They were carefree and besotted, joined at the hip, the epitome of a young couple steeped in the insular world of teen obsession. To some, 17 year-old Cindi Santana, and 18-year-old Abraham Lopez, the estranged boyfriend who beat and murdered her on the campus of South East High school in Los Angeles last week, were a perfect match. To others, Lopez was jealous and possessive, having been arrested in late September for threatening Santana.
Santana’s murder highlights the deep and abiding threat that violent relationships have for young women. Although many LAUSD Health classes incorporate anti-violence education into their curricula, there is little emphasis on the roots of violence vis-à-vis dominant models of masculinity and femininity. According to a study conducted by Casa de Esperanza, Latinas often suffer silently from intimate partner violence due to religious, cultural and gender role socialization.
A study by researchers from the Children’s Hospital in San Diego determined that 82% of Mexican-American women experienced “psychological aggression” during their lifetimes. The dominant culture’s glorification of violent masculinity in mainstream America, coupled with the emphasis on the Latino machista figure, and the Buena Mujer, or good woman, in many Latino cultures, strongly influence the self-image of Latino youth.
Anti-feminist messages that a girl or woman is “nothing” without a man still pervade mainstream American culture with particularly insidious effect on teen girls of color. Tragically, the nexus of high intimate partner violence, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS contraction rates amongst black and Latino young women is a direct result of these anti-feminist messages. High poverty rates and racist social welfare policies that limit intimate partner violence resources and devalue or criminalize women of color victims also play a profound role. In addition, Latina undocumented immigrant victims may fear deportation if they utilize community victim services or seek refuge in shelters.
After making violent threats against Santana, Lopez was briefly arrested then released. Investigators from the L.A. District Attorney’s office failed to act on harassing texts Lopez sent, contending that the threats were not “imminent” and that the “victim took 18 hours” to report them. According to the L.A. Times, Santana’s mother informed the school principal about the threats.
Many in the South East High school-community have rightly faulted law enforcement for failing to notify the school about Lopez‘s arrest status. Yet the horrific beating and murder of this young woman demands that we ask what other preventive measures are being taken on the campus and in the District around anti-violence youth education and leadership for boys as well as girls. Violent boys see violence against women valorized at home, on TV, on the Internet, in video games, on their school campuses and in their social cliques. In the absence of countervailing messages, male violence becomes normalized.
As a former teenage victim of intimate partner violence myself, what little I know of Santana’s story is heartbreakingly familiar. At 17 I was beaten by a jealous boyfriend in broad daylight on a city street, although, in my case, onlookers stood by and did nothing. The deep shame and fragile self-esteem I felt prevented me from telling anyone. For many straight young women, having a boyfriend or a clinging admirer(s) is a game changer. In a culture in which most women’s film and TV roles still revolve around that of sex object/wife/mother, male attention is supposed to translate into female self-worth and legitimization. Boys who act the part of the jealous possessive male are simply aping the model of competitive ego-driven masculinity that all males are supposed to aspire to.
I mourn Santana’s death, both for what she had yet to become and for the young life her friends, family and community have insensibly lost. Her murder is another tragic reminder that the culture of violence against women will only be transformed through a humanist moral revolution that dismantles deadly gender norms.
Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist mentoring program based in South L.A. and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.