Las Hijas De Juan: Shame in Families
When a family comes over from Mexico they have the dream of a new beginning.
Although there is hardships which are expected life is supposed to better in the United States.
However, that is not always the case. For many Latino families here in the Unites States is where
they came to know violence and abuse. For Josefina and her sisters in the United States is where
her father sexually abused her and her sisters. Josefina tells the reader about the abuse in her
testimonio Las Hijas De Juan. Violence has been linked to Latino and Chicano families yet like
in the case of Josefina and her sisters it goes unreported for a long period of time. There is a code
of silence that goes along with this abuse. Even when people see this abuse occurring they say
nothing because it is not their place leaving the victim to feel even more hopeless.
Often the victims themselves say nothing because of this code of silence. The abuser
makes the victim believe that what is happening is somehow their fault that they have brought it
on themselves. When children are involved that child may not completely understand what is
happening and the abuser can take advantage of that. The abuser can groom the child slowly
becoming more physical with them and increasing the abuse. This to a child it can seem like a
game especially if their abuser is a relative like in the case of Josefina and her sisters.
In Las Hijas de Juan as suggested by the title of the book the father is the abuser. The
very person who was supposed to protect these girls took advantage of his position in the family
to abuse his own daughters. In Latin culture fathers are “responsible for guarding their chastity”
(Lisa Aronson Fontes) instead of guarding their chastity he took it from them. He uses various
tactics to keep his abuse hidden. He uses threats like the girl’s immigration status,disguising his
abuse and shame.
One of the big cultural factors that kept the abuse on going was shame. This cultural idea
of keeping family secrets in the family, you deal with family problems behind closed doors to
avoid gossip. “Las garitas al aire” is a popular saying that related back to the code of silence, it is
shameful to be seen as anything other than perfect. This can be seen with how the family deals
with Mague’s pregnancy denying its existence saying, “All of us pretended it wasn’t happening,
including mother (Pg. 107)”. This is the same way the family dealt with the abuse, they turned a
blind eye because it was so shameful they refused to even acknowledge its existence. The family
went with the narrative Juan laid out for them and did not question it, to the family and everyone
else Mague got pregnant by a teacher. This is Juan’s power over the family coming thorough, his
word was almost law as it always is in patriarchal families.
Josefina’s Story has two side figuratively and geographically. The first side is the abuse
happened here in the United States, in California. As much as the reader wants to push away the
abuse that happened to Felisha, Josefina, and Mague it is to close to home to push it away. The
second side of this story is in Mexico where Josie was happy there was no men there and there
was no abuse. There was only female solidarity and support which is not the picture that is
usually painted of the two countries. Thankfully thanks to a strong support system of women
Josefina and her sisters made it through the abuse. Josie Mendez Negrete paints the reader this
picture in her Testimonio trying to expose the extend of the abuse that went on in her family for
Function of the Testimonio
Josie Mendez-Negrete chose to tell her story in the form of a Testimonio. Since is it a
telling of a violent events that are “vulnerable to the pain that testimonio can cause, and thus can
evoke especially strong resistance” (Nance). If this story would have been told as novel it would
not have the same impact. The testimonio is supposed to make people uncomfortable and face an
uncomfortable situation. It is because it is dealing with such controversial topics that the authors
are subject to resistance. They are often criticized for the validity of their testimonio. Claiming
that memory can be subjective and the way that they are recalling their own story is flawed.
There is also claims of exaggeration on part of the author in order to make the story more
compelling. Yet the testimonio has a long tradition of being used it is an oral storytelling tool
that is meant to get the audience to respond.
One of the responses is disgust. This is a difficult book to read because of the extent of
the abuse, as a reader there is a strong urge to put the book down and not pick it back up. There
is a need to put distance between the sexual abuse being described in the book and the feelings
that it evokes. One of the tools that the reader used to put this distance in place is to “shift the
location of the case from the life world to the literary” (Nance). It is easier to pretend that the
abuse is a work of fiction it allows the reader to disengage and not have to deal with the intense
hatred, disgust, and anger that the testimonio brings up. Yet, this is function of a testimonio it is
supposed to make the reader want to do something it in itself is a call to action.
