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Futures Without Violence eJournal
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Latina Women’s Experiences with Intimate Partner Violence: A Grounded Theory Approach

Sloane C. Burke, Ph.D., CHES – East Carolina University
Jody S. Oomen-Early, Ph.D., CHES – Texas Woman’s University
Robin C. Rager, Ph.D. – Optimum Health Management

Corresponding Author: Sloane Burke, Ph.D., East Carolina University, phone: 252-737-1934 email: burkes@ecu.edu


Approximately one-third of all women will experience domestic or intimate partner abuse during adulthood. Despite increased public awareness, limited research has been done on this issue, and very few estimates of the incidence and prevalence of this problem among minority populations exist. Although Latinos are now the largest and the fastest growing minority group in the country, few studies have been conducted which focus on intimate partner abuse against Latina women. For this qualitative research study, 15 Latina women above the age of 18, who by self-report were survivors of intimate partner abuse, were recruited via flyers distributed to community organizations and gatekeepers serving the Latina population and victims of domestic abuse in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, including social service agencies, health care services, women’s shelters, domestic abuse services, churches, and universities. In-depth, semi-structured interviews with these participants were conducted. Through the researchers use of grounded theory methodology, themes emerged from analysis of the interview transcripts. Based on these themes, a substantive theory of the process of Latina intimate partner abuse was developed. This abuse process includes four phases: The Pursuit, The Abuse Begins, The Abuse Continues or Escalates, and End of the Abuse or Escape to a New Life. The findings from this grounded theory study, and the abuse process identified from the themes that emerged from it, provide useful information for the provision of culturally appropriate programs and services aimed at domestic violence prevention and intervention for the Latina women, as well as relevant support services for the victims of intimate partner abuse in this population.


Violence against women is a significant social and health issue in this country, with approximately 1.5 million women raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner each year (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005). Intimate partner violence results in nearly 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths nationwide every year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003). Estimates can reach as high as 4 million injuries annually when injury or attack by a current or former partner is considered. Approximately one-third of all women will experience domestic or intimate partner abuse during adulthood (Commonwealth Fund, 1999), and every day at least three women die as a result of intimate partner abuse (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003). Violence against women is not limited to one specific class, geographical area, or type of person. It cuts across social differences and status lines. A great number of women face violence daily in America simply because they are women.

Previous research has found that domestic violence occurs among all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003; Gorton & Van Hightower, 2001). However, although Latinos are now the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006), there has been a lack of ethnic studies on violence against Latina women. Furthermore, it is difficult to find rates on domestic violence among Latinos as a whole, and in particular for the subgroups of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Cuban, Dominican, etc., as ethnicity in most national surveys has commonly been listed as simply White, Black, or Other. Many of the studies that have focused on the Latino population have utilized data collection instruments designed primarily for Euro-American populations and have simply applied them to Latinos and other ethnic groups. Furthermore, statistics regarding domestic violence in Latino communities are problematic due to inconsistent data collection methods, immigration issues, and under-reporting of incidences (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003; Klevans, 2007; Perilla, 1999).

Of the small number of studies that have been conducted, there are conflicting results regarding the prevalence of domestic violence among Latinos. Some research has indicated that at over 50%, Latinos exhibit some of the highest rates of violent behavior toward their spouses though some variance exists in certain Latino subgroups (Erez, 2000), while other studies have found the rates for Latinos to be similar to non-Latinos (Klevans, 2007). In actuality, the rates for Latinos may be much higher than what is reported, due to complex issues for this population such as fear of deportation, mistrust of researchers, linguistic and cultural differences, and fear of exclusion from ones own community (APA, 2002).

In any case, domestic violence in this group is a problem of great magnitude. Marital rape in Latino marriages appears to be disturbingly high, at rates of up to 80-90% for Latina women currently in abusive relationships (Perilla, 1999). One study indicated that 92% of Latino male batterers and 85% of Latina women intimate partner support group attendees reported witnessing their father abuse their mother when these individuals were growing up (Erez, 2000). In addition to physical abuse, the incidence of psychological abuse is also very high among Latinas. Over 80% report experiencing this type of aggression (Hazen, 2007), and they tend to experience greater trauma-related symptoms from the abuse than non-Latinas, including depression and lower self-esteem (Edelson, Hokoda, & Ramos-Lira, 2007).

