FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE AFTER MY RAPE IN BOLIVIA
by R. Gurley
I became a conduit that night, November 23rd, 2013. I was a forty-two-year-old Californian woman lying on my back looking at an almost full moon on a dirt road outside a church somewhere in Bolivia. Three men raping me at an intersection in the shadow of a crucifix cast from Samaipata Bolivia Evangelical Church.
I’ve learned since that night people think rape is sex. These people are wrong. Rape is hate forced into someone by someone else. Loathing mixing in one’s liquids, moving into places uninvited. I felt something in me escape that night. Rape rearranged me. I became a receptacle, a conduit, a shell.
These men were strangers who’d entered my life moments before. I was walking after midnight from the bar downtown to an Airbnb I’d rented with some friends. I know what you’re saying now. I can hear it. A woman should never walk alone at night. I know that now. The world isn’t safe for a woman or a girl. But let me ask you this: in what logic system does a woman walking home alone deserve this?
I heard footsteps behind me at a corner in front of a church. I could see my Airbnb porch light. I turned. A man racing toward me. Powder blue Abercrombie sweatshirt hood pulled over his face like the grim reaper. I ran. He pummeled me, pushing my face into gravel, then thorns. His sneakers struck my side. I was on my back. I opened my eyes. Man became men. There were three.
Car lights is how it ended. The men became roaches rushing toward the shadows. My body took a breath. My body was alive. My body picked me up. My body ran toward the Airbnb porch light and jumped its fence. The men had stolen my purse. No key. My body banged on the door. My body screamed. My body said it. “I’ve been raped!” A friend answered the door.
I ran upstairs, covered my body with clothes. I ran downstairs. My friend handed me water. I sat on a couch in the living room. My friend ran out the door. He returned minutes later. He’d gone to the corner by the church. Three figures walked toward him, coming back for me. They returned to shadows when they realized the figure was a man. I listened. My face throbbed. I shut my eyes.
They’d ask me the next day something they’d never ask a man. What was I doing here? Samaipata, Bolivia, once an isolated village Che Guevara passed through on his way to his last stand near Vallegrande, a few miles up the road, was now a resort town for the jet set from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, three hours away. Locals, jet setters, expats now filled up its streets. I followed this crowd from Santa Cruz where I’d moved to the year before to escape grief. My boyfriend, Jon, the love-of-my-life kind of thing, died two years before of brain cancer in Riverside, California. His death handed me a bucket list. International teaching was item number one. So why the hell was I here? A school had offered me a job. I accepted it and packed up my things. Gotta get outta there to come here. Santa Cruz de la Tierra, Bolivia, to start a new life. I was forty.
These thoughts woke me. I couldn’t believe I had slept. Sun rising. A dream? I pushed myself up. I looked down. Blood stained the sofa’s yellow tweed. My feet pushed into the white ceramic tiles on the cold floor. I stood.
The men’s hate seized my ankles. My legs buckled. My body fell fetal on the floor. Body betraying mind. I smelled strangers. This was no dream. I was raped.
I wanted my mom. My mom, a girl in the fifties, a woman in the sixties. She dressed me, born in the seventies, in T-shirts that read “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” since I was five. She was a Baby Boomer raised on Donna Reed, weaned on Steinem. I was born at the crossroads, Generation X, Prince, Madonna, Boy George, a generation which gender turned on its head. Because of this, I never understood my mother’s mantras to not make waves; to my Gen X mind, making waves was why we humans were here. I swore I heard her, along with generations of women before, whisper as I lay there on the floor— Just let this go! Pretend it was a dream! I made a decision. I screamed.
The scream woke my friends in the house. They came to the living room in their pajamas. They grabbed my arms. They lifted me from the floor. They called others. Others came to the Airbnb, gathered on the porch. These people were my friends. I’d been with them the night before.
They took pictures of me with iPads. They handed the iPads to me. My face, displaced, blackened eye, sideways nose. I handed the iPads back. Those pictures couldn’t be me.
They said I needed to go to the hospital. They took me. Diarrhea green was the color of the Samaipata Hospital walls. The doctor was no better; he looked like Jabba the Hutt. Jabba motioned me to an office, not an exam room, when he saw my beaten face. My friend translated for me the night before. Jabba yawned, scrawled on a script pad and slid it across the desk to me. My translator intercepted the paper. She read and crumpled it. Aspirin? She told him to fuck himself in English. Jabba smiled.
