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Latino Play on Sexual Abuse Moves Community

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Times Staff Writer

“Una Familia Buena y Sana” (A Strong and Healthy Family) is no ordinary theatrical presentation.

An unprecedented drama dealing with a subject that is often taboo among Latinos, the play is about a family’s ordeal when they discover that their children have been sexually abused by a relative.

Shocked, the respectable family does not know what it will do.

The mother wants to punish the abuser, but an 11-year-old victim cries: “I don’t want him to go to jail. I don’t want anybody to hurt my family. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I love him.”

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The grandmother takes charge of the situation, saying that the family must think before it acts. But, tears streaming down her face, she carries the family’s sorrow forward, offering it to the audience. Her grief and her family could easily be theirs.

Part of a concerted effort to protect children and strengthen families, the bilingual play was created by the Latino Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Project, the first program of its kind in the nation.

Jerry Tello, project director and a psychologist who is credited nationally with creating model prevention programs, developed the project after he reviewed child sexual abuse prevention programs and found that “there was nothing available for Latinos, nothing culturally sensitive or linguistically relevant.” Those programs that were translated into Spanish were still based on the values of the dominant society.

“What it comes down to is that you can give parents, families and the community all the information in the world and they may appreciate it immensely,” Tello, a sexual abuse therapist, said, “but if it’s not something they can relate to, understand and be able to integrate into their family process based on their values, customs and traditions, they will not be able to truly integrate it into the care and protection of the child.”

Twice a Week

Since December, the play has been presented twice a week for schools and social and health agencies where it has been hailed as a landmark in prevention programs. Some families have asked for help after seeing it.

Teresa Contreras, director of the East Los Angeles Rape Hotline, which is sponsor of the project, said the program was created in response to the escalating number of calls regarding child sexual abuse.

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With increasing media coverage, she said, “families are recognizing that they need some help and direction.”

The project, which began in July and is due to end in June, has reached more than 5,000 people, surpassing the objectives of the program, Contreras said. The agency will continue the project if it receives more funding, she added.

Financed by an $80,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning, and aimed at reaching all segments of the Latino community, the project also:

--Has provided intensive training about child sexual abuse for teachers at Sunrise Elementary School in East Los Angeles and Winter Gardens Elementary School in Montebello.

--Recently began a pilot program using songs, stories and puppets to teach children at those schools about abuse.

--Is creating a network of schools, health and social agencies.

--Has compiled a referral list of bilingual/bicultural health, counseling and police agencies for parents.

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Performed in the realistic teatro style popularized by playwright Luis Valdez (“Zoot Suit” and “Corridos”) and designed to teach the values of Chicano culture, the play was written collectively by the cast--Andrew J. Espinoza, Alva A. Moreno, Norma Alicia Pino, Raquel Salinas, John Taboada and Concepcion Velasquez--all of whom are involved in some type of social service in the Latino community.

In an hour, they become a real family composed of the grandmother who still nurtures children, a wise grandfather prone to cutting his toenails on the coffee table, the mother, beautiful in her words and gestures, her playful children, their beloved uncle and a godparent who celebrates life with dancing.

The project was undertaken, Tello said, because “we want to give Latino families an understanding of the problem within the context of our own culture as well as a certain level of acceptance--not only that sexual abuse is something that occurs, but that we can do something about it.”

Coming to grips with that reality may be difficult for Latinos who regard children as a special gift, celebrating them with numerous festivities that acknowledge their value to the family and the world.

When it comes to sexual abuse, “we tend to think about (the) McMartin (case currently in court),” said Suzi Rodriguez, head of the sexual abuse prevention team at the San Fernando Valley Headstart agency where 80% of the children are Latino. “It’s safe to isolate our thoughts to that kind of situation. We don’t want to think about it happening in our families.”

In the play, for example, the grandmother fears her suspicions, saying that the kids must be getting ideas from television.

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“No,” she says, “no, because those things don’t happen in families like ours.”

But, Tello said, in 80% of all sexual abuse cases, children are victimized by someone they know or may love.

Although the drama does not attempt to encompass every kind of incident or offer solutions for each, it is “open enough so that people can relate it to their own situation,” Tello said.

Dynamics of Family

But, instead of focusing on the incident, the play examines the dynamics of the family, because it is the nucleus, a major strength of Latino culture.

“Our total motivation for doing what we do is based on the common good of the family,” Tello said, “and not on the individual good.”

