Julissa Soto overcame domestic
violence, and wants to help others like her
By Faith Miller
The Southeast Express
When 22-year-old Julissa Soto awoke one fateful day in June of 1995, she knew that everything had changed.
The night before, the father of Soto’s two children — her partner of seven years — had beaten her unconscious. Her neighbors the floor below had called the police, and her partner fled. Soto was rushed to the hospital. She says she never saw her children’s father again.
“When I woke up, I was very afraid of life,” Soto remembers. “I was undocumented, uneducated, didn’t speak a word in English…
“I remember thinking, ‘Shoot, this was the man that supported me and my two kids, and I have nothing now. How am I going to start from zero?’”
Soto, a Mexican immigrant from Michoacán, had recently crossed the border in the trunk of a car to start a new life with her partner and children. Without him, she had to learn to work and provide for her family alone.
And despite the seemingly unsurmountable challenge, Soto — with her neighbors’ help, she says — learned English, got her GED, and went on to earn degrees in early childhood development and public health.
Later, Soto made a name for herself at the American Diabetes Association, winning several prestigious awards during her 16 years as regional director of community health strategies. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deemed her program “most promising in its potential to positively impact diabetes-related health outcomes among Latino populations.”
Now, as director of statewide programs for Servicios de la Raza, Soto teaches at-risk Latino youth and their families across Colorado about acculturation stress, substance use prevention, and physical and emotional health.
Soto’s own life experience is always top of mind when she works with young Latina immigrants. Sometimes the past still haunts her — looking at old hospital records draws tears from her eyes. But more than that, her history drives her to help other victims break the cycle.
“Twenty years ago, I wish I would have known my rights as a woman. I wish I would have known my value,” Soto says.
“I did want to get out,” she adds. “I just didn’t know how. But now that I’m out, I’m helping others to get out.”
The one that has citizenship wants to control the one that doesn’t have [it], and abuse them and take advantage of that situation.” — Lucía Guillen, Centro de la Familia
By the numbers
One in three Latinas will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the National Latino Network. Undocumented Latina immigrants face an added, and growing, issue: Like Soto was once, many are afraid to report their concerns to the police for fear of being deported.
A May survey of 600 advocates and attorneys across the U.S. attempted to quantify the problem. The survey, conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit serving immigrant women and girls, and a coalition of national organizations, found that 76 percent of advocates reported their clients — survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking — had concerns about contacting the police. And 52 percent of advocates said they’d worked with survivors who’d dropped civil or criminal cases out of fear.
If one person in a family relationship has immigration paperwork and the other person doesn’t, the power imbalance can create conditions ripe for abuse, says Lucía Guillen, the executive director of local nonprofit Centro de la Familia.
“The one that has citizenship wants to control the one that doesn’t have [it], and abuse them and take advantage of that situation,” Guillen says. “…That causes anxiety, depression — and so our families suffer many, many mental illnesses [as] a consequence of the … broken [immigration] system and other issues caused by clients adapting to a new culture.”
Guillen’s organization provides advocacy mental health services to the Latino community. Unlike larger local nonprofits AspenPointe and Peak Vista, Guillen says, Centro de la Familia doesn’t require clients to provide a Social Security number — meaning many undocumented immigrants are referred to Centro’s small staff.
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Changing the dialogue
Soto is open about her own mental health struggles. Seven years ago, she says, depression and anxiety stemming from acculturation stress brought her to a breaking point. She tried to take her own life.
“I was just tired of life, and trying to fit in both worlds,” she says. “I didn’t fit anymore — because I’m highly educated, I [felt] I didn’t fit anymore in the Mexican world or Latino world. But I also don’t fit in the American world. I’m not blonde and blue eyes, you know.”
Soto says she felt pressure to appear strong on the outside, because she served as a role model for other Latinas: “[I] didn’t want to talk about it, because I am an example for the community. And leaders don’t cry, leaders are strong.”
Now, she wants to help other Latinas who’ve survived domestic violence work through their own mental health issues — and learn to talk about them. Through Servicios de la Raza, Soto will start a survivor’s support group in Spanish at the Southeast & Armed Services YMCA. (Times and dates are yet to be determined, but Soto says those interested in joining can contact her at 720-427-5542.)
“In El Paso County, there’s not that many resources in Español for the immigrant community,” Soto says.
Guillen agrees, and she’s not sure why the shortage exists. Culturally sensitive programs, she says, are crucial, especially for undocumented immigrants experiencing domestic violence.
“We try very hard to explain to them the system and to provide services in a nurturing and safe environment,” she says. “That is the reason that we exist, because they wouldn’t go to the police to report.”
The following are some localsources available to survivors of domestic violence:
24-Hour Crisis Line: Call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to receive confidential mental health support from a trained specialist.
TESSA 24-Hour Safe Line: Call 719-633-3819 to be connected with TESSA staff, who provide help in crisis situations, work with victims to create safety plans and connect them with other community resources.
Servicios de la Raza: Visit facebook.com/servicesforthepeopleCOS to learn about programs for youth and families.
Centro de la Familia: Call 719-227-9170 or visit www.centro.ws to learn more.