The people took me, then, to the police. Their station was near the town plaza. The station’s door was a barn door. A green-clothed officer told me and my translator to have a seat. The translator told the officer the story. The officer spoke. The translator told me we had to fill out a denuncia, Español for police report, except the officer didn’t know how to use the computer. My translator offered to help. They switched places. Hours later, paper rolled off a printer, which pre-dated the laser kind. The officer assured us they’d find the rapists. He said there was no rape in Samaipata. We were walked back to the barn door. The sun was going down.
We returned to the Airbnb. Others were waiting there. I told them what the officer had said. Someone laughed. Someone said, “The police are dirtier than the criminals here!” Someone stuck a stack of papers into my hand and said, “Suspects.” Grainy pictures printed from local Samaipateños’ Facebook pages—men someone heard of in the community that could have done this. I looked at these. My heart sank. No one looked familiar. I flipped through the pages. Then, I saw the EYES. My eyes raced to know the EYES’ name. J.E. Montenegro. Someone whispered, “Look how she’s shaking!” Montenegro’s picture fell out of my hands and landed on the ground.
We took the picture to the police. The officer knew J.E. Montenegro. He glanced at Montenegro’s picture—un chico malo, a bad boy. The officer said he’d bring Montenegro in for questioning the next day.
The next day I got a call. The officer had Montenegro and wanted me to identify him. I walked to the station with a friend. A man of about twenty sat in the same chair I had been in the previous day. His muscles rippled out of the sleeves of an Abercrombie T-shirt. He turned to look at me. The EYES. Their hate grabbed my ankles again. I fell to the ground before I could say: It’s him!
The story of the crime spread through Samaipata’s streets. People gathered outside the police station. They surrounded me to protect me. Someone approached me to tell me the Montenegros would give me 200 Bolivianos, the equivalent roughly of thirty bucks, if I kept my mouth shut. Another person whispered, “We don’t talk about rape around here.” Another person whispered, “Although it happens all the time.” The police told my translator they couldn’t provide me a denuncia to take to Santa Cruz where I could get a real forensics exam. The police released Montenegro. Montenegro’s fifteen-year-old wife pushed a baby stroller past me as he glared at me. I heard someone scream in English that he was my lawyer. He told me to hop on his motorcycle to return to the hospital to demand a gynecological exam. I followed him to escape the crowd.
Jabba welcomed me back to the hospital with a growl. I didn’t speak Spanish but I understood what Jabba said to the lawyer. What the hell is she doing back here? The lawyer said something. Jabba shrugged. I went into a room, a deeper shade of diarrhea green. The equipment looked like a donation made in 1952. I took off my pajama bottoms. I cried. I didn’t want Jabba to see what the strangers had left behind.
A hundred campesinos, Bolivian farmers, showed up at the Samaipata City Hall a few weeks later. All had a copy of my medical exam from Jabba, forged, saying I wasn’t raped. They waved the papers at the alcalde, the Bolivian equivalent to mayor. They screamed: The gringa wasn’t raped. They screamed: The gringa is a whore.
This didn’t faze me when I heard it. Too much had occurred to surprise me. I was denied a forensics exam five times in Santa Cruz because I didn’t have a denuncia. I was granted one after seeking legal counsel at Santa Cruz’s closest thing to a shelter, Casa de Mujer. I returned to work with the word “rape” scrawled on my classroom door. I’d told the administration. The word remained there. I thought I had syphilis. That was fun. People who supported me got threats.
But we had the smoking gun: a phone bill with Montenegro’s number transferring two dollars of my phone credit at 4:00 a.m. on November 23, 2013. He had no wiggle room.
I got counseling. My boss had given me the name of a counselor who spoke English. I called her and made an appointment. I went to her office, sat on her couch, and told her the story. She looked like Tina Fey. She drew circles on a dry-erase board after I spoke. She talked about energy. These words gave me hope. Maybe she could help me. Maybe she could see what I’d become: a conduit, a shell. She drew stick figures of the men and me as well as some arrows. The arrows pointed away from me and toward the men. She said, “Don’t you see?” What I saw suggested my energy drew the men to me. I told her this. Her brown eyes blinked and she agreed. I felt the men’s hate inside me. The men’s hate grabbed the markers and reversed the arrows’ direction. “You’ve got it all wrong, lady,” I said. “Those men pushed hate inside me.” I showed her the proof. I told her how I fantasized about holding a gun to the back of their heads, how I wanted to make them shake. She shrunk away from me, scared. “You’re being aggressive,” she said. I replied that was the point. I needed help with hate. I asked her if she’d ever been raped. She shook her head no, the no delivered with an undertone that she was somehow above all that. The rape was my fault in her un-raped eyes. I walked out.
