I may never forget those lifeless eyes, the whispering voice, or the warm nicotine breath that stuck to my cheek as the cold metal shaft of a gun was pushed deeper into my ear... Like many of us, I know fear.
Some abusive life experiences cannot simply be forgotten. The memories of these experiences do not dissolve or get diluted easily. Instead, they slowly spread inside us like a toxin, gradually infecting our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions. Healing takes time and a willingness to open our hearts to love and forgiveness.
I still remember as if it were today, the night two female classmates and I were driving home through the streets of Buenos Aires when we noticed that a vehicle with dark windows was following us. Concerned, I stepped on the gas, hoping to leave the other car behind. But the opposite happened. It accelerated rapidly, passed us, and then swerved to a stop to completely block our path forward. I hit the brakes to avoid a crash, and in an instant, five ski-masked men with machine guns had surrounded the car.
For a moment I did not know who they were. But when I noticed their uniforms, I realized they were policemen. They banged their guns against our vehicle and ordered us to get out. Then they grabbed each of us by the arm, forced us to take off most of our clothes and pushed us against the car with their weapons pressed into our ears. The men began to check our half naked bodies--everywhere. It was winter and it was raining. It seemed as if the sky was crying. Two officers started pulling all our things out of the car and throwing them on the pavement--books, pens, notebooks. Everything was wet and a narrow river of blue ink ran through the street. One of my friends was sobbing, the other, like me, was frozen.
I recall the unstoppable shivering of my legs and how my face went expressionless, as though nothing was taking place. The officer who was holding me questioned me, but I cannot remember what he asked or my answers. I just remember him touching me in a way no one should be touched. I also remember stuttering, biting my cheek to stop my trembling voice, and telling myself to stay calm or that I might, like many others, disappear. But unlike those who were taken during those days of the Argentine Junta, I did not receive any blows and no trigger was pulled. The experience left no outer wounds. The damage was inside, beneath my skin. It went into my cells.
The experience left me feeling dirty and guilty, as if I, we, had done something wrong, when we had not. My friends and I never spoke about that night. It was as if it had never happened. Inside me I wanted badly to speak up, to make our assault public...but the fear of governmental retaliation crippled me. And like many others at that time, I remained silent.
For many years after, I suffered from a paralyzing sense of peril whenever I saw a policeman. Even after coming to the States and knowing that things were different here, I often felt this fear. My own feelings of fear and anger had contracted and poisoned my heart. They became like a prison. Freedom began with a realization that led to forgiveness...
This forgiveness was not easy to come by. The terror I felt that night had become so entrenched in my psyche that the simple sight of a policeman or a patrol vehicle would set off an inner alarm, yelling "watch out!" It was a reaction to an imprinted memory, similar to how a dog that has been beaten retreats at the sight of anyone with a cane, with its eyes fixed on the wooden rod and its tail between its legs. But gradually, I began to realize that my abusers were as imprisoned by their ideas and beliefs as I was by my fear and anger. Somehow this enabled me to see them differently and allowed my heart to heal.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique.
Many immigrants from Latin American countries who have lived under dictatorial regimes know this sort of fear, the dread of a police force used as a tool of intimidation and abuse of the population, rather than as a means of protection and a way to uphold the rule of law.
This kind of fear, which thankfully is unknown to many people in the U.S., is not just a Latin American experience. Right now in many places around the world, thousands of human beings are being terrorized by their own leaders, bloodied, scarred, and even killed by police aggression. Watching the images and reading about the suffering of these innocent people, opens me to their pain. I am reminded of my own experience and even though it was mild compared to what many suffer, I feel that I do know something about this kind of pain.
I am also aware of what a blessing it is to feel safe.
But this also makes me conscious that I have kept in secret for far too long this fear that I felt and that it is time to bring it out into the light--to expose and give it voice--for those of you who, like me, have felt it and for those who feel it today.