In order to address domestic violence in the Latino population, it must be understood in relation to its unique ethnic and cultural attributes. Research, policy, advocacy, and services related to this issue must be approached with an awareness of the multidimensional psychological, social, and economic forces that are involved (National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence, 2007). The purpose of this grounded theory research study was to contribute to the understanding of Latino intimate partner abuse from the perspective of the victims and survivors of that abuse, using in-depth interviews with 15 Latina survivors of intimate partner abuse in North Texas. Grounded theory methodology was used in conducting and analyzing these interviews to identify themes and patterns regarding the nature and process of intimate partner abuse among these women.


Grounded Theory
For this study, grounded theory methodology was used, which is a qualitative research method that derives a theory from data that are systematically gathered and analyzed throughout the research process (Glaser, 1992, 2001; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Unlike deductive methods in which the researcher starts with hypotheses or research questions, in grounded theory the researcher instead applies an inductive approach, starting with a well-defined research problem based on a phenomenon that is not adequately explained by current theories. Grounded theory methodology is often used in case studies for the investigation of new concepts and formulation of new theories.

Grounded theory assumes that people living with a similar experience share a specific social-psychological problem or issue that is often unarticulated (Hutchinson, 1993). The theory is particularly useful for areas in which existing theory is weak or does not seem applicable to practice. In this study, the researcher utilized grounded theory methodology because of its unique attributes for studying the issue of intimate partner abuse in a population for which limited culturally appropriate research was available.

In the grounded theory research process, themes and patterns are identified from the analysis of the data as they are collected. This process sheds light on additional questions that need to be asked and additional data that need to be examined. Diagrams are used to demonstrate the relationships between the phenomena documented in the data. In the diagram, matrices are used to identify themes emerging from the study and to show the process(es) that appear to be related to the phenomenon (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

The goal of grounded theory is to determine the representativeness of concepts and how those concepts differ, and then to develop a theory that explains a behavior pattern in terms of its relevance for the population and the problem being studied (Glaser, 1992, 2001; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). To accomplish this goal, the researcher must be able to accurately perceive and present the world of those being studied (Hutchinson, 1993), and maintain an objective stance and an openness to listen to different viewpoints (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). One way to accomplish this is through multiple interviews. Because intimate partner abuse is a sensitive and highly charged issue, this approach for ensuring objectivity was followed for this study.

Recruitment of Study Participants

Study participants for the interviews were recruited from the greater Dallas/Ft. Worth area beginning in December 2002, using a bilingual (Spanish/English) flyer that described the research project and asked those who were interested in participating in the study to contact the researcher via phone or email. Eligibility for the study was restricted to Latina women over the age of 18 who were self-reported survivors of intimate partner abuse. A $20 gift certificate to a national retail outlet store was offered to those who participated in the study. The minimum number of participants to be interviewed for the study was 15 women.

Copies of the flyer were distributed by mail or in person to community organizations, key leaders, and gatekeepers serving the Latina population and victims of domestic abuse in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, including social service agencies, health care services, women’s shelters, domestic abuse services, churches, and universities. They were asked to disseminate the study information to Latinas in their organizations, and refer potential participants as appropriate. A bilingual copy of the flyer was also published in a local Latino newspaper. This snowball sample recruitment method was designed to solicit a varied sample representing Latina women from different socioeconomic levels, ages, and current and/or past status of abuse.

By March 2003, a total of 15 women had contacted the researcher by phone to participate in the study. All of these individuals met the study criteria, and an interview was scheduled for each of them at a location that was determined to be safe, private, and convenient. When preferred by the participant, the interview was scheduled to be conducted via phone at a time when confidentiality could be ensured by both parties. Eleven of the interviews were conducted in person, with seven of the participants interviewed in their homes, two in relatively private areas in restaurants, and two in a social service agency meeting room. The other four interviews were conducted via phone, scheduled at a time and/or location that were considered safe by the participants and the researcher. Prior to the interviews, in-person participants submitted their signed informed consent forms (bilingual versions were provided) to the researcher; phone participants submitted theirs via mail.