The testimonios serve as a cautionary tale for the audience. Josie wants the audience to
realize the pain that keeps going because of the code of silence that is ongoing in Latino culture.
Sin Verguenza something that is usually an insult, to tell someone that they have no shame here
changes meaning, there should be no shame in exposing someone who is abusive there needs to
be a cultural change where honor and perception are not more important than safety. The
testimonio breaks the idea of “ de eso no se habla” (Lisa Aronson Fontes) we don’t talk about
that. A whole culure has a phrase that shuts down any conversation that is not proper that
exposes some terrible truth like sex, rape, crime, and murder. The Testimonio gives a voice to all
these topics that are simply not talked about. Jose Mendez used the Testimonio to talk about one
of the most covered up topics, abuse.
Josie Mendez does something interesting with the narration of this Testimonio leaving
the reader to analyze whether the Josefina speaking was the child in the testimonio of Josie the
author writing the testimonio and looking back on the events as an adult. This testimonio is
essentially an autobiography Josie Mendez Negrete is letting the reader into the trauma that she
experienced as child. She is also letting the readers into the strong female support system that she
had not only from her aunts but also with her sisters. They protected each other from their
abusive father. They tried to learn his tricks to avoid being vulnerable to the abuse once again.
A Fathers abuse
Josie Mendez-Negrete begins her testimonio saying “I never knew my father. The only
memories I have of him are tied to abuse and violence”. She however does not describe this
abuse or violence until about one third or one fourth of the way through the testimonio. She sets
up the reader for this abuse early on, so they can understand how horrific and traumatizing this
abuse really was. He was controlling to the extend that none of the three girls being abused said
anything. Juan used shame and other forms of violence as a control tactic. Even Josie’s mother
was a victim of physical abuse. There was a lot of shame that was brought up when this abuse
happened, but this is a common tactic used by abusers “Frequently, offenders accuse their
victims of being flirtatious or seductive, or “asking for it.” (Lisa Aronson Fontes). It was this
shame and even a code of silence that allowed the abuse to continue. Often even Josefina, Felisa,
and Mague did not know of each other’s abuse. They each suffered silently only to find out later
that he was doing the same thing to all of them.
The girls learned to decode his language. One of the tactics that Juan used to mask his
abuse was “the blanket game”. He would pretend to play a game with girls so that anyone
watching would not be suspicious of his behavior. When the blankets came over is when he
abused the daughter that he has picked to be a pillow. His lack of fear of getting caught is scary.
Juan was so sure that his abuse was going undetected that he even openly abused the girls. If
some had walked in during the wrong moment or has been suspicious of his behavior he would
have been caught during one of those “games”. This creates some insight on how calculated he
was with his abuse. It also highlights that control that he had over his family for the girls who did
not want to participate because they knew what was coming to participate anyway.
Juan had a very strong hold on his family making sure that he always had the final word,
he put the women “in their place”, verbal abuse was as common as the physical abuse. He
devalued the worth of the women in his home which may have made it easier to abuse them. To
Juan males had all the privilege they even escaped his abuse, they carried more value than the
women in the family “ yo tan solo quero niños.”. Juan ensured that his family feared him and
respected him any snarky comment or if anyone dared disobey him was met with some form of
abuse. His lack of appreciation for the women in his house was made clear on page 81 “
Chingadas Viejas. Esta es mi casa. Aqui soy el Rey y se hace lo que yo diga.”. This way of
thinking is backwards and sexist but it reinforces his control. He keeps the women down so they
will not raise against him.
