Jessica Montoya’s hands are shaking.
She’s a pretty, self-possessed 29-year-old with big brown eyes, long black hair and a smile that spreads across her face when she laughs, which she often does. Her fingernails are painted alternating red and sparkly pink. In other words, she seems like someone whose hands you wouldn’t expect to shake. Unless you knew the story.
Montoya was just 17 when her aunt Kathleen, with whom she was close, was brutally murdered. Everyone knew Kathleen as Kat—a fun-loving young woman who in 2000 was strangled and beheaded, her remains scattered and left to rot.
Thirteen years later, Montoya is still haunted by the blood she helped scrub from her grandmother’s house, where the murder happened. After the family was assigned a victim advocate named Nurit Walsky to help them overcome their grief and pain, Montoya saw a way out.
“I wanted to be her,” she recalls—so she turned her academic career around and got an associate’s degree in criminal justice. When an opening came up for another victim advocate in Santa Fe, she leapt at the opportunity.
“My goal was to make sure David Baca, Eddie Lucio and Ivan Sanchez-Lara never saw the light of day,” she says of the three men convicted for their involvement in Kat’s murder. “I wanted to become a justice on the New Mexico Supreme Court so I could quash any appeal they ever made.”
In 2002, Sanchez-Lara, who committed the murder, was sentenced to life in prison; he’s currently serving time in Guadalupe County. For Montoya, it took years for that anger to subside, and the grief will never disappear entirely.
But a few years ago, she stumbled across a transformative film: What I Want My Words To Do To You, by V-Day founder and The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler. The film made Montoya realize that Sanchez-Lara “wasn’t an evil creature—he had a mom, a dad.”
She also realized that she wouldn’t accomplish anything if she stayed angry.
“We can fall victim to our lives, or we can stand up against it,” Montoya, herself a domestic abuse survivor, says. She’s wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “One Billion Rising,” the day of global activism scheduled for this Thursday, Feb. 14, to raise awareness about violence against women. On that day, Montoya is planning to participate in a series of events in Santa Fe, including a flash mob dance, a march and a series of testimonials.
“I’m rising in spite of my trauma,” Montoya says, her gaze steady. “I realized that it’s possible to restore the justice for the harm that came to our family.”
For Montoya, the notion of rising above a challenge isn’t new. At the time of Kat’s murder, she says, “I wasn’t doing well in school; I had like a cumulative 1.6 GPA.” She was partying too much, hanging out with the wrong people. She says that affected her relationship with Kat, and that there was tension between them when she died.
Drugs played a role in the murder: Sanchez-Lara, in what his lawyers described as a drug-induced psychosis, strangled and stabbed Kat, then cut off her head and burned and buried it. Montoya wonders whether, had cocaine not been a part of Kat’s life, all of this could have been avoided—“but I can’t say what would’ve, could’ve, should’ve been.”
But for Montoya, it was a learning experience.
“Kat was the first and only person I’d ever seen use cocaine,” Montoya recalls, sitting quietly on a lavender sofa in a lavender-painted room. A vase of matching flowers adorns the coffee table, and a tiny, aging black cat named Piñoncita purrs softly on another sofa. Because Kat was honest about the drug use, Montoya says, “It’s never been a problem in my life. I thank her for that.”
Montoya says she had problems with alcoholism, but has been sober for two years now.
Sometimes, she says, “I think it was her life sacrifice for me to succeed. I hate to think of it that way, because I’d rather her be here—” She stops, her eyes welling with tears, but she doesn’t cry.
“It’s a prime example of learning life’s lessons through someone else’s experience,” she says.
As she talks, her mother Liz—Kat’s oldest sister—flits in and out of the living room, leaving little altars of mini poppyseed muffins, stemmed strawberries and bottled water on the table.
“My mom was in a domestic violence relationship for 15 years,” Montoya says. She witnessed firsthand how difficult it was to escape: “When she finally left him, it wasn’t the first time, or the second time, or the third or fourth or fifth time,” she says. “It was the seventh time, or the 27th time…but she was strong, and that made all the difference.”