The participants ranged in age from 26 to 56 years, with a median age of 39 years. Seven of the women were Mexican, six were Mexican-American, one was Puerto Rican, and one was Argentinean. Six were married, seven were divorced, one was separated, and one was widowed. Their formal education backgrounds ranged from eighth grade to some college. Four were employed as administrative assistants, three as part-time teachers aids, three as homemakers, two as clerical staff, two as computer support specialists, and one as a cleaner of homes and businesses. Their annual household incomes ranged from $10,000 to $40,000.

The Interviews

The in-depth interviews were conducted on an on-going basis as participants were recruited, with the first interview conducted in December 2002 and the last interview completed in March 2003. Applying the grounded theory methodology, the participants guided the interview process. Interview questions became more detailed and specific to the responses of the participants as the themes emerged. The seven core questions, available in both Spanish and English, were:

1. Define abuse.
2. Have you, or someone close to you, experienced intimate partner abuse by a spouse, boyfriend, or loved one?
3. When did this abuse begin?
4. How often did you or someone close to you experience the abuse?
5. What feelings and emotions did you experience as a result of the abuse?
6. How do you feel intimate partner abuse is viewed among people in your culture?
7. What resources such as support services, housing, etc. do you have available to you?

All 15 interviews were audio-taped with the permission of the participants and were transcribed within one week of each interview. Eleven of the participants were bilingual in Spanish and English, three of whom spoke English as their primary language. For the four participants who spoke Spanish only, two bilingual translators assisted the researcher with the interviews and transcription of the audio tapes. Both translators were gatekeepers in the Latino community who were familiar to the participants and with whom they felt comfortable discussing their intimate partner abuse experiences. The researcher also took notes on the English-speaking participants comments, and the bilingual translators took notes on the interviews conducted in Spanish.

While no restriction was placed on the maximum length for each interview, most of them lasted about 60 to 75 minutes. The participants reported experiencing a range of intimate partner abuse, including physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, and property abuse. Despite asking in the interview questions if the participant or someone close to the participant had experienced intimate partner abuse in the past, all women interviewed were currently in, or had been in, an abusive relationship themselves. At the time of the interviews, some of the women were living with their abusive spouse or partner, others were currently remarried to a different spouse, one participant was a surviving widow, and one participant was in a transitional housing (shelter) arrangement. At the conclusion of the interview, each participant was provided with the gift certificate and a referral list of local domestic violence resources.

Analyzing the Data

Once initial interview data were collected, the researcher began analyzing the data using the grounded theory method. Each interview was analyzed line-by-line for emerging themes and patterns. This process involved dividing the data into concepts, identifying categories of concepts, assigning properties to the categories, organizing categories into themes, and developing a theoretical construct from the common themes. Diagrams were used by the researcher to verify a relationship between the researchers memos, field notes, and the theory. Matrices were then used to categorize the data and further demonstrate the emerging themes.


A number of repeated themes emerged from the interview data. Latina womens fear, sadness, immobilization, lack of resources, and self-blame were often cited as reasons the women continued to stay in their abusive relationships. The Latina value of marianismo, with the woman being the self-sacrificing, faithful, and subordinate wife and mother also surfaced as a key cultural influence. Because the women wanted what was best for their families and usually had limited financial and social resources as well as a great deal of fear, they stayed in the abusive cycle. In addition, the women were afraid that if they left they would not be able to provide for their children, that the abusive partner would kill them, that they would lose custody of their children, or that they would be deported to their home country. By sacrificing their own happiness and needs in the relationship in an effort to uphold their cultural values and norms, the women were able to redefine their situation as livable, tolerable, understandable, reasonable, and survivable.

From the themes and concepts that emerged from the analysis of the interview data, the intimate partner abuse process experienced by these Latina women in its various forms included multiple phases with the final phase involving either continuation of the abuse or escape from it. The phases that emerged from the data include 1) the pursuit, 2) the abuse begins, 3) the cycle continues or escalates, and 4) escape and a new life. This four-phase process, and the emergent themes, risk factors, and cultural considerations related to those phases, are presented in Figure 1.

Phase 1 – The Pursuit

The first phase identified through the interview data was The Pursuit, which involved meeting the abuser, and the courtship process. Themes that emerged were the young age of the woman when she met her partner, the strong intensity of the abusers pursuit, the initial kind and loving nature of the relationship, and the dependency created by pregnancy.