Addressing Shame with Latino Victims
of Child Sexual Abuse and Their Families
Lisa Aronson Fontes
ABSTRACT. This article explores shame issues for Latino children
who have been sexually abused and their families. Latino cultural concerns around shame that are associated with sexual abuse include: attributions for the abuse, fatalism, virginity, sexual taboos, predictions of a
shameful future, revictimization, machismo, and fears of homosexuality
for boy victims, and the intersection of shame from sexual abuse with
societal discrimination. Quotes and case material are drawn from the
author’s research and clinical work. The article includes clinical suggestions. doi:10.1300/J070v16n01_04 [Article copies available for a fee from The
Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address:
© 2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]
Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD, is currently a core faculty member of the PsyD program
in Clinical Psychology with a focus on social justice at Union Institute and University,
Brattleboro, VT. She has dedicated 15 years to making the social service, mental
health, and criminal justice systems more responsive to culturally diverse people impacted by family violence. Her most recent book is Child Abuse and Culture: Working
with Diverse Families. Dr. Fontes has worked as a family, individual, and group therapist in a variety of settings and with people from diverse backgrounds. She has conducted research in Santiago, Chile, and with Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and
European Americans in the United States. She has a PhD in Psychology and a Master’s
degree in journalism, and is an accomplished educator, speaker, researcher, and trainer.
Address correspondence to: Lisa Aronson Fontes (E-mail: LFontes@rcn.com).
Submitted for publication 10/11/05; revised 6/27/05; accepted 7/24/06.
Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Vol. 16(1) 2007
Available online at http://jcsa.haworthpress.com
© 2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
JOURNAL OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
KEYWORDS. Child sexual abuse, Latinos, Hispanics, shame, culture
Research on multicultural populations has found the presence and
degree of shame to be a key predictor of children’s recovery from sexual
abuse (Feiring, Taska, & Lewis, 2002). Shame often hinders clinical
efforts to help victims achieve a healthy recovery. Latinos whom I have
assisted professionally, known personally, and interviewed in research
often tell me that their single most sought-after goal for recovery is to
overcome their feelings of shame. This article focuses on the link between ethnic culture and shame for Latinos affected by child sexual abuse
and examines a broad range of related issues, aiming to be as clinically
useful as possible.
The word “Latino” describes a diverse ethnic cultural group, not a
homogeneous racial or religious group. The word Latino usually describes people whose ancestors come from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, or people of Spanish and Indian descent whose
ancestors have always lived in areas of the Southwest United States that
were once part of Mexico. Some Brazilians, Spaniards, and Portuguese
also identify as Latinos. Latinos were found to be the largest minority in
the United States during the 2000 census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).
It is impossible to describe a unitary Latino culture because Latinos
are far too heterogeneous. Historical influences cause diverse Latino individuals, families, and cultures to evolve constantly (Falicov, 1998).
Additionally, individual Latinos accept and reject aspects of their culture(s) in different ways throughout their lives. Every person who is a
Latino is also a unique individual differing from others on questions of
individual and family history, geographic origin, migration experience,
social class, religion, degree of acculturation, dreams, values, and so on
(Fontes, 2000). In this article I will make some cultural generalizations
related to sexual abuse and shame for Latinos as a group, which may orient readers, but should never be assumed to apply wholly to any specific
person or family.
Clinical approaches designed to promote recovery from child sexual
abuse run the gamut from psychoanalytic to cognitive behavioral, and
from individual counseling to family therapy, group work, and network
interventions. The ideas in this article are relevant to all these varied
Lisa Aronson Fontes
The literature on shame has developed rapidly in recent years (Gilbert,
1998, 2002). In this section, I will discuss only those concepts that seem
most relevant for understanding how Latinos experience shame related
to child sexual abuse. Definitions of shame vary, but they share the notion that the shamed person’s core being has been damaged. Holzman
(1995) describes shame in the following way:
The focus is not on the harm done to others, but on the defect in
myself. Shame involves feelings of exposure and an impulse to
hide. . . . Irrational shame is a feeling of having been exposed as a
fundamentally and irremediably defective human being. (p. 326)
Shame and honor are seen as opposites, with honor as the highest
goal consisting of “a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgement of worth” (Emory University, 1999). In contrast, shame is the
feeling of no claim to worth, exacerbated by the lack of social acknowledgement of worth. That is, not only do shamed people feel unworthy
inside, but they also feel they lack worth in the eyes of others. Some theorists distinguish between being shamed by others (e.g., when scolded
by a teacher or rebuffed by a parent) and feeling shame, which is the
internal process, the devaluing and rejecting of one’s self. These two
aspects of shame are also referred to as external and internal shame
Shame in Latino Cultures
Shame is a powerful concept in traditional Latino cultures. Parents
may actively control their children’s behavior through shame-inducing
practices including teasing, mocking, and humiliating (Falicov, 1998).