Montoya’s family is far from alone in its struggle to overcome domestic violence. One Billion Rising is named for the estimated one billion women on the planet who will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes. It’s designed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of V-Day, a “global activist movement to end violence against women and girls.”
Years ago, Cecile Lipworth, V-Day’s managing director (who just happens to live in Santa Fe), says she was handed a handwritten list of some 20 people who had been organizing performances of The Vagina Monologues. From that, V-Day has grown into a global network of more than 650 communities that coordinate more than 5,000 annual performances of Ensler’s work.
“It’s kind of remarkable what’s happened,” Lipworth says. “Women have literally found their voice to become leaders…It really has evolved from being just a performance of a play to something that’s grown much bigger than something anyone could anticipate—to being a real movement of activism.”
It’s also a different kind of activism, Lipworth says, than your typical stand-around-with-a-sign protest.
“The thing with V-Day is that it is wild and anarchic,” she explains. “People are just incensed—and they react. And that’s a good kind of activism, because people say, ‘We need to do this; let’s move!…If you are angry, go stand on the steps and show you are.’ I think it’s that kind of activism.”
Lipworth—tall and poised, with cateye glasses and a lilting South African accent—seems an unlikely ambassador of this wild anarchy. But for V-Day’s 15th anniversary, she explains, the organizers didn’t really want “that kind of ‘candle on the cake’ birthday…We want to celebrate the victories we’ve had, but we also want to tell the world we have so much further to go in terms of explaining what violence against women does to the planet.”
As they watched the 2012 election cycle unfold, along with its “legitimate rape” gaffes and abortion controversies, “We realized that women’s rights were still seen as marginalized,” Lipworth says. They also had in mind a United Nations report that found that one in three women will experience gender-based violence in her life.
“And Eve [Ensler] was like, ‘If we do the math on that, that’s one billion women on the planet.’ We said, ‘What if we showed the world what one billion women looks like?’” Lipworth recalls. “She said, ‘OK, staff of 12.
We’re going to get a billion people on the planet to rise up and dance.’ She had this vision of people dancing.”
Inside a darkened studio on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Santa Fe, that vision plays out over and over. Women of all ages and shapes are dancing, sweating, shouting with excitement as Audri Roybal leads them in a dance choreographed especially for One Billion Rising. They’re practicing for this week’s flash mob, at which they hope to have 1,000 local women dancing in front of New Mexico’s state capitol building.
Roybal is one of 15 “V-Girls”—young leaders of the V-Day network who actively work to end violence in their respective communities around the world.
“I dance ’cause I love, dance ’cause I dream/ Dance ’cause I’ve had enough, dance to stop the screams…It’s time to break the chain,” pulses the music through the studio’s speakers. Colored lights illuminate the moving bodies, and though a spotlight on Roybal’s white shirt and black exercise tights suggests she’s the leader of this ensemble, she looks totally absorbed—as if she were here solely to dance. The music ends with a melodic ode to One Billion Rising, and everyone in the room points to the ceiling—and then to the reflections of themselves in the studio mirror.
Here's V-Day's video of the dance, should you want to practice:
They go through the dance several times, and then Lipworth shares some announcements about the Feb. 14 event.
Roybal, 21, is petite, with bright brown eyes and a friendly, familiar air. A mother and a student at the University of New Mexico, she still manages to find time to volunteer for V-Day. After the rehearsal disperses, she explains that she got involved with V-Day about four years ago, when she participated in a performance of another of Ensler’s works, I Am an Emotional Creature.
At the time, she says, “I was actually getting out of a relationship that was abusive, and I didn’t even realize it was abusive until after the fact.”
Since then, she’s become a key local activist. In addition to her usual V-Day activities, like organizing performances of The Vagina Monologues, she’s been helping get the word out about One Billion Rising.
“We’ve just tried to include everyone,” Roybal says. Many of the dancers wave goodbye to her as she explains how she stays motivated.
“It’s time that [domestic violence] stops before it gets to my daughter,” she says. “I’m doing it for her.”
For her, the seeds of activism go back generations.
