Lisa Casarez had just turned 18 and had a big, fairy-tale wedding with a mariachi band and chicken mole – everything needed to mark the beginning of a beautiful marriage. But the Cinderella moment did not last.
Within weeks of saying her wedding vows, Casarez says, the abuse started.
“I went from being a princess to ending up in a place of darkness.”
The young bride, bruises hidden by makeup, tried to fix her marriage: If she lost weight or cleaned the house better or had a baby, maybe it would please her husband and his anger and abuse would stop. She had been taught that you “do whatever you need to do to make this work as far as being a woman.”
But nothing improved.
Ashamed, guilt-ridden and fearful, she stayed in the marriage for six years until a tragedy compelled her to leave.
Now 54, long divorced and the founder of Angels of Grace Foster Family Agency in Fresno, Casarez calls herself an “overcomer” of domestic violence. And she has a message to share with people in abusive relationships that she at first had to learn herself:
“You need to stay alive.”
Thousands of women are emotionally bruised and physically battered by partners in Fresno every year. Domestic violence has increased here while other violent crimes have decreased, and women of every income level, race and ethnicity throughout the city are victims of abuse.
A bond of fear
Fear overshadowed Casarez’s newlywed life in 1981.
Car lights shining through her front-room window made her pulse race and heart pound. The lights signaled her husband was coming home and the abuse would begin.
She told herself alcohol made him lose control and hit her.
She did not consider herself to be a battered wife or victim of domestic violence.
Most women in abusive relationships don’t recognize the partners’ behaviors as domestic violence, says Nicole Linder, executive director of the Marjaree Mason Center, which operates domestic violence shelters in Fresno and Clovis. “They just know there’s something wrong and that they love this person and they’re pretty sure that person loves them. But they just want the abuse to stop and they blame it on the drugs, the alcohol. They blame it on the fact that somebody lost a job. They internalize it and say, ‘Well, if I just stopped doing this, then he won’t do that.’ ”
Early in her marriage, Casarez had befriended a neighbor whose husband left her bruised and bloodied too. The friends confided their love for their husbands. They vowed they would do what they had to do to grow old with them, envisioning someday they would be sitting as couples on the porch, drinking coffee and watching grandchildren play.
A police officer who patrolled the neighborhood at times would be called to her home and to that of her friend to investigate domestic violence. On one night in 1987, the officer knocked on Casarez’s door. She was home with her son, 4, and daughter, 2.
The officer handed her a resource card that he carried to give battered spouses, and she absently tucked it in the pocket of the bathrobe she wore. He then explained why he was there: Her neighbor was dead. Her husband had killed her.
With her friend dead, Casarez no longer could deny her own dangerous situation.
After the officer left, she looked at her son and daughter and thought, “If I die, who is going to take care of my children?’ ”
Somehow, she says, her son sensed that she had shifted into survival mode.
Later that night, when her husband came home, her son grabbed her purse and his younger sister’s hand and headed to the driveway where her Chevrolet Chevette sat parked. He opened the car door and screamed that he had the car keys. Casarez ran out of the house and jumped into the car. The keys were in the ignition.
“All I had to do was turn the key and we were able to escape.”
She drove to the center of Fresno. Almost out of gas, she stopped. She was barefoot and in her robe. Her son had on a T-shirt and her daughter wore pajamas. She had 50 cents in her pocket.
She remembered the card the officer had handed her, and dug it out of her pocket. She had parked next to a telephone booth, and she dialed the phone number. Someone at the Marjaree Mason Center answered.
“It was at that point I knew that I was going to be OK,” Casarez says.
Angels along the way
Looking back on the night she escaped from abuse three decades ago, she says God had a plan. She identifies as “angels” people who helped her loosen the grip that domestic violence had held on her life.
“People rescued me, and it was a beautiful thing.”
A Fresno nurse would be the first to provide comfort.
Marjaree Mason staff had taken Casarez to a hospital to be checked for injuries the morning after she left her husband.
A test showed she was pregnant.
She had no home. No job. And no self-confidence that she could raise two children, let alone now a third – alone. The hospital nurse noticed her distress and assured Casarez she would be OK. She prayed with her.
A few years back, Casarez recognized the nurse, Jana Farmer, whom she calls “my angel,” at a Rotary meeting both were attending. They have since become close friends.
Farmer, who is retired from nursing, remembers tending to Casarez at the old Valley Medical Center in 1987 and telling the battered woman that she needed to be safe. “I just told her get out, get out, get out.”
She also stroked Casarez’s black hair, held her face between her hands and told her patient she was beautiful and worthy of a good life, which Farmer says are affirmations abused women need. “They’ve been told so much that they’re nothing. And it’s not true.”
The words of encouragement gave Casarez the confidence to enroll at Fresno City College, and set her on a path in social work. “I started to see myself the way she saw me … that I was beautiful … I had value and worth. And this was just a little bump in the road and we were going to get through to the other side.”
She now has a master’s degree in social work from Fresno State, and her Angels of Grace agency helps hundreds of foster children a year. She has made it her mission to make sure babies and children who are taken from abusive or neglectful homes and brought to her agency in the middle of the night have diapers, clothes and shoes.
It’s humbling to talk about her past, she says, but maybe her story can give women and men hope. “We don’t have to stay in those places of darkness. We can choose to go into the light.” And the death of her friend three decades ago adds urgency to the message she shares: “If you don’t get yourself out of dark places, there’s a good chance you won’t get out alive.”
These days, it’s rare to see Cazarez without a smile on her face. Her life is full, she says. Her work is rewarding and she’s a proud mother and grandmother. She has 10 grandchildren.
She has forgiven her ex-husband. He moved out of Fresno and remarried. He’s no longer abusive, Casarez says. Recently, he visited at their daughter’s home while she was there. “My dream came true. We were able to enjoy our grandchildren while sitting on the porch.”
It’s a dream Casarez says would never have come true had she stayed in the abusive relationship.
“I get to sit here and watch my grandchildren on the porch, drinking coffee without having bruises on my face.”
What is domestic violence?
Does your partner:
▪ Insult, demean or embarrass you with put-downs?
▪ Control what you do, who you talk to or where you go?
▪ Look at you or act in ways that scare you?
▪ Push you, slap you, choke you or hit you?
▪ Stop you from seeing your friends or family members?
▪ Control the money in the relationship? Take your money or Social Security check, make you ask for money or refuse to give you money?
▪ Make all of the decisions without your input or consideration of your needs?
▪ Tell you that you’re a bad parent or threaten to take away your children?
▪ Prevent you from working or attending school?
▪ Act like the abuse is no big deal, deny the abuse or tell you it’s your own fault?
▪ Destroy your property or threaten to kill your pets?
▪ Intimidate you with guns, knives or other weapons?
▪ Attempt to force you to drop criminal charges?
▪ Threaten to commit suicide, or threaten to kill you?
If you answered “yes” to even one of these questions, you may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
Source: The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Where to call
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
Marjoree Mason Center hot line: 559-233-4357