Twelve of the 15 participants interviewed were either 19 years old or younger when they first met their partner. Some of the women reported that the abuser strongly pursued them and repeatedly asked them for dates. Most of them viewed the treatment of their abusive partners as very sweet and attentive in the beginning, describing their relationship as filled with romance and kindness. Through the interviews, some of the women expressed sadness and nostalgia as they reminisced of happier days gone by. One participant shared her memory of the first encounter as a romantic experience, but also had a sense of being stalked by her pursuer:

I was young and had someone approach me at a bus stop on my way to school. But he approached me in a very peering form. We just talked. But I would see him every morning at the bus stop. We grew to know each other.

Another common theme of this first phase was that many participants said they had gotten pregnant early in the courtship, thereby becoming seriously involved with the partner after only knowing him a short period of time. As pregnant young women without economic resources, they felt very dependent on their partners. It seemed to them that the most logical decision was to marry or move in with their boyfriend, which they did within a few months or less. Due to a lack of money, many of them had to live with the parents of their abusive partner, which added to the stress in their relationship. One woman said that she wished she would have stayed with her best girlfriend and not even told her boyfriend (who later became her abusive spouse) about the pregnancy.

Phase 2 – The Abuse Begins

In creating the themes that provided the pattern of behavior identified as the second phase of the abuse process, The Abuse Begins, the women discussed how the abuse started for them. The women characterized the first incident of abuse, the type and frequency of the early incidences of abuse, the unpredictability of how and when it would happen, and the fact that the abuse sometimes occurred in front of the children and other people.

The participants described the type of abuse as emotional, physical, verbal, or mental. In most cases, the women described the first incident of physical abuse as usually starting with a slap, push, or shove, and then later escalating to levels more violent and shocking such as hits to the face, asphyxiation, kicking while they were asleep, marital rape, or use of such force that one woman was bleeding from her ear. Of the 15 women interviewed, six had been the victims of marital rape. One woman said that she had a hard time classifying the abuse she experienced as being physical abuse, since she was not maimed.

Many of the participants reported the abuse as occurring fairly frequently, often daily, sometimes as verbal incidents or forced isolation, with the physical violence being more intermittent. Others shared that the abuse was less frequent, occurring once or twice a month or every couple of months. Although the frequency of abuse varied from person to person, its randomness, incongruence, and unpredictability were constant themes. One participant described her abuse as beginning relatively early in the relationship, and that she never knew what was going to incite her abuser:

I would say the abuse started about four or five months into the relationship. It started real light. It started with a slap. And then all of a sudden you are in over your head and it is happening all day long.

The interviews showed that the abuse sometimes occurred in front of other people, with the most painful recollections being when the abuse would occur in front of the children. One woman spoke of the time when her husband was abusing her while her three children hid under a table, covering their ears, crying hysterically. Another woman shared that she hated how she appeared in her childrens eyes when she was being abused. She wanted them to be proud of her  to respect her. However, due to the traditional cultural belief of marianismo that Latina women should value their children and their family as the most important aspects of their lives, and demonstrate loyalty and sacrifice for their family, they are apt to tolerate and endure the abuse (Bart & Moran, 1993).

Phase 3  The Abuse Continues or Escalates

In the third phase of the abuse process identified through the interviews, The Abuse Continues or Escalates, the data collected from the participants shows a pattern where the abuse persists, and in most cases moves to a higher intensity with the abusers utilizing various techniques to further manipulate the women into staying in the relationship. The themes that emerged for this phase were excessive violence, the threat of taking the children, alienation, and issues of control (social, financial, appearance, driving, working, and other).

Participants provided accounts of their experiences with excessive violence, which included kidnapping and confinement, marital rape, being threatened or attacked with a lethal weapon, and abuse while the woman was pregnant or delivering the baby. In this study, four of the 15 participants reported that they were assaulted with lethal weapons, including guns and knives, and over half of the women reported receiving extreme abuse during their pregnancy and had to receive medical attention for their injuries. In one of the interviews, the participant provided an emotional account of her near-deadly abuse:

We were living in a garage, where they fix cars, a body shop. We were all living in one room in the garage – all four of us were living in this one room. We would take a bath with a water hose. We had a tiny refrigerator and a little stove-top burner. We lived in a bad neighborhood. His [the abusers] idea of going out was walking across the street to this bar. At that point in time, it was really bad; it was one time where he really abused me bad. When he was done with me I looked like one of those posters at the shelter. He had totally disfigured my face. I thought I was going to stay that way. He actually put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. I thought I was going to die, but the gun wasnt loaded. He said, See I can kill you any time I want.