I sought counsel elsewhere, in my upstairs room on a yoga mat with YouTube. YouTube had wisdom: Jack Kornfield’s Ancient Heart of Forgiveness. He said forgiveness didn’t mean I had to condone anything. He said forgiveness can sometimes mean making sure this never happens again. His words helped me. Something in me moved.
A call came, an expat had rescued two dogs. Something told her they were for me. Two terrier faces looked up at me the next day. One had a blue collar, the other one pink. They looked like my dog that I loved as a kid. I looked up at the sky. Yes, I told the expat, they’re mine.
Mick and Minnie, that’s how they entered my house. Minnie waddled to me with a sock she found. Mick shook, a mess like me. We walked upstairs and listened to YouTube in the dark.
I waited for the trial for a year and a half. I taught by day and learned dogs by night. Mick clung, while Minnie was comedy. She escaped one day and ran into a bush. Mick and I watched leaves rustle. Minnie’s tail peeked out and wagged. A hotdog bun filled her mouth when she returned. I laughed. Mick yelped too. Joy—the first time in months. Minnie renamed Sugar. The end of a bitter season.
A call came from my lawyer one day. The trial was set in Vallegrande, the town where Che Guevara’s body minus his hands was found underneath a landing twenty years after his death. I got in my lawyer’s car the next morning. We drove six hours to the Vallegrande courthouse. The judge canceled. My lawyer whispered sucio—dirty! We drove six hours back to Santa Cruz. We did this again the next week and the week after that.
We brought the press. The judge slammed the gavel. The press scribbled on pads. The trial lasted weeks. The defense’s witnesses argued the rapists were good boys. The defense lawyers said I was a whore. The prosecution presented evidence. The prosecution put me on the stand. I closed my eyes. I saw flashes of the morning after the crime, lying fetal on the floor. I understood on that stand why people keep their stories to themselves. Cameras flashed. I opened my eyes. I would speak for them. I told the truth, so help me God. The courthouse gasped. The rapists were sentenced to twenty-five years.
The rapists’ faces were six-feet long on a screen. I was on a Bolivian TV station. A journalist asked me questions. My translator answered them. Salsa music bumped the room. My face replaced the rapists’ on the screen. My testimony. Rape celebrity. The music stopped. The lights went down. Commercial. The journalist looked past me and asked her assistant, “Quien próxima?” Who’s next?
I had to leave Bolivia. My lawyer said, “You’re no longer safe.” I had been fired for this, so I had planned to leave. “My new job in Paraguay starts in a month,” I told my lawyer. He said I needed to leave in three days. I sold what I could, put the rest on the curb. A friend would drive the dogs to Paraguay. I got on a plane with two suitcases and flew.
I was contagious in Paraguay. A fellow teacher told me to not tell anyone. “People judge,” she whispered, a thirty-nine-year-old woman on Tinder saying she was thirty-one. My boss heard the whispers. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked me one day. I didn’t think rape pertained to my employment. She rolled her eyes and said “We don’t want any problems here, understand?” Rape spreads even with the rapists behind bars.
I hid in my house. The dogs walked me until Sugar escaped one night. She never returned. Mick and I wandered through Paraguayan streets overgrown with vines, calling her name. Sugar was the love of Mick’s life. I understood. I hugged him and whispered, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Things weren’t okay. Mick hid in dark places, lost weight. He got dog treats and fluffy balls. No interest. He’d return to sleep. Sugar’s loss turned him into a conduit, a shell. I understood; I scruffed his ear.
I woke Mick early every day. We walked. A routine. We stayed out of yesterday and tomorrow. We listened to Jack Kornfield at night on a yoga mat. We forgave. We loved. Love confronted the men’s hate, Mick’s abuse, our losses. Hate was no match. We were okay. I survived. This is my story. My hope is this story sheds light on what goes on in the dark. My hope is I work to ensure this never happens again. These men’s fingers on my throat. These men will never leave. I look at Mick. I have a choice. I am a conduit, a shell. The hate of the men could strangle me as it had for generations of women before me. I think of my mom, I think of myself that morning, fetal on the floor. I think of the T-shirts she had me wear, infusing me with a language women were just learning when I was born. I put this language to pen and paper . . . I became a conduit that night, November 23rd, 2013.
R. Gurley, MA, MFA, is a writer and online English teacher with over 20 years of experience with words. Her works have appeared in Inlandia, Midwifery Monthly, Coping Magazine, Lehigh Valley Woman’ s Journal, and Budget Press. She co-runs rgurleyrevolution, a bilingual blog/podcast which interviews women around the world in hopes of raising awareness of women’s issues, with Carolina Ronquillo, a current contestant in MasterChef Paraguay. Viva la Mujeres!
This essay originally appeared in HitchLit Review.