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Domestic Violence and Latino Culture

Domestic Violence in Latino Culture SUCHTOTO, El Salvador- A heavy hand from a large man fell hard against the slender cheek of a thin woman. The hand rose again just to fall upon the same target, again and again. The woman screamed “Mierda!” as she tried to fight back. She was being beaten. Her husband [...]

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Domestic Violence in Latino Culture

SUCHTOTO, El Salvador- A heavy hand from a large man fell hard against the slender cheek of a thin woman. The hand rose again just to fall upon the same target, again and again. The woman screamed “Mierda!” as she tried to fight back. She was being beaten. Her husband was yelling, screaming, smacking, shaking, and punching her. She screamed “Mierda” again. She tried to fight back. She got beat.

I missed the show, but my wife, Chaya, and baby, Petra, had press box seats. The thuds, smacks, and yells that were coming from the parking area of our motel like apartment complex woke my child up from her nap. Frightened, my wife calmed the baby as the thumping continued outside.

The couple who occupy a room below ours were fighting, violently, in the open area of our apartment complex. The woman was bare chested, she had but a thin towel covering her breast — miraculously she managed to keep covered as her face was being bashed.

But the woman receiving the blows did not cry for help — Chaya was listening for such a signal to step in and help — and the old woman who lives next door to the warring couple just gathered up all the kids that she could find, brought them into her room, and shut the door. This old lady has close relations with the woman who was being beaten, they sit outside their rooms talking all day long. But, when the heavy hands of the husband began to fall, when fist connected with face, and the impending thuds ensued, the old lady shut her door.

The beating was thus given adequate privacy to continue.

Later that day everything was as usual. The husband swung from his hammock reading the paper, the wife chatted with the old woman out in front of their rooms. The beating seemed to be, more or less, standard operating procedure.

Nobody seems to call the police here when a husband is beating his wife. Domestic violence is common in Latin America, a husband turning a heavy hand upon his wife seems to be more the rule of marital relations in this culture than the exception. This is to the point that the municipal government of Suchitoto even went all around the city offering free anti-domestic violence stencils to be painted upon the outside wall of any house that wanted one.

Anti-domestic violence stencil in El Salvador

Anti-domestic violence slogan stenciled on the outside of houses in Suchitoto, El Salvador

The stencils say:

In this house there is a life free of violence against women.

These stencils are painted outside of at least one out of every four houses in the city. Though these slogan seem to be little more than an admission that domestic violence is common here, that wives get beaten regularly, that husbands beat with near impunity. These stencils are perhaps the first steps in this culture to raise awareness that wife battery is perhaps something that men should not do too often, that it could be, in fact, a pretty shitty thing to do. It is my impression that this may be a new idea here.

I am very doubtful that the police are called very often when a wife is receiving a routine beating from her husband. These disputes are, apparently, family matters.

Just like in the good ol’ days

It is my guess that the common response to a husband beating his wife is a closed door, just as the old woman shut hers against the violence that erupted in the parking area of our little apartment complex.

But shutting a door was not enough for my wife — she was not raised to ignore domestic violence. In the USA, when someone sees a woman being beaten by her husband we are suppose to act: we step in, yell at the man, at the very least we call the police and let them sort it out. Domestic violence is no longer acceptable in our culture, it is not normal for people to sit back and watch a woman being beaten.

But this is what my wife did in Suchitoto. She watched our neighbor get beat up. She did not yell, she did not intervene, she did not know the number for the police even if she wanted to call. She coddled our baby as the thuds and screams filled the air of our apartment.

Afterward, Chaya felt guilty: she did not act in accordance with the call of her culture, she  she did not act when her socialized urges told her to act. She took care of her family first, and made sure that she and the baby were safe — she left the woman being beaten to deal with her own marital affairs.

“You did the right thing,” I told her after being told the story when I returned home.

“But complacency allows this to happen,” Chaya continued, feeling as if she let herself down. She was eating herself up with guilt. She was correct in her analysis.

“But it is not your place to step in,” I replied, “it is not your responsibility to be a force of change in another culture.”

We are travelers, we do not fully know the cultural plane upon which we are acting here — even though we have friends here, we are not a part of the community — we must admit that we do not know the background of the situation between the woman and her violence prone husband. We do not even know their names.

If my wife tried to stop the beating, she would have no way of gauging the possibility of the man turning  on her (there is a reasonable chance that he could have been drunk). From what we know of these people and this culture, we could not tell if Chaya’s intervention would make the situation better or worse for the woman in the end, we could not tell if the woman would even appreciate a show of support.

Stepping in on a spat of domestic violence here would be clearly out of step with the culture — it is not my impression that it would not be a normal thing to do.

“The only reason why you should have stepped in is because that is what you feel you should have done,” I concluded, “that is how you feel you should have acted to maintain your self respect.”

This would be the only thing that we could be sure of.

We are travelers, we will always view cultures and communities from the outside. On the grounds that we are perpetually new arrivals in places means that we have no way of knowing the history and the full cultural context behind the actions that we observe. Humans operate on patterns, we see something happen a certain way ten times in a row and we expect it to be so on the eleventh. This is how we make sense of our world and direct our own action. We have not seen 10 women being beaten in Latin America, we do not know the patterns that follow this sort of action, we can not guess what effect our actions would have if we were to intervene in a beating.

If my wife did intervene, perhaps the husband would have went away, got drunker, returned and beat his wife even harder, perhaps he may have turned on my gringa puta wife in my absence, or maybe he would have broken down and began balling like a baby for being publicly called out for being such a meat head.