Repeatedly, the women said that they feared leaving because of the possibility of losing their children. This seemed to be more common among the women who had emigrated from Mexico rather than those who had been born in the U.S. One woman shared that her children were number one and that only God could separate them. All of these women had at least two children to provide and care for as they struggled through their abusive situations.

The women shared how their partners would attempt to alienate them from the outside world, and use various ways to prevent them from gaining autonomy or independence. A few of the women had moved to the U.S. from Mexico in search of a better life, and had limited resources once they arrived as well as language barriers. They described how their abusive partner would control how they could dress, what they could wear, and the money they could spend on clothes, shoes, and make-up. The abusers would also prohibit some of the women from driving, getting rides, or having access to the car.

While these were extremely traumatic and painful experiences for these women, for a few of them the escalating abuse became the turning point for their decision to leave, or at least to question why they were in the abusive relationship.

Phase 4  End of the Abuse or Escape to a New Life

The fourth and final phase of the abuse process identified through the interviews, End of the Abuse or Escape to a New Life, offers two alternative outcomes: either the abuse stops or the woman leaves the relationship permanently and begins a new life free of the abuse. The themes that emerged for this phase included questioning of why they were staying in the relationship, temporary cessation of abuse, leave/return recycling, stalking, assistance from friends/family, use of community support services, feelings of grief and depression, and finding the strength and courage to leave for good.
All 15 of the participants said that they questioned why they were continuing to stay in the abusive relationship in which they were beaten down physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Unfortunately, for these women, the abuse only subsided in frequency or intensity; it did not end permanently. Most of the participants reported going through a repetitive leave/return process during this phase, in which they would leave the relationship when the abuse had reached an unbearable level and then return (often as a result of the abusive partner finding them and convincing them to come back), then leave again when the abuse started again or escalated and then go back, in many cases recycling through this process several times. Of the 15 participants in the study, 11 of them eventually left the abusive relationship permanently; the other 4 reported that the abuse had subsided  at least for the present  and they remained with their partners.

To help them escape from the abuse, the women sought the assistance of friends, family, or community support services such as law enforcement agencies and shelters. When they left, some women (n = 6) were stalked and terrorized by their former partners  sometimes across state or U.S. borders  with two of the participants filing restraining orders to help ensure their safety. Some women had considered calling the police to help them, but were afraid that it would make things worse for them or perceived the police as unsupportive. Those who did involve the police said they found them to be very helpful and even pivotal in their escape from their abusive partner.

Community shelters played a role in the womens efforts to escape to a new life. Many of the participants expressed feelings of skepticism in seeking these services, and some of them were unaware that these resources were available to them. Upon referral by the police department, four of the women utilized these shelters. Two of them perceived their experience at the shelters as being negative due to issues such as lack of privacy, sleeping on cots, not feeling welcomed, a lack of Spanish-speaking coordinators, feelings of shame, discomfort with relying on governmental resources, or having to share space with homeless people that were dirty men, and decided to return back to their abusive environment.

Most of the women experienced intense grief, depression, and sadness from the loss of the abusive spouse  loss of the memories, loss of a father for their children, loss of what could have been. Two of the women reported that after leaving, they came very close to committing suicide. One woman shared that despite the abuse, she missed her husband that had died in a car crash because, believe it or not, there were some good times.

Despite their sadness, the women who left their abusive partners also described their renewed view of life, free from abuse. As one of the survivors who had escaped expressed her feelings:

There is a way, it is not easy. It is never easy. But I look at my life now. I am a mother of four beautiful children. My oldest is going to the Marines. My other ones are graduating from high school. My daughter wants to be a nurse. We have goals. I am an administrative assistant at the elementary school. I am buying my own home.There is a way out. You are either a survivor or not. There is a light down there. You dont see it at first, but eventually you do.

