Anna Castellanos, 58, a seamstress and immigrant from El Salvador, stopped to readjust the white veil she wore pinned to her hair, one of 20 she made by hand.
She was was in the middle of pinning the veils to the heads of women and girls as they gathered on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse before departing on a nearly 7-mile march through the South Bronx.
Castellanos made the veils in memory of a young Latina bride, Gladys Ricart, who was killed by her abusive former boyfriend in 2001 on the eve of her wedding to another man. They are part of the tradition in Bride’s March, an annual protest against domestic violence, for which women dress as brides to remember Ricart.
For the last three years, Castellanos has been making veils for participants as a way of remembering Ricart, and also to express the freedom she has experienced since her own break with domestic violence.
On Saturday, Castellanos, who speaks little English, listened silently as Nicole Dominguez, a young Latina woman, spoke on behalf of those affected by domestic abuse.
“I’m not a victim,” Dominguez said. “I’m a survivor.”
Meanwhile, Castellanos had given away the veils she made and began distributing index card-sized flyers with domestic violence hotline information. She carried a sign with a telephone number that read “Para ayuda llama.” For help, call.
“In the Latin culture, it’s engrained in the women to be submissive to a man — to do what he says, to take care of the household, the kids. Don’t ask questions. Don’t say anything. We’re speaking out against that,” said Athena Rose, a psychologist and close friend of Castellanos who was also at the march and is herself a survivor of domestic abuse.
When she was 19, Rose was kicked in the tailbone by an abusive boyfriend and was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. She said though domestic abuse is hard to escape, there are three stages used to identify its progression.
The first stage is known as the honeymoon phase. “Everything is beautiful, everything is wonderful and you love the person. You may see some flags, but nothing really to alert you,” she said.
This is followed by a tension-building phase in which red flags pop up more often and the abuser seems like he or she is changing. Eventually the tension building leads to a “blow-up” or big incident very traumatic for the victim.
For Castellanos, this was when her husband burned her apartment and business down.
Although they had been married 21 years at that point, Castellanos said the abuse began when they were friends living in the same apartment building, before they were intimate.
One day, he slammed a car door on her fingers.
“I said, ‘Why are you so abusive?’ and he hugged me and he said, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do it,’ ” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘This man is not for me. We do not mix well.’ ”
That day, he apologized profusely and said he loved her, something he would always do after an incident. He came home from school and knocked on her door. When he saw the bruises on her hand, he begged for forgiveness and the chance to be with her.
He bought her flowers and lingerie, and over time Castellanos developed feelings for him. Today, she refers to her ex-husband as if he no longer exists, calling him “the dead man” — a term Latina women use to refer to an abusive ex-husband. She knew the way he treated her — pulling her hair and then apologizing and saying she was beautiful — was not right, but she felt herself “between a rock and a hard place” because she loved him.
After they married, Castellanos recalls driving with her husband every day when he went to work. Once, on Valentine’s Day, he punched her teeth out in the car.
She says that after that, she lost respect for her husband. She feared him, but did not want to endanger others by involving them in the situation. Rose says that it is typical for abusers to turn violent towards people who try to help the victim.
“It’s very important to understand that if I’m the victim and you come to help me, you become a target. That fear, that intimidation, is much stronger, especially when it has been preceded by a physical encounter,” she said.
At the height of the abuse, Castellanos was trying to learn English and was taking computer classes. She describes herself as someone who worked hard and had goals for herself and her children. She always kept a list of the things she hoped to accomplish.
One day, she was at class and a male teacher was leaning over her shoulder to show her something on the computer. When her husband saw this, he beat the teacher.
After that she “had no peace” and lived in fear for her children, a boy and a girl from a previous relationship.
When Castellanos first met her ex-husband, and before they married, he kissed her 12-year-old daughter on the lips, the girl’s first kiss. Castellanos found out from her 7-year-old son, who had watched it happen.
“Mommy, Benjamin kissed Gladdy on her mouth,” she recalls her son saying.
After the fire, in which Castellanos lost everything she owned, a neighbor who worked with domestic violence victimes encouraged her to seek help. She slipped Castellanos the phone number of her agency on a index card-sized piece of paper at the laundromat — the only place where her husband would not find out.
In the same way, Castellanos and others handed out papers small enough to fold into a wallet or purse during the march on Sunday.
“You never know who might need them,” said Blanca Ramirez, a social worker also from the Bronx. “Women need to be able to be discreet.”