Our Ladder

By Alberto Lorenzo, Senior Trainer 

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I was nine years old and I had never been allowed to climb the tall bookshelf ladder in my Tia (Spanish for aunt) Marta’s library. She had always been the brave one to climb the ladder and reach for whichever book she wanted to share with me that day. We were living in communist Cuba towards the end of the 1980’s and most great literature was banned by the government. But she didn’t care, you see, Tia Marta was in her mid-20’s, fun, beautiful, rebellious, and extremely smart.  The bookshelf ladder was our little secret! We were reading buddies, defying the world with every page we turned together.

The Decameron by Boccacio, Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Golden Age by Jose Marti, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This is a list of some of the books (some forbidden, some not) that Tia Marta introduced me to. One of them, A Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. The central character, Scheherazade, is a very talented and beautiful woman who offers herself as a bride to a king who is known for murdering his wives during their first night of marriage. Being smart and well-read, on the first night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but never finishes it.  The king is so enamored by these stories that Scheherazade tells and her storytelling ability that he cannot kill her. So every night she tells him a new story that never ends, allowing her to live for over a thousand and one nights.

Tia Marta loved this story and because she loved it, I loved it. She loved books and she loved reading and I loved her for letting me spend those hot summer days laying on a hammock in her yard reading aloud for both of us while she busied up in the kitchen or in the garden.  I was a very timid young boy who hated playing sports with the neighborhood boys, this was my perfect escape.  In the late afternoons, when it was closer to my uncle coming home, Tia Marta would collect the books and scurry up the ladder to hide them away – sometimes she would lend me one that I would take home and read under the sheets with a flashlight.

But on this one day, Tia Marta could not climb the ladder because my uncle had violently lashed out against her as he often did during his nights of drinking.

Our family knew about his ways.
We knew he yelled at her constantly.
We knew about his deceitful charm and how Tia Marta had fallen into the trap of his insidiously controlling and manipulative ways.
The sound of his voice was enough to take the light away from her bright, green eyes.
The sound of his car was enough to make her body jump.
I still remember the time when during a family gathering he told her not to laugh so loudly because she sounded like a horse. That day, my heart sunk and I couldn’t help but hate him with every ounce of me.
I still live with the memory of the bruises on her arms.
But most of all, I still live with the sound of everyone’s silence during those moments.
How could no one say a word? How could no one intervene?
Eventually, she was able to break free from him, but it took longer than a thousand and one nights.

Our cultural norms were so strong and pervasive.  It was an unspoken rule that no one should intervene between a man “and his woman.”  But these memories still keep me up at night.

As a little boy, Tia Marta had opened my eyes to the world from the comfort of her library. And isn’t it ironic that we could travel the world from the very place where she was kept prisoner? She is one of the reasons I am committed to this work of prevention.

Domestic violence is bullshit no matter where you come from.

I often wonder –
What if cultural norms were inhospitable to this type of violence?
What if our unspoken norms were that as a community we wouldn’t tolerate this type of treatment among our folks?

I have a vision of hope for a world where things can be different.

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