“My great-grandma was a single mom twice over”—once at 17, and then, after marrying, she was widowed—“so she was a feminist before feminism was even feminism,” Roybal says. “She held a job; she knew how to drive; she did everything independently while the whole community kind of looked at her like, ‘You’re crazy.’ So she took a lot of abuse from that.”
It hits even closer to home for Roybal: As Montoya’s niece, she’s had an intimate view of how Kat’s death has impacted her family.
“Seeing people in my community that are constantly affected by the violence—it has to end,” Roybal says. “I think it’s time that we bring that forward and truly make a revolution out of it.”
At every rehearsal, Roybal asks a question: How many people here have been affected by domestic violence, and how many people know someone who has?
When you experience domestic violence or sexual abuse, she says, “You kind of feel like you are the only individual—nobody else knows what is going on in your world.”
But when you look around at a roomful of people all raising their hands, she says, “All of a sudden, you are one of one million, one billion people.”
She quotes a passage from Ensler’s new monologue Rising, written specifically for One Billion Rising: “I am done counting / And recounting.”
“Because it’s time that we stopped counting and start doing something with those numbers,” Roybal adds, her own words seamlessly extending the monologue, “because otherwise, nothing here is going to change, and we just leave it until it blows up.”
Change is especially important in New Mexico.
According to a recent report by several local violence prevention
groups, approximately one in four New Mexico women will experience
domestic violence in her lifetime—significantly more than the national
average of one in five.
In Santa Fe, in advance of One Billion Rising, local businesses are displaying photographs of men, women and families holding signs that express why they’re rising. This Thursday, local organizers have planned a day-long series of events, beginning at 9 am with testimonials inside the Roundhouse to the dancing flash mob at noon, a march to the Railyard, an afternoon open-house in the Santa Fe Farmers Market pavilion and a community dance led by Embodydance co-founder Tracy Collins. (Scroll down or click here for a full schedule.)
“I love the way our Santa Fe community works,” says Carrie McCarthy, the local photographer who took the “I am rising because…” portraits (like the one of Roybal and her daughter, above). During a freelance project years ago, she did a portrait of Lipworth, and that budded into a friendship and collaboration.
Recently, McCarthy set up a temporary portrait studio. She planned to photograph 12 people, each holding a sign depicting—in their own words—why they were rising. But on the day of the event, more people began showing up, and McCarthy, an energetic blonde with sparkling blue eyes, ended up taking portraits of 25 people.
“It was really an amazing day,” she says. “People were coming, and I [would say], ‘This is however you want to be right now. And if you feel very serious about this, if you feel very strong about this, if you feel joy—every answer is the right answer.’”
The resulting photos span the gamut. They’re sad, like the one (above) of a somber woman whose sign says she’s rising because “I literally just ran out of tears.” Some are joyful and hopeful; others are poignant, like the one showing an adorable baby girl before a sign that reads, “I am rising because when I grow up, I don’t want to be raped.”
“I was just so honored that people truly showed up,” McCarthy says. “They were there with every fiber of their being.”
But McCarthy also hopes One Billion Rising triggers something bigger.
“The way people are responding, we need to keep the momentum going,” she says. “Things start from here.”
Lipworth says that on Feb. 14, organizers will ask One Billion Rising participants to pledge to do one thing, “within their means and capabilities,” to end violence against women—“whether that’s running for office, if you feel inspired, or lobbying, or ensuring that laws and bills are passed in your Legislature, or volunteering at a shelter. Whatever it is, we hope that that’s sort of the impact that it will have.”
And for McCarthy, a domestic violence survivor, it’s personal.
“Personally, as a survivor, I don’t—it doesn’t define me,” she says. “I don’t walk around on a daily, monthly or even yearly basis and think about everything I’ve overcome—but it is part of who I am. I’ve been really blessed in that I have great support, and I live my life with a lot of joy. And most of the survivors I know live their life with a lot of joy…[But] no one should have to experience that, and that’s the goal of this. So it can be overwhelming when we start to look at all the different components, but we have to start somewhere.”