Apparently, domestic violence is suppose to be wrong here. At least this is what the stencils in front of hundreds of homes tell me. Though it often takes more than a stenciled slogan to effect an actual realization, it often takes being called out, embarrassed, shamed to make someone change their behavior.

Although it is my impression that my wife did the right thing by sitting quietly inside of our room easing the fears of her baby, though I also know if I were there that I, too, would have felt compelled to step in:

This is what my acculturation tells me to do.

As far as a person travels the lessons of home are never far behind. Like this, cultures can come to clash and the traveler often finds themselves caught between the world they left behind and the one that stares them smack in the face.
If you were in this situation, if you were watching a husband beating his wife in a foreign country, what would you do?

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, El Salvador, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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11 comments… add one

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  • Mike Crosby May 20, 2010, 8:51 pm

    In watching Mexican soap operas, domestic violence is part of the culture. It’s fun to watch these soap operas for all their stupid machismo.

    My wife’s an attorney and part of her job in US is to defend those accused of domestic violence. Ninety percent of her clients are Mexican.

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  • Emery May 20, 2010, 11:53 pm

    I probably would have done the same, taking the protection of myself and my child as my top priority above heroics. Keeping oneself out of the role of judge intruder is simply pragmatic.

    The situation makes me think of an essay I’ve read by Stephen Jay Gould called, “Non-moral Nature.” The essay talks about the ichneumon fly, which injects its eggs into a larger insect, paralyzing it, but keeping it alive until its larva eats the host insect from the inside out. It would be silly to call this parasite immoral because it is following its own nature, its own rules of survival; we cannot judge an insect by human codes of morality.

    It’s not quite the same thing, but I try not to judge the cultures of other countries by my own country’s standards. Of course it’s not always easy.

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    • dad May 21, 2010, 5:14 am

      I am sure i would have said something stupid to the man, gotten my face beat in,felt like a hero, and an ass at the same time.for nobody even the woman would of appreciated it.and thats the fact jack.

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 22, 2010, 4:24 pm

        Haha, yeah, you probably would. Sometimes we need to fend for our own sense of pride over common sense! But you are right on about how it would not be to the good of anybody.

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  • Bob L May 21, 2010, 7:43 am

    I agree with dad, but I learned my lesson when I was in high school. A couple was fighting in the parking lot, the man was slapping the woman hard. I yelled “HEY!!” or something equally brilliant. They both turned their anger towards me, they did not hit me, just yelled at me. Obviously the woman was not thrilled to have my help.

    Cultures take time to change, and often change too far in the other direction. Outside help is never appreciated, and often can have the opposite effect, as you suggested. An older and wiser me would have stayed out of it unless I thought the woman was in true danger. Over the coming days I would have tried to show my disgust for the man, if that were possible. In your situation (or Chaya’s) with a wife and child, I would have stayed out of it completely, and pretend it did not happen. It is not the right thing to do, but it is what is necessary.

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 25, 2010, 2:42 pm

      This just seems to be a regular part of husband wife relations here. I also think Hannah did the right thing, you don’t want to get between that. If it was an errant attack from a stranger, then yeah, step in. But marital relations everywhere are complex. I think the old woman took the kids inside because that is just what people do here. The woman was not being beat so hard that it would leave any permanent damage — she did not even look too beat up afterwards — it just seemed routine. Sometimes it is difficult to figure cultures out, sometimes it is folly to even try.

      Cultures do change, as you said, it just takes time.

      It seems as if Suchitoto is trying to change, the domestic violence awareness projects are more upfront here than anywhere else I have observed anywhere else in Latin America.



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  • Debbie Goss May 22, 2010, 3:16 pm

    What I, or Hannah, might do with a child to care for and what we might do if we were alone, I suspect, are two different things. Petra is and must be her priority. Alone a woman might make her presence known and make the guy aware that there is a witness to his ? crime? idiocy? brutality? Do you think that the old woman took the children inside so that they wouldn’t see what was going on or to keep them safe or both? It seems that her instincts were the same as Hannah’s. And – to illustrate the progress of civilization – did you read about the situation in Bangor recently where a group of women tackled a man who was beating his wife in public and held him until the police arrived?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 25, 2010, 2:41 pm

      Hello Deb,

      Agree completely, Hannah did what was best for her family, and probably everybody involved.

      Hannah just felt like she let herself down, that she did not do what she was taught to do.



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  • Samui Boy February 23, 2011, 11:28 pm

    It is heartening to see the number of creative and proactive efforts that are taking place in Latin and South America to raise awareness of the issue of violence against women. Long overdu in my opinion, but at least something is finally being done.

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  • Neal December 22, 2011, 2:31 pm

    I’d like to add my own experiences here, as a former police officer who attended many a domestic violence call. Of all the types of calls we got, domestic violence calls were always considered the most unpredictable, as well as being very difficult to assess. In cases of clear evidence of actual physical assault having taken place, the decision was relatively simple, with the arrest of the (usually the guy) suspect. Of course, there was always drama, due to intoxication, invariably on both parts. There were occasional cases of the female turning on us as we were escorting their male partner out, despite the fact that she had called for our assistance. In the majority of cases, the female would try her best to have the charges dropped the next morning.

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    • Wade Shepard December 22, 2011, 3:46 pm

      Yes, this is really a complicated issue. As a run of the mill caring human you want to step in, but you also know that nobody — even the victim — wants you to. It must be crazy being a police officer trying to sort these issues out.

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