I had to be six or seven years old when Tio moved into our home. We had a four-bedroom house that we patiently watched get built, from the ground up. My brothers shared a room; my two sisters and I shared a room. My uncle moved into our guest bedroom down the hall that we all thought would be my baby sisters'. By the time she was ready to move out of my parents’ room, Tio was coming, and they put her in the room my older sister and I already shared. Thereafter he moved in, and things changed in our house, our home, and our lives forever.
My uncle’s presence was what introduced us kids to the nature of the sexual world that we innocently (as children of course) knew nothing about. I remember when we found his Girls Gone Wild DVD in his room. After all the adults had gone to sleep we popped it into the computer to see what it was about. That led to us somehow getting access to other pornos and just snooping around his stuff more often.
I can't remember the first time he touched me but I remember it happened often. I didn't know what was happening but I felt it was my fault so I kept it to myself for a very long while. I can't say, to this day, how long that time was. I know I was ten years old, in the fourth grade when I finally gained the courage to tell somebody.
My mother would be up around 5:30 am to make herself some coffee, usually with some bread and Monterey jack chunk cheese on the side. She did this, almost ritualistically, everyday before waking us up for school. My uncle knew this so, he had a schedule of his own. He would arise around 4-4:30 in the morning and make his way to the bathroom. The hallway was positioned in such a way where, from his and my brothers rooms, you could see the kitchen and the rest of the house. The bathroom and the girls room (our room) were on the opposite corner of the hallway hidden from the rest of the house. Subsequently, he could make his way to the bathroom or our room and no one would, immediately know the difference. I remember once I peeked out of our bedroom door very early in the morning. I caught my uncle walking to the restroom with nothing but a pair of shorts on. On one side of his shorts I saw something peeking over the edge of them. I don't think that registered in my head, until I later snooped through his closet and found a bunch of skimpy lace, and satin panties that he had to have gotten overseas. They reminded me of the panties we would get from family members who had traveled to Cape Verde and brought us back things. They were very thin and revealing. He had those on under his shorts early that morning.
He would take a while in the bathroom every morning and whenever he would go back to his room I would go into the bathroom to find nothing in the toilet but bubbles and a clear substance. I didn't know what it was. Years later I shivered as I realized he probably used to masturbate in our bathroom every morning. But that wasn't the creepiest memory I’ve buried deep within.
As a girl, I found comfort sleeping with my legs tucked up under me. This was similar to a fetal position, except I wasn't always laying sideways. Sometimes I found comfort sleeping with my knees bent, legs tucked under me, and my butt in the air. My sister was the same way. I remember my uncle tiptoeing into my room while it was as dark as coal, and he would come stand right by my bedside. He would put his hands into my pants, or right up my dress. He would move his hand into my panties, and in me. Not all the way in, but in enough to feel my insides. My body would react to these touches. I always felt bad when he did it. I wondered why me? How come I have to do this?
That was the point. Nobody ever told me I didn't have to do this. Nobody told me he was wrong. Nobody noticed. Nobody asked. However, I felt like everybody knew. It felt as if they knew this was just a part of life we all had to go through. They just forgot to prepare me. I figured it was okay. I could just let it happen every morning, then go to school and go on about my day. Everything would be fine. Everything was not fine. I remember when it finally crossed my mind that I needed to tell someone. I needed to tell an adult.
I walked into our living room one night, to find Tio sitting in a chair in front of the TV, with his hand in my younger cousins pants. She was maybe 7 at this point (I was 11). Something within me said this is wrong! This isn’t fair! I didn't know what I was feeling then, but I knew that that shame that gripped my life, wasn't right for little girls to feel. I knew that what I was experiencing I didn't want my little cousin to experience, as well. Both of my parents were working that night, my mom working late and my dad working overnight. Tio was left to watch us kids. That was the same night that I found him waiting for me outside of the bathroom door after I had just gotten out of the shower. He took me, in nothing but a towel, over to the laundry room (isolated from the rest of the house, away from the rest of the kids) and I just remember feeling like my heart was in my throat. Scared for my life; I was angry yet wanting to burst into tears. Why this, again? Again, why me?
On another occasion, one afternoon in broad daylight, I walked into the living room to find him KISSING another LITTLE GIRL. This time it was my friend. A little white girl. I remember embarrassment and shame gripping me so tight to the point where I wanted to defend my uncle, because I felt I was complicit in the violence he had perpetuated. I felt that because it was happening to me it was happening to her. I felt that I was at fault for her and my cousin being caught up in this situation too.