She is a case in point. As an adult advocate at Santa Fe’s Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families, Inc., she plays a crucial role in the shelter’s mission of battling domestic violence through “protection, prevention, awareness and education.”
Montoya sees V-Day and One Billion Rising as an affirmation that “local women can become unstoppable leaders.”
Working at Esperanza Shelter has taught her to be “proactive, not reactive,” Montoya says. “I don’t like to use the word ‘victim.’ I use ‘survivor’—because even if it’s ongoing, or we’re only starting to rise above it, we are surviving, every day.”
Last year, as the shelter’s only child advocate, she says she helped 167 children coming from violent or abusive situations.
Though she admits the work is “challenging,” she says she sees it as an opportunity to carry on Kat’s legacy.
“I want to be their aunt [while they’re there],” Montoya says. “Just having this little respite in their lives can go a long way.”
She feels the same way toward Roybal.
“For me to be half the aunt that Kat was, to Audri—I want to continue that,” Montoya says. “[Kat] was also my mom and my sister.”
She’s hopeful, too, that Roybal is already starting to break the chain.
“I think with every generation we get better,” Montoya says. “I’m better than my parents were—at least, I hope I am!—and the next generation will be better than me.”
When asked how old she is, Montoya hesitates, then says, “Twenty-nine.”
“It’s a big milestone,” she says, choosing her words. “Kat was 31 when she died.”
Even now, Montoya continues to feel her aunt’s presence in her life.
“People tell me I look like her. They stop me on the street to tell me that—strangers!” she says. “I know she’s everywhere. I hear a song on the radio and it makes me think of her. And I dream about her.”
But not so long ago, things changed, and Montoya began to think about Kat in a different way.
“In my dreams, she was always driving a car, and I’d be waving her down, like, ‘Kat, pull over! Come over here! Grandma thinks you’re dead!’” Montoya says. “But then she finally passed away in my dream—like she was always alive in my dream, but then she was dead. And I woke up crying and I was like, ‘Mom, Kat’s dead!’ and my mom was like, ‘Are you crazy? She’s been dead for 10 years!’” Liz, passing through as she’s telling the story, smiles gently.
“That was the moment I knew I had to let her rest,” Montoya continues. “That I was going to live in her honor—in spite of this, I’m going to live the best life I can.”
And she does. She has a wide support network—particularly now, as strong women from all around New Mexico pull together to celebrate V-Day and One Billion Rising. And she loves her job—a job she knows is, in small ways, helping to heal New Mexico’s domestic violence epidemic.
I ask whether working at Esperanza Shelter ever triggers bad memories.
“I have a weak stomach, so when I see a woman with blood or bruises on her face, sometimes that’s hard,” she says. “But I don’t think of it as us and them. We’re all one step away, one decision away, from being in a shelter. I could be in their shoes.”
Thankfully, she’s not.
“We have a choice,” Montoya says. “Chaos, catastrophe and crisis are a matter of perspective. No matter how bad a day I’m having, someone’s having a worse one—so if I can provide that smile, bring them a glass of water, I might be helping.”
At the most fundamental level, she adds, “Domestic violence is my passion. If we can stop violence against women, we can basically solve all the problems of the world.”
SFR solicited personal testimonials from readers and received the submission published below. If you are experiencing domestic violence and need help, call the Esperanza Shelter hotline (800-473-5220) or the National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
All "I am rising because..." portraits by Carrie McCarthy. Elliott Teller contributed reporting. Email the author: email@example.com
Becoming A V-Man
One Billion Rising offers men around the world an opportunity to actively stand up in protest of violence against women. Rising goes beyond showing support for the women we love. It is an active stance, and one that most male supporters are privileged to make.
Rising out of solidarity gives courage to those who are afraid or prohibited to do so, just as it endorses the courage of those who can.
The action helps overturn the stigmatic elements of breaking one’s silence. Rape and violence against women are charged issues, and many people—male and female—are hesitant to speak of them publicly.
When a man rises, he conveys that outrage should be amplified, not muted, and that shame should never be part of the victim’s experience, only the perpetrator’s.