Because sexual abuse prevention involves the care and protection of children, he said, “it’s logical that the prevention program would not only reinforce but also build on those inherent strengths within the family that provides them.

“The reason we know that is important is because when children are sexually abused, what is traumatized are those essentials provided by the family--self-esteem, confidence, relationship abilities, judgment and emotions.”

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When a family’s values, customs and traditions are not balanced, he said, “children are more vulnerable to being manipulated by a person who is not thinking of their best interests.”

Abuse Within Family

The theme of sexual abuse within the family was chosen because it is the most difficult to deal with.

“It’s easier to deal with the viejo cocino (dirty old man) down the street,” Tello said. “You can send him to jail.”

Designed to give families tools to better prepare them to deal with sexual abuse, the play offers lessons in communication, respect, trust and dignity that parents can also use to help children cope with other daily issues.

Tello, who plays the part of narrator and interpreter, provides a guidance session as he briefly analyzes each scene, discussing the imbalances and the positive aspects of the family with the audience.

In “Una Familia Buena y Sana,” economic pressures contribute to the crisis. The grandmother, suffering from poor health, can no longer take care of the children and the working mother has to rely on her brother.

Important Rule Disobeyed

Although he loves the children deeply and is willing to sacrifice his time for the sake of the family, the uncle fails to obey an important rule: Children must respect the adults, but the adults must also respect them. When he neglects and abuses his role and position, the uncle also abuses the dignity of the family.

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In addition to respect, confianza (trust/confidence) is also a crucial value in the Latino family, tempered by parents’ reaction to their children, Tello said.

Close as she is to her children, for example, the mother is caught in a dilemma of a parent not knowing when or how to talk to her children about certain issues such as sexuality. After the daughter is sent to her room for bringing up the topics, the child loses the confianza that once enabled her to talk to her mother about anything. When she is victimized, she suffers in silence, unable to tell what the uncle has done.

The child is finally able to reveal her secret ordeal because of the strong relationship she has with her grandmother, who provides trust, reflecting the important role of the extended family. The reasons for the uncle’s actions are not discussed, but are rooted in his own childhood, when he, too, was abused. The majority of people who sexually, physically or psychologically abuse others were themselves victims, according to Tello.

Not a Clear-Cut Issue

As in some real-life situations, the family members in the drama are torn between the people they love. For them, the crisis is not a black-and-white issue and imprisonment is not the solution.

Realizing the complexity of their dilemma, the family seeks treatment after they confide in the children’s godparent who knows where help is available.

“We will sacrifice everything just to keep the family together,” Tello, as narrator says. “Sometimes we have to bow our head and go for help. It may be difficult to go outside of the family for help for many reasons, but, when we’re not sure, we should seek assistance from someone who knows our customs, values and traditions.”

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Tello is a consultant for the state Multi-Cultural Child Abuse Council and for prevention programs in Tijuana and Manhattan Beach where the widely publicized McMartin Preschool sexual abuse case occurred.

“People are in such a panic about sexual abuse,” Tello said, “that schools and parents are saying, ‘Give me anything, something that will make me feel better.’ When you’re in need, you’ll take the first thing that’s there.”

But, he said, some programs leave parents feeling vulnerable, paranoid, suspicious and less capable of preventing abuse.

While most prevention programs are telling parents to teach their children to “say no” to being touched and that there should be “no secrets,” the Latino Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Project is taking a different approach.

Instead, Tello said, the program is teaching them that “ carinos (expressions of affection) are good, but that there are rules for caring and respect.”

Educators, health and social agency representatives have found the play to be a powerful training tool.

“We went through three or four months of training and nothing hit us with as much impact,” said Rodriguez, of the San Fernando Valley Headstart. “All our training could have been done with one teatro presentation. We needed something that was culturally specific.”

In “Una Familia Buena y Sana,” the family unity is disrupted for two years, but the group also discovers that they can save and rebuild what they had, perhaps not quite the same way as it was before. But, they “come together again as it can happen in real life,” Tello said, “although in some cases, families separate forever.”

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With hope and compassion, the grandmother offers her explanation.

“Something happened to us,” she says. “But, we never lost faith and we never stopped loving each other. How we suffered! One never forgets the blows from a hard-learned lesson. But I was able to heal my heart--with the support of people who showed us how to continue being a strong and healthy family.”

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