anonymous.
All stories can be sent to email@example.com.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call any of the hotlines below.
24-hour bilingual crisis hotline: 888-900-4232
233 East Lake Ave.
1509 Seabright Ave.
Santa Cruz 95062
Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center
24-hour domestic violence hotline: 866-269-2559
303 Walnut Ave.
Santa Cruz 95060
National Domestic Violence Hotline