By finding the strength and courage to leave the abusive relationship for good, these women attempted to redirect their lives and begin a new life, free from abuse. They were able to seek a safe place for themselves, and more importantly from their perspective, their children. With the support of friends, family, law enforcement, and shelters, these women were able to begin a new chapter in their lives.

For those that continued in the abuse and remained in Phase 3, one can only hope that they too will ultimately escape from the relationship if the abuse does not stop. If not, the last phase for them could unfortunately be serious debilitating injury or even death.

Risk Factors and Cultural Considerations

Throughout all of these phases, a number of risk factors and cultural considerations emerged from the interview data as important factors that impacted the abuse process. Self-identified risk factors related to the abusive relationships included drugs and alcohol, infidelity, and history of parents having been abused. The themes related to cultural considerations unique to this population that emerged also included the definition of abuse as perceived by Latinas, fear of deportation, non-disclosure of the abuse, Marianismo, and religiosity.

Thirteen of the 15 participants reported that drugs and/or alcohol played a large part in the abusive relationship, with the abuse escalating when their partner was drinking or using drugs. A third of the women said that they were afraid for Friday to come due to their partners alcohol consumption and the subsequent increase in the incidence and intensity of abuse.

Over half of the participants voiced frustration concerning their partners unfaithfulness. One woman explained that the reason she received the abuse was because she confronted her husband about his affairs. Another woman shared that her abusive partner would leave for days at a time while she cooked, cleaned, and took care of their two children, and then come home with hickies on his neck and lipstick on his clothing.

Many of the women (n = 11) reported that their own parents were the victims of abuse. Several said their mother was their role model, and because they witnessed their mothers abuse they felt it was either an acceptable or normal part of marriage or a reason why they themselves were in an abusive relationship. As one participant recounted:

My mother was in that situationI remember my mom telling me her hair was in a braid and one night while she was sleeping, my dad cut her braid off. My mom doesnt talk with me about it really  and I dont need her too. She doesnt want to think about it anymore.

Another woman reported that her father probably felt that he was unable to offer her advice as she left her abusive spouse because he had been abusive to his family himself.

A third of the participants had been born in Mexico before immigrating to the U.S., and many of them reported that their abusive partners would threaten them with deportation, making them fear that they would have to go back to Mexico without their children.

One of the strongest cultural-related themes that emerged was the notion of silence  to hide the abuse from others. Again, they expressed that they wanted to be a good wife and not make the husband look bad to outsiders or appear to be complaining about their lot in life; to shut up and take it, as one participant described it.

A theme of religiosity also surfaced in the interviews. Belief in God and faith in the Catholic Church were considered a solace for some, while others considered religion to be an unsupportive entity for them. Most of the participants felt that it was Gods intention for them to marry their loved one, but not to endure the tremendous abuse. As some of the women began finding the courage to leave, they also began to question Gods intentions. One woman shared that she no longer feels an intimate spiritual relationship with God, as an omnipotent male figure, and feels more comfortable seeking solace with the Virgin Mary. Two of the women interviewed also mentioned the practice of bruharia, a Mexican tradition of witchcraft or folklorico, in trying to deal with and ameliorate their abusive situations.


Through this qualitative study, using in-depth interviews and grounded theory methodology, a theory regarding the process of intimate partner abuse among Latina women was developed. From the themes and patterns that emerged from the interview data, the researcher determined that the abuse process for these Latinas involved four phases: The Pursuit, The Abuse Begins, The Abuse Continues or Escalates, and End of the Abuse or Escape to a New Life. In addition to the identification of these four phases of the abuse process, risk factors and cultural aspects that appeared to affect the process also surfaced through analysis of the interview data.

Factors Affecting the Ability to Leave

The study data revealed that for the Latina survivors of intimate partner abuse, finding the courage to leave was a great challenge filled with many hardships, struggles, fears, and painful emotions. Their abusive partners use of measures to impose control (such as confinement, violence, and withholding money), their tendency toward self-sacrifice, their value of the sanctity of marriage, their feelings of love toward their abuser, and most importantly the fear of losing their children or control over how they would be raised kept many of the women in their abusive relationships.