Likewise, the act of rising silences the vocal and ignorant (primarily male) contingent that insists on reinforcing mythic stereotypes about rape, domestic violence and women themselves—that women invent accusations to ruin upright men; that women invite abuse based on how they dress or behave.
Ignoring such hate-driven formulas is too passive a response. It is equivalent to ignoring the issues themselves.
Standing up on V-Day is an act of taking responsibility. It is a chance for men to affirm the reality that violence against women is a societal issue, not just a women’s issue, and most deeply a human rights issue.
Join the cause and experience, as a V-Man, the pride of uniting one’s voice to a global demand to end violence. (Loren Bienvenu)
“That’s a sign. Do you believe in signs?” This sentence belongs to Sleepless in Seattle, which I learned by heart, with the excuse that it was good for improving my English. I loved the idea of a soul mate: No matter how far your significant one may be from you, if you’re meant to be together, you will be, in each other’s hearts first if you can’t be in each other’s arms yet.
My particular sign came up yesterday. I had just posted a video on my Facebook wall, with a caption taken from Daniel Barenboim’s words: “Music demands a perfect matrimony between thoughts, feelings and guts.”
To that I added that I thought writing demanded that kind of matrimony, too. Barenboim is in charge of a wonderful project called the West-East Divan Orchestra, in which Palestinian and Israeli musicians play together to transcend fear, violence and hatred. The video was called Playing with the Enemy, to which a friend reacted saying that it was way better than Sleeping with the Enemy.
That movie made me cry for hours; for my friend, it was The Stoning of Soraya M.
How can one even think of stoning another human being to death in the name of a religion? Unfortunately, that mentality rang a (Catholic, Spanish and loud as hell) bell. Spain has a proverb for nearly every situation in life, but some of them are just unbearable—for instance, “La maté porque era mía” (I killed her because she was mine). What kind of sick mind could ever think that, right?
And while my friend and I compared our experiences with films related to abuse, here came this post on The Santa Fe Reporter’s wall: “We’re working on a story about One Billion Rising in Santa Fe. Are you a domestic violence survivor? Do you have a story to share?” It was the sign I guess I was waiting for—because yes, I am a domestic violence survivor.
I don’t want to talk about the abuse per se. It would be rather unpleasant and unnecessary, since I am sure readers can imagine what it means to live in fear, hellish days and nightmare nights, blood on your face and pain in your guts. I want to mention something else.
What’s more important—and often harder to imagine—is life after leaving your particular hell. I cried rivers while watching Sleeping with the Enemy, then realized I was the only one crying during certain scenes. I cried when I saw this woman coming back to life after faking her own death to be free from her torturer. As she gazed through the window of the bus that was taking her away to her new life, that’s what she saw: life, in all its raw simplicity and powerful intensity. She felt how life was welcoming her again, letting other beings exist again for her. The sun started to shine again, kids played and laughed together again, dogs were nice companions instead of potential weapons your tormentor might use against you; a butterfly brought the message of a fragile beauty one forgets when living in fear, grief, shame and shadows.
All of that I felt myself, and all of that is what makes me want to say life is beautiful, and so worth living. I have struggled every day, ever since I got out of my particular hell, to remind myself how wretched and miserable I felt with him, and how human I feel without him. Life taught me that sleeping is not always with the enemy, that those many sleepless nights will finally come to an end and that, one day, we’ll really sleep in peace again, without fear, only to wake up to a beautiful day and all the gifts life has in store, once we’re brave enough to say, “Enough!”
So always, always, ten fe—have faith, not necessarily in saints (like those my particular torturer would so devotedly pray to)—but first and foremost in yourself. Santa Fe, “Holy Faith,” please rise up so that all who once were victims of domestic violence can gain back their fe, their faith in tomorrow, in the beauty of the world and the beauty of love, because love, too, demands a perfect matrimony between thoughts, feelings and guts. More than ever, because I’m a survivor, I know what my guts are capable of, I know what my thoughts will reject and what my feelings will rightly choose. Oh yes, I do believe in signs. (Nathalya Anarkali)