During the day, children pass out “be mine” cards in class, teens roam school hallways holding giant teddy bears, adults make reservations at restaurants packed with red heart balloons and housekeepers scatter rose petals on hotel beds. In the evening, couples sing and dance to their song, and single ladies cheer to a night of self-love with their closest gals.
It’s clear: Valentine’s Day, the holiday of love, is upon us.
But while some decide between heart-shaped chocolates and fruit bouquets for their sweetheart, for others, the day is much more complicated. Some, separated by borders or barbed wire fences, won’t spend the holiday in each other’s arms. Others will encounter homophobia or transphobia even on the most loving day of the year.
Violence, whether instituted by the state, an intolerant society or a trusted companion, directly impacts the way we love — ourselves, our partners and our communities. From marrying someone behind prison walls to falling in love with yourself after domestic violence, these are stories of Latina women who love through injustice.
These stories have been edited for clarity. Trigger warning: violence against women, suicide.
Undocumented Mexican Mother Reyna On Loving A Husband Who Has Been Deported
I met my husband, Maximino, when I was a teenager. It’s kind of a wild story, but it’s ours. I was a young girl from Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico, and desperately wanted to be reunited with my father, who lived in Veracruz, which is on the eastern bank of the country. At the time, an older man told me if I married him, he’d take me to my father. I did. In Veracruz is where I met Maximino. I never thought I’d be someone who was with one person but in love with another. But it happened. I’d eventually end my first marriage and wed Maximino. We had a fair enough life in Mexico. We had two children, and he had a well-paying job. But we wanted more for our family, so in 1997, we came to the United States. We first landed in California before settling in Miami, where for about 15 years, we lived a humble but good life together.
That all changed under President Barack Obama. Over the course of his presidency, my husband was deported three times. The first time was dreadful. We hadn’t been separated before, and I didn’t know what to do without him, especially raising our now five children. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for him to return. But before I knew it, he was gone again. This time for a year and four months. This was the worst case of all. He was first incarcerated, and while I wanted to, I couldn’t take my children to see him because I, too, risked deportation. They were hysterical. One of my sons even tried to kill himself. I wanted to show the president this is what happens when you rip families apart. I was desperate and became very depressed. It was the most devastating time of my life, and I wanted to take my children and just return to Mexico. But one of my sons begged me to stay. He said he didn’t want to go, that he didn’t understand Spanish and that he hoped to remain in Miami to study. How could I force him to leave? There were highs and lows, but God gave me the strength to keep going while he was away.
Five years ago, my husband was deported once more. I haven’t seen him, and I don’t know when I will again. It’s difficult. For work, I pack tomatoes and calabazas. It pays enough to cover rent and the most basic necessities. But my children need things that I can’t afford. They have to do homework in the library because they don’t have computers. They don’t have new clothes or shoes every new school year. They don’t have all the things other kids their age do, and that leaves me with so much pain.
It would bring me the greatest joy to have my husband back, to have my family back. I used to pray, “God, please surprise us with him.” It’s an impossible dream, but I still have them.
I never thought this would happen to me. I wish parents were never separated. Every time I hear of another case where a parent is deported, where kids are left with that trauma, my heart breaks. We are good, hard-working families. I want them to stop doing this to us, to stop having hearts of stone.
Puertorriqueña Maritza Gabriel On Loving Yourself After Domestic Violence
(Credit: Maritza Gabriel / Editor’s Note: Maritza is the author’s cousin.)
I’m a survivor of domestic violence, and falling in love with myself after years of brutality and trauma has been the most difficult, but imperative, romance of my life.
My relationship with the man that abused me started like most: blissful and seemingly healthy. That changed the moment I sought some financial independence and accepted a job offer. He became jealous and insecure. He saw my professional attire, in contrast to my stay-at-home mom garbs, as a sign that I was trying to impress someone else. He started popping in at my job, making sure I was there, and questioning most of my moves when I returned home. If he didn’t like my answer, he’d push or slap me. I didn’t realize I was being abused until his aggression intensified. He started to use cocaine, saying it would ease him of the jealousy I caused him, but when he was high, he became more violent. He began making up stories in his head and believing them. As revenge for his jealous delusions, he’d beat me and rape me at night.
My abuser told me he’d kill me or hire someone else to take my life if I ever tried to leave him. I didn’t take his threats seriously until the day I almost died. He held me over a balcony, dangling my life in his hands. When a neighbor came to my rescue, saving my life, I realized that he could have actually killed me, and that I needed to leave.
Being the survivor of domestic violence is grueling. While I was making sense of the gravity of those six years of my life, resenting myself for staying and raising my children in an abusive home, the world was judging me, calling me stupid for loving a violent man. Moving on isn’t easy, either. Loving another person after abuse is a challenge. Even if everything seems to be going right, there’s always that fear that one day this new person could get angry enough to physically hurt me. I keep my guard up when dating, and that shield, I fear, may keep me from enjoying a healthy, loving relationship.
But romance isn’t the only form of affection, and these days I am most intent on learning to love myself. For me, caring and loving me is helping other women and girls. I speak at schools and workshops around the Washington, D.C. metro area, offering listeners the tools to be confident and to identify abusive behaviors. I didn’t know my own worth, so showing them theirs, I hope, will encourage them to never tolerate violence. I also volunteer at my local Boys and Girls Club, where I’m surrounded by kids who remind me a lot of my own children, young people growing up in abusive homes. I want to be someone they can turn to, someone who supports them and who will bring light to their lives, even if just for a couple hours in their day.
