Moving into the light

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Barbara and Antonio Mendez met in Taos where they established a solid on-again-off-again relationship.

“He was a good man,” she said. “He worked hard.”

But …

“He turned into a demon when drinking.”

Married, the couple came to Socorro for a new start. Barbara made it her habit to leave him alone and avoid him when he was drinking.

It was in December 2009 when that strategy didn’t work anymore.

“I left him alone, but he always picked a fight,” she said.

This time it was over a Social Security letter he came home looking for. She had known where it was, wrapped in a rubber band with a bundle of other mail on the counter. But he said he couldn’t find it.

When she found the envelope but not the letter in the bundle, Barbara knew he had it on him and told him so.

“You never do anything right,” he said and started hitting her on the head.

“He kept hitting me and hitting me,” she said.

When Barbara’s developmentally disabled sister, for whom she is a caregiver, told Antonio to “leave Baba alone,” he hit her on the head, too.

When Barbara got between the angry man and her sister, he hit her sides as she put her arms up, elbows first, to protect her head.

He told her he had a gun and was going to kill her sister and then her.

“This went on all night,” Barbara said.

At one point, he gave the sister a cell phone and demanded she call 911, but she was completely unable to do such a thing. He kept insisting she “call 911, call 911,” and hit her with the phone.

He told Barbara if he saw her go out the door for help, he would “throw so many bullets at you,” from the gun. And he guarded the door with an iron in his hand to hit her with if she came close.

Then, Antonio was sorry. He knelt down before Barbara and told her how bad he felt. He presented his cell phone to her (hers had been broken earlier) and told her he knew he had been wrong.

It was a trick and when she reached for the phone, he smacked her in the head again.

Finally, Barbara convinced Antonio to let her sister go into her room and go to sleep. He stretched out on the couch himself to rest a little.

Barbara sat on the recliner, terrified, waiting, listening to his breathing. She knew he didn’t snore much, so when he snored she thought he might be faking. Finally Antonio’s breathing evened out and she crept for the door.

Barbara got out of the house and woke the neighbor up, it was about 2:30 in the morning by then, and called 911 from his phone. Then she waited what seemed like an endless period of time for the sheriff’s department to arrive, watching for the lights at her house to go on, still terrified Antonio would wake up and harm her sister.

When the police arrived, she told them he had a gun, and they were able to safely arrest and incarcerate Antonio.

Barbara was exhausted, terrified, confused and refused treatment at the time for her injuries.

“My whole body felt like I was lying on top of tennis balls when I tried to sleep, it hurt so bad,” she said.

A jury trial was set for July 2010 but, in spite of Barbara’s warnings, Antonio was let out on third-party release to a relation in Santa Fe.

“I told them he was a flight risk,” she said. Antonio is a Mexican national with a resident card.

Sure enough, one week before the trial date, Antonio absconded to Mexico.

He started calling in September, saying he was going to go to her house and pick up his stuff. She told him no. There was an order of protection and his stuff was gone, he had given it up when he fled.

From her caller ID, she could see he was still in Mexico when he made those calls. But since his flight, she had no way of knowing when he would show up.

“I didn’t sleep for almost a year,” she said. Every time a dog barked she would be up and at the window.

It was May of 2011 when she took her sister to school and went back to her house. Barbara’s neighbor stopped her from going in and told her Antonio was there. She called the state police, but Antonio fled again before they got there.

Not long after, the police found him and arrested him, but nobody told her, and she couldn’t stop being terrified until a friend finally let her know he was in jail again, through the grapevine.

“I was his fourth wife,” she said. “He did this to all his wives.”

She found out later he had broken the cheekbones and teeth of his second wife.

“He just needs to be incarcerated,” she said. “I had no way to know he had a rap sheet. I was sleeping with the enemy.”

Shortly after “that night,” in January 2010, Barbara went to El Puenta, Socorro’s domestic violence agency, for group therapy and other support.

“They helped me so much,” she said. “It was the best thing that could have happened. They are the ones that made me stronger.”

Barbara knows there are members of the community who won’t understand and will judge her negatively for what happened to her.

She also knows there is a great danger of retribution for her publicly sharing her story. Antonio will not be in jail forever. Barbara said she thinks he may just have his resident status revoked and be sent back to Mexico, and she knows that would not stop him from finding his way back.

But she also feels it’s important to bring the issues of domestic violence to the forefront, out of the darkness and into the light. She, and others, will be there Saturday for the Fourth Annual Candlelight Vigil for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, starting at 5 p.m. at Socorro Plaza.