Domestic violence: when tragedy ignites change
On Dec. 27, during a cool winter evening in 2017, Nova Vela received the phone call nobody ever wants to receive.
“It made me scream, ‘no, no, no’ in disbelief,” said Vela. “I ran outside trying to breathe, trying to catch my air, falling to my knees on the steps of the cloudy courthouse where I worked. I remember being picked up and brought back inside into an empty office, and as I sat in that empty office, I kept hearing the words echo in my head.”
“Nova, something bad happened. Something bad happened to your sister, Linda. The guy she was trying to leave killed her and killed himself.”
Vela, who still works at the courthouse, relayed her story to a Caldwell County Justice Center courtroom on Thursday filled with misty-eyed high school students and community members as a part of the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center’s Domestic and Dating Violence Initiative.
The initiative, held throughout the month of October, aims to spread awareness of dating and domestic violence at the youth level to give younger community members the tools and education they need to help make a difference.
Vela’s story, one of so many experienced by people dealing with domestic violence around the globe, had a visible impact on the people in the courtroom.
“As 2018 entered and most celebrated the new year with fireworks or toasting champagne glasses to a new beginning, I spent the entire year in a very dark place,” said Vela, noting she still remembered the last conversation she had with her sister on Christmas Eve of that year.
Vela said she called her sister to ask whether she would be coming down for Christmas the following day. It was a family tradition – something that was rarely missed.
“She paused and gave a long sigh and said, ‘No, I’m staying home to prep for Christmas day,’” said Vela. “I asked how things were going and she gave another pause and said, ‘Oh Nova, you don’t want to know. It’s bad. I don’t know what to do. He won’t leave me alone.’”
Vela expressed surprise but didn’t press her sister. She ended the call by telling her to be careful and watch her surroundings. She told her she loved her.
“I didn’t think that would be the final sentence,” said Vela. “I didn’t think that the kind of things you see on TV or in the movies about domestic violence could happen to us.”
Vela said even today, she’s still angry with herself for not trying to draw more information from her sister during that last phone call.
“I thought I would get a tomorrow to talk about things, but I didn’t,” she said.
To Vela, her sister represented a bright star – a shining piece of humanity that brought life and light to those around her.
“She was so full of spunk and full of laughter,” Vela said. “She had a laugh like no other. It made you want to laugh, too. She was the kind of person, kind of friend, kind of aunt you wanted on your team. She loved to dance. She was so sophisticated. She was always running late, but when she arrived, she made a grand entrance. She was such an amazing person.”
Vela said her sister had dreams of finding the perfect husband she could settle down with – someone who could help her raise her kids. She thought she’d found him.
“She thought she had met her prince charming, but he wore a great disguise,” said Vela. “He was loving, kind. She spoke highly of him at the beginning. He attended church and played the drums with the choir, took her to fine places to eat and helped with the kids.”
But it didn’t take long for Vela to start noticing subtle changes in her sister.
“She wasn’t the loud mom at the games cheering for her kids anymore,” said Vela. “Her laugh and smile weren’t contagious. She wasn’t dressing nicely. She wasn’t attending family events. She wasn’t herself anymore.”
Vela said her sister tried to end the relationship with her abuser, but he wouldn’t relent.
“He wanted her to himself and ultimately, if he couldn’t have her, nobody else would,” Vela said. “My sister’s abuser, her murderer, used his power and control to take this beautiful human away from her family, friends and her children.”
Vela spoke candidly to the courtroom as tears fell softly her cheeks. Many of those listening on cried with her.
“I’m here to honor my sister,” Vela said. “She was a beautiful person. She was a mother. She was an aunt. She was a friend, a cousin, and a niece, but she will never be a grandmother. She will never see her three young children graduate from high school … I want to be better at helping the next person in need. I hope I can be her voice. I want to help the next victim, the next Linda.”
“It’s not OK to be blamed when your abuser gets mad,” she continued. “It’s not ok to keep someone from their family or friends. It’s not ok to be controlled in any way, whether it’s what you wear, what you say or what you buy. It’s not OK to be told you’re a worthless person. As much as the victim loves or cares for the abuser, it is not OK to be treated against your wishes.”
Making a difference
Melissa Rodriguez, director of community partnerships with the women’s center, was on hand at the event to raise awareness of the change youth can make in community.
“Change starts with our young people,” said Rodriguez. “What they see, what they hear, what they do leaves a lasting impact on their lives.”
“We wanted to illustrate that dating and domestic violence can happen at any age, anywhere, anytime and to anyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity and income status.”
To help raise awareness, Rodriguez said the football teams from both Lockhart and Luling high schools will wear purple wristbands throughout the month of October. Cheerleaders, she said, will be using purple pom-poms and the volleyball teams will sport purple shoelaces.
The color purple is used to promote awareness about dating and domestic violence, she said.
Rodriguez also urged the students to look for common signs of abuse and take action.
“Ask yourself, do I know someone who says they’re being abused, have I seen someone with unexplained injuries or someone who regularly has accidents?” said Rodriguez. “Does your child seem nervous or scared when you come near their devices? Does your gut tell you to do something? We implore you to follow your instincts.”
Caldwell County District Attorney Fred Weber was also on hand at the event to speak to the youth members in the audience.
“You guys are the ones who can make [change] happen,” said Weber. “There’s no one better situated to influence your peers than you are … you are the ones in the best position to make that change.”
The Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center is a local nonprofit that offers free and confidential services to women, men and children who are victims of family violence, dating violence, sexual assault and child abuse.
The services, which are offered in both English and Spanish, are currently available to residents who live, work or attend school in Hays and Caldwell counties.
Anyone suffering from domestic or sexual abuse can call the women’s center’s 24-hour hotline at 512-396-4357.
For more information, please visit www.hcwc.org.