Fear of deportation is also a very powerful tool used by abusers to prevent battered immigrant women from seeking help and to keep them in violent relationships (Shetty & Kaguyutan, 2002). In this research, the fear of being reported to immigration authorities or deportation was found as an emergent theme since almost half of the participants in this study had immigrated to the U.S.

As in other studies, language was also identified in this study as a barrier to their leaving. For many Latinos, Spanish is their primary or only language spoken and if they do not feel comfortable or are unable to communicate with resource agencies due to a lack of Spanish-speaking volunteers, this presents a huge barrier to their willingness to access resources (Erez, 2000). Recent research has confirmed that due to language barriers, some Latina women are not aware of protective orders or of resources available to them from the state and local agencies and several studies have indicated that Latinas are hesitant to use shelters or to seek assistance from police or other formal sources (Ingram, 2007; Shetty & Kaguyutan, 2002), which is consistent with the findings among the women interviewed in this study.

The tendency identified in these interviews toward non-disclosure of the abuse has also been reported in the literature as a main theme for all survivors of intimate partner violence, regardless of race or ethnicity. However, this characteristic appears to be more pronounced in the Latino culture, which emphasizes trust, loyalty, pride, marriage, a strong maternal role (marianismo), and commitment, and where women are taught from childhood to be tolerant of the abuse and to be a loyal and accepting wife (Rodriguez, 1999). The Latino family has been characterized as a sealed container, impenetrable by anyone from the outside (Perilla, 1999).

This study also revealed that while these women would sometimes gain the courage to leave, when faced with a lack of resources they may find themselves back with their abusive partner. But when some among them experienced an accumulation of hurt, pain, and disappointment that finally outweighed the hope of improvement or of gaining a positive home life for their children, they were able to break free of their abusive relationships. Eleven of the 15 women interviewed were able to find the resources, both internally and externally, to leave their abuser permanently for a better life free from abuse.

Identifying Abuse

The results of this study support many of the findings of other relevant research on this issue, and underscore the notion that previous research has been inconsistent regarding what constitutes abuse (Campbell et al., 2003; Edelson, Hokoda, & Ramos-Lira, 2007; Klevans, 2007; Perilla, 1999; Rodriguez, 1999). The study emphasizes the importance of understanding how abuse is perceived or defined by those who experience the abuse. It also reinforces that some aspects of the Latino culture, including religious beliefs and family values, can affect those perceptions and definitions, as well as the womans decision to stay or leave the relationship.

Limitations of the Study

While this exploratory, grounded theory study provided many important insights regarding the abuse process experienced by Latina women, several limitations regarding this study should be mentioned. A primary limitation was the small sample size (n = 15) with participants recruited via the snowball effect technique. Secondly, the sample was limited to Latina women living in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and was not very diverse in terms of the participants Latino heritage with most of them (n = 13) identifying themselves as either Mexican or Mexican American. Therefore, inferences of the findings to Latina women in general or to other Latino sub-cultures are limited.

It is assumed that respondents answered honestly and to the best of their knowledge with the information presented. However, because many of the abuse incidences occurred in the past, the information collected was based on the participants ability to recall or recount specific situations as they remembered them, potentially compromising the accuracy of the content.


The findings from this study provide many implications for intimate partner violence prevention and assistance programs for Latina women. Survivors of intimate partner abuse experience a wide range of emotions, including shame, fear, guilt, pain, anger, isolation, hopelessness, and alienation. The issue of violence is multi-faceted, involving many social, psychological, cultural, and systems aspects. Violence, coupled with the cultural issue of being a Latina female, makes this issue an even more complex and challenging one.

Most of the women in this study gained the courage to leave their abusive partner because they felt they had no more to give. The pain of the abuse outweighed the exchange of security. These women need early prevention strategies and culturally relevant services to assist them before they are broken down and find themselves without resources.
Community outreach has tremendous potential for helping Latina women. Outreach through trained community gatekeepers or promotoras can provide women with a safe person with whom they can speak confidentially and from whom they can seek assistance. More resources and navigators need to be available for Latina women in shelters and other community centers that provide domestic abuse services. In this study, the womens dissatisfaction with the facilities in which they stayed may have been due to the fact that they were general shelters, not specific to survivors of intimate partner violence, and that they lacked privacy, security, and had only minimal domestic abuse counseling or assistance. To increase the likelihood that the women will elect to stay in these safe-haven facilities rather than returning to the abusive situation, it is important that referrals are made to the appropriate shelters. Funding agencies must provide financial support for these shelters, culturally appropriate resources are provided at them, and ensure that ample room is available for these women and their children.