Shaming is used by some Latino bosses to control their employees, by
ministers and priests to guide their congregations, and by powerful community leaders to gain their neighbors’ conformity. Falicov (1998) writes:
Shaming may be considered an appropriate way to control others,
particularly those of lower status. Feelings of embarrassment, excessive conformity, numbness, envy, the tendency to cover up rather
than acknowledge an error or wrongdoing, and outright lying are all
negative outcomes engendered by shaming. (p. 221)
JOURNAL OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
In much of Latin America, one of the worst names a person can be
called is a sin vergüenza, which means “without shame.” This term is
used to describe people who do not have enough of a moral compass to
experience the appropriate self-critique when their own behavior fails
to meet community standards. With shame being so central a concept in
Latino cultures, we should not be surprised that it emerges strongly in
situations related to sexual abuse.
Shame, Latino Cultures, and Child Sexual Abuse
In a study of 147 child and adolescent victims who were assessed
upon discovery of sexual abuse and one year later, the degree of shame
and attributional style (e.g., children’s explanations for why the sexual
abuse occurred) were found to be the greatest determinants of eventual
adjustment (Feiring, Taska, & Lewis, 2002). The sample included children from diverse ethnic groups including 18% Hispanic, but the data
was not analyzed by ethnicity. Those children who showed a reduction
in shame a year after the abuse showed improved adjustment. The degree of shame and attributional style were found to be even more important than the severity of the abuse in determining the children’s recovery.
By their very nature, interactions related to child sexual abuse are rife
with shame for most people touched by it. Victims feel ashamed because they have participated in taboo activities and in most cases they
have maintained secrecy about those activities. Becoming involved in
any way in the child abuse system is in itself a shaming experience for
many Latino families. A simple visit by a law enforcement officer or a
child protection worker can create a deep sense of shame. Since only
“bad” parents would be questioned by these authorities, then the very
inquiry itself can feel like a shameful accusation of parental inadequacy,
particularly if these assessments are not conducted in a culturally competent way (Fontes, 2005).
The family may feel ashamed of their immigration status, their linguistic skills, and/or their living conditions, particularly where there are
cultural or social class differences between the family and the clinician.
The family’s shame can serve as a barrier to building rapport.
Perhaps because of their Catholic origin, traditional Latino cultures
are highly organized around honor and shame. Sitting in the waiting
room of an agency geared towards the investigation or treatment of
child abuse is embarrassing and shameful for many families, as they
hope fervently that no one they know will see them there. Also, questions about the body parts or the acts involved in the incident will be
Lisa Aronson Fontes
shameful for many victims, who may have been taught that merely discussing these matters is a disgrace, a fall from grace. For many Latina
women, simply mentioning genitals or sexual acts is considered muy
bajo or “vulgar” (Fontes, 1993; Low & Organista, 2000). The intimate
questions asked in investigations, assessments, or therapy sessions may
feel particularly invasive to Latino individuals and families who ascribe
to a philosophy of “de eso no se habla,” a common phrase that means
simply, “one does not discuss this.”
Blame and Accountability
Frequently, offenders accuse their victims of being flirtatious or seductive, or “asking for it.” Most children seek affection. If they are sexually abused instead, they may come to beli ...
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