Showering women and children with care, kindness and understanding is how I love, both my community and myself.
Cubana Ashley Rodriguez On Loving Someone Who Is Incarcerated
(Credit: Ashley Rodriguez)
I had a troubling upbringing. Homeless at 13, I moved in with my then-boyfriend. He was my first love, but he was abusive. By 17, I knew I needed to leave. Johnny helped me. He comforted me, reminded me of my worth and, when I got my first apartment, he even bought me furniture. It was the start of a beautiful romance. But then he got locked up. He stole an iPhone, and because it wasn’t his first robbery charge, this stupid decision that so many young people make cost him 10 years behind bars. I was distraught, but he told me to move on. I did, for a little while.
Two years into Johnny’s sentence, I reached out to him. He had made such a huge impact on my life, and even far away, he was the only man I thought about. He didn’t want me to squander my years loving a man I couldn’t physically be with, but, to me, he was worth the wait.
Loving someone who is incarcerated is difficult. Prisons treat people like animals. Hearing stories of the way guards dehumanize him is infuriating, and not being able to do anything for him, like make the six-hour trip to see him when he’s crying on the phone, needing me, is equally painful. On the outside, I can keep busy working and raising my daughter. But he doesn’t have that luxury. There are also the ordinary relationship activities we miss out on. Johnny can’t take me out on a date for Valentine’s Day. He can’t kiss me every morning. He can’t help me with the bills. And I can’t do things for him I’d like to do, either. Raising a child and caring for my mother with one paycheck leaves little money to put funds in his account or afford long trips to see him in prison. All we can offer each other is love and emotional support, but don’t those things make up the foundation of a relationship? I think so. That’s why, on January 7, 2018, we tied the knot.
My love proposed to me on March 18, 2017. During a visit, he got on his knee, told me he doesn’t want to live in this world without me, asked if I’d be his wife, and I said yes without hesitation. The process of marrying someone behind bars is long and laborious. The inmate must have good behavior for one year before starting the application process, which includes getting a psychiatrist and warden to sign off his request for marriage and us writing short essays on why we want to marry each other. I then had to secure a marriage license, by myself, send it to him to sign, have it returned to me to sign and bring it with me on our wedding day. It wasn’t a fairytale. My big white gown was actually a short, beige, form-fitting dress, and his tuxedo was his typical red jumpsuit. But it was still beautiful. The most important part of a wedding is marrying the love of your life, and in that sad, cold place, with our closest relatives and friends, we did that.
Women who are in relationships with people behind bars experience so much stigma. People gossip about what your partner did to land them in jail and wonder how you can stay with them in spite of the crime. They call you desperate and stupid. They warn you that your love will leave you the moment they’re released. It’s not right, but I don’t let it bother me. What Johnny and I have is real. It’s not temporary or material. It’s pure love.
Salvadoreña Alexa Rodriguez On Loving While Trans
(Credit: Alexa Rodriguez)
Dating is hard, but dating as an HIV-positive trans woman of color is its own special kind of difficult. According to the statistics, less than half of LGBTQ singles say they’d date someone who is trans. While there’s no data on how many people as a whole would get serious with someone who’s trans, I bet the results wouldn’t be that different. And when you are dating, it can be very dangerous. Last year alone, 28 trans people, most of color, were murdered. These statistics are daunting, and they can convince many of us who are in unhealthy, abusive relationships that staying is better than leaving and reentering the dating pool. That’s how I felt when I was with my abusive ex. But leaving him was one of the best decisions I ever made, not just because he was violent, but because it made me available for the man who I’d eventually marry: Pedro.
Pedro and I met in 2013. It was in his hospital room. I was accompanying his brother, a friend of mine, during a visit, and we hit it off. We laughed a lot, mostly about the accident that landed him on the physician’s table. Talking to him felt natural, and flirting with him was fun. When he was discharged from the hospital, I invited him to hang out at my apartment. His leg was hurting, so I suggested that he rest it on my bed. He joked that if he did, he wouldn’t leave. I laughed, not realizing that we’d share a bedroom for the next four years.
Getting into a new relationship was scary. He, a cis man, had never been with a trans woman before. I asked him, nervously, if he was sure he wanted to be with a girl like me. He said, “Why not? You’re a woman. I see a woman when I see you.” He made me feel so comfortable and happy. I wanted it to work. That’s why I was terrified to tell him about my status. In my previous relationship, my ex threatened to kill me if I were HIV-positive. That trauma was all-consuming. When I finally worked up the nerve to tell him, his reaction surprised me. “I don’t know much about this, so I’ll need you to teach me,” he told me. I couldn’t believe it. While his response should have quelled my concerns, it actually left me suspect. “Me tienes lástima” (“you pity me”), I said. But he didn’t. This, I learned later, is what love looked like.
Pedro and I got married October 27, 2017. It was a small but beautiful wedding, a day of pure joy. Not every moment would be like that, though. We’ve experienced some shaming because I’m trans. He doesn’t speak to most of his family back in El Salvador because of the rumors they spread about me and the names they call him. Even one of my own friends, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, once called him gay for being with me. It’s upsetting, because my friend, being gay himself, should have known his comment wasn’t accurate or acceptable. And it’s also distressing, because it’s 2018, and we shouldn’t be judging men who are with trans women, or anyone.
While I try not to let it get to me, my husband notices when these remarks hurt me, and reminds me that I’m a strong woman, who has overcome a lot and who does so much for the community. He always brings me back to myself, and that’s what a partner does. We love and we care for each other.
Love is love, and love conquers everything.