Because the Catholic Church is so integrated within this culture, it is a key entity for the provision of education and resources for victims of domestic abuse. This study revealed that many of the women found solace in the Catholic Church during their recovery. Others abandoned the church because of the perception that their intimate partner abuse issues were dismissed by the churchs representatives. By providing culturally appropriate resource materials and counselors focused on the intimate partner abuse issue in the Latino population, the Catholic Church could be a very effective leader in the prevention of this problem.

Language and transportation problems are huge issues among Latinos and will require additional funding and culturally competent bilingual staffing in order to be addressed by social service agencies. Police departments, especially in small rural towns that may have a high percentage of migrant and seasonal workers, should employ at least one bilingual staff person that is fluent in Spanish, comfortable with the Latino population, and aware of the community resources that are available to domestic abuse victims.

It is important that Latina women be educated on deportation laws and rights. It is critical to dispel the myth that womens children can be taken away from them when they report being abused by their partner. Information on available resources should be displayed prominently in areas such as markets and local womens clinics that the Latina women frequent.

Since drugs and alcohol were again identified as a risk factor for the abuse, more culturally appropriate intervention programs should be provided by community organizations and gatekeepers that include consideration of cultural factors and an emphasis on coping strategies for the abuser. The public health problem of intimate partner abuse is a complex condition that will be most effectively impacted with a series of integrated approaches.

Our schools are one of the most effective mechanisms for prevention and intervention. Starting at the elementary level, anti-violence education programs should be included as key components in the curriculum. Prevention strategies, including the recognition of warning signs of control and power abuse, should be developed for the school-aged population. Teaching egalitarian concepts to Latino children would also serve as a key component in educational approaches to decreasing family violence. Instructing children that women have just as much decision-making power and importance in their role in the family as men is critical.

For the women in this study, pregnancy was identified as one of the main indicators for beginning a committed relationship or marriage with their future abusive partners. A cultural barrier for Latinas may be the Catholics Church position on birth control. Programs that effectively and openly discuss contraception management and pregnancy prevention are crucial for middle and high school students to prevent teen or unwanted pregnancy. Community gatekeepers of this population with specialization in family planning and contraception management can be an effective outreach resource to educate this population on intimate partner violence.

Mass media that target the Latino community should be used to increase awareness of intimate partner violence as well as what resources are available to the domestic abuse victims. Novellas, Latin TV networks and talk shows, and other Latino media outlets are key communications mechanisms that can be utilized for public service announcements and dramatizations showing women overcoming intimate partner abuse.

Lastly, collaborative projects, symposia, and conferences on the topic of domestic violence among Latina women would be useful in sharing research and intervention applications among health and social service professionals.

Future Research

Additional studies including both quantitative research as well as qualitative research using a larger sample of this population is warranted in order to gain a rich, reflective, and accurate view of the intimate partner abuse that Latina women experience, and to identify effective intervention and prevention strategies. Further exploration of Latina womens efforts to leave the abusive relationship and the resources they use to help them escape is needed. Extreme violence and stalking were issues that this sample encountered. Further research in these areas could provide insight into any cultural considerations that may be associated with these behaviors. Comparisons between Latinas experiences and women from other ethnic groups would be helpful in further defining the abuse processes and characteristics of those groups and would aid in designing more culturally appropriate and effective intervention, prevention, and education programs.

An Acknowledgment to the Study Participants

The women in this study all met their partners with the vision of having a life of love, comfort, and happiness  to be a good wife and mother. Instead, they soon found themselves living in an environment of control, oppression, isolation, fear, pain, and a struggle to survive. By overcoming barriers and cultural challenges associated with intimate partner abuse, most of these women gained the courage and strength to leave and begin a new life. For the four women who are still with their abusive partners, they had the courage to take a risk and speak out by participating in these interviews. They spoke out on behalf of Latina women everywhere who are being abused, so that those women will realize they do not need to suffer in silence; and for that alone, they are courageous.


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