One afternoon on the school bus my friend was telling one of our fellow classmates about the ordeal with my uncle. The other little girl laughed and said "ewwwwww your uncle is nasty." The mixture of feelings that overcame me that afternoon I could not make sense of. Wanting to defend my family is an instinct that is stronger than ever. Especially considering that I didn't know much of my mother's family except that they all lived in some country that seemed lifetimes away. I knew she had talked up her brother before he even got to the States. There were so many factors that contributed to my confusion as a child.
I talked to my younger cousin about it and we decided we would tell on Tio. This memory I will never forget. I believe it foreshadowed the woman I was to become in the future. This made me into the giant that I am today. We didn't know how to describe to my dad what was going on so I decided I would write it down. I think I wrote it on a piece of construction paper. We chose my dad out of all the adults in our lives because he was the one we were most comfortable with. My dad was the dad of the family. Everyone flocked to him. Even his siblings and cousins called him “Poppy”. He was the glue, the happiness, the laughter, the joy, the hard work, the struggle, the strength, and the sacrifice that brought us all together. I was in love with him growing up. He was just so patient, gentle, and understanding with us, yet seemed to make light of everything that happened in life. I now know he must laugh to keep from crying. When we chose him I couldn't bring the words to my lips, so I utilized pencil and paper like I learned in school. It was a piece of construction paper. Those words probably crushed his heart a million times over.
Those words started a battle in my family that I believe is silenced, yet ongoing. Those words launched me into a growing pain that would loom over me like a rain cloud, building and building for a decade! It became a decade of a young woman's life. It was a decade of confusion, anger, mistrust, self-denial, self-hate, self-pity, and misunderstanding that suppressed memory. This was a decade of struggle. Those words were my gift and my curse. This gift set me on the path of redemption and journey to freedom. This path is what lead to liberation and learning. The curse stemmed from my truth. A truth so ugly grown men would rather turn a blind eye and pray “not to them”, “not in their homes” would that ever happen. The gift and the curse became so tangled that we don't realize how much it actually does occur in our communities. Those words broke our hearts and gave us so much sorrow, yet they set us free. They allowed us to see that life goes on, and love heals all, in due time.
Those words that 11 year old me wrote on that piece of construction paper, so many lifetimes ago that bound me up yet set me free were:
Tio touches us.
“What do you mean he touches you?” my dad’s eyes were still fixed on the paper.
There was an interested, puzzled look on his face. It was a look that soon turned to fear. He knew he would have to talk to our mothers about this, but how?
Countless days after that, I was pulled out of my class, along with my older sister to be questioned by police and guidance counselors. Police came to our home too. I lied every single time I was asked if my uncle had touched me. Why? Because when I spoke to my mother the day after we confessed to my father, she asked me if I wanted them to send Tio away from us. She told me that our families business was our families business. I felt like I needed to lie about it because it was something that nobody else should know. I also felt that it would be my fault if he got in trouble for it. I still felt it was my fault to begin with. I also heard my big sister say he never touched her either. I believed her and never had the courage to ask her myself.
It’s been over ten years since I wrote those words. I sought counseling for myself once I got to college. About two years after that I learned that my sister had broken down in a fit of anger and told my mom it had happened to her. All these years I had no idea, all these years I hid my pain, as did she. The help that you need may be right under your nose. You may find comfort talking to a close family member. But sometimes, like in my case, you may not. Many times, survivors of rape and sexual abuse are too guilty to reach out and ask for help. We feel like it is our fault that this happened to us. Consequently, I retreated within and kept to myself. I read books and wrote a lot, to numb the emotional and spiritual pain that my experience caused me. I’m glad I found a positive outlet. Often, I look back on that night we told Poppy, and I realize it foreshadowed my future as a writer. I had to write the words rather than speak them. I also began to share my story with friends in high school. More and more I heard that other people had similar experiences. In college when I started getting involved in activism, I gained the confidence to share my story in a room that had more than 100 people in it. The healing that we as survivors need is multi-layered, and of course it’s different for everyone. Spiritually, physically, and mentally I am much better. Emotionally, it is still hard for me to recount all of the details. Writing this piece of the story is still a little hard for me, but the strength comes with knowing that I am not alone in my journey.