13. Miami, violence against women, acid attacks, Natalia Ponce de Leon

Photo of Natalia Ponce de Leon, courtesy of her brother Camilo Ponce de Leon
Su nombre y su idea corrieron como una delgada línea de pólvora que un dios burlón hubiera encendido como pasatiempo público, más luego cayó en el olvido como suele suceder con todo. Un día ya no se habló de él. Otro día la gente olvidó su rostro.
ROBERTO BOLAÑO, Nocturno de Chile.

I traveled from Bogotá to Miami with Carolina, the teenage daughter of one of Father´s associates, and a guide, a plump brown woman whose name I don’t remember and who served as our carer and guide during the trip. Memories are scarce. A Dunkin Donuts in front of the brightly lit reception of the hotel where we stayed where black people were having black coffee. The tiny beds in the bedroom. Slices of pizza with melted yellow cheese and slices of pepperoni. Arcade machines where Mario needed to save Pauline from the brown gorilla named Donkey Kong and a frog needed to cross a busy street and a river full of logs without getting killed or drowning. Watching white beluga whales and black and white killer whales in SeaWorld. Drinking straw glasses. The interior of Epcot’s sphere. A cap with the shape of Figment’s head, the park’s mascot. Gathering signatures of men or women dressed as giant chipmunks, ducks, dogs, and turtles in a small yellow autograph pad. What I do remember clearly is that Carolina, two or three years older than me, using a Mickey Mouse pocket lamp, studied my erect penis under the bedsheets. She looked at it, retracted the foreskin, touched and held the glans with her thumb and index until she got bored and went to sleep. We also went with Carolina and her family to Cancún. I remembered that trip thanks to a photo I saw at Aunt Victoria’s. One can see Carolina going up the stone stairs of one of the grey Chichen Itza pyramids. I am some steps behind her. Mother put the blame on John Jairo, Carolina’s father, for many of the fights they had after Father met him. Father’s violence against mother reached unprecedented levels during those years. Father seldom hit Sister and I. He punished us with a rolled newspaper once when we were taking a bath with Silvana and spent the whole bottle of bubble soap. He slapped me or pushed me once when I told him to stop shouting at hitting Mother. I can’t recall any other time. All his rage fell on Mother. He slammed her face against the black door of the Mitsubishi Montero and broke her nasal bridge. He punched one of her eyes and the retina of her eye detached. She spent weeks in a hospital after Father kicked her stomach and the injuries in her uterus caused her internal hemorrhage. Mother’s left arm was a mix of blue and purple and yellow after Father crushed it with the car door. One afternoon Mother, Sister, and I were forced to hide behind parked vehicles, to walk crouching in zigzag between the cars to the interior of a hamburger shop where the employees hid us behind the counter and called the police. Father had been hiding behind a yellow telephone booth, the old ones that looked like hairdresser dryer hoods, armed with a long knife. Father was not the only man I saw abusing a woman. Our neighbors, The Malaver, were a family of five, Graciela, the mother, the father, whose name I can’t recall, the elder son called Mario, a small boy whose face was covered in moles and whom we all called Tata, and a beautiful pale girl named Heidi. I have memories showing Heidi, the first girl I can recall being infatuated with, Figment’s cap, which would mean I was seven or eight at the time. We used to play with the Malaver mostly outside or in their house. I was ashamed and horrified of anyone, especially Heidi, finding out that I still wet my bed. The day was cold and sunny. We were in one of the hallways of the Malaver’s house after having played for a while in the small backyard. We heard Graciela wail. The reaction of the three kids was not to go and see if their mother had had an accident, if she had hurt herself, or seen something scary. The three of them covered their heads and ears with their arms and shut their eyes as if getting ready for impact on board of a plane, as if getting ready for an earthquake. I then saw Graciela pass in front of me, her face disfigured by terror and tears, followed by her husband, a bulky man in his late forties, coiled black hair, a thick mustache, who was holding a bed plank on his right hand. Graciela and her husband turned left at the end of the bleak hallway and the man shut a door behind him. Then we heard the thumps, and Graciela’s please for mercy, and her husbands screams of anger. Thump, plea, scream, thump, plea, scream, over and over again. It lasted for a long minute. The door opened. The house was in complete silence for some time. Graciela left the room and came down the hallway to see us. She hugged Heidi, then the boys, and said, everything’s ok. The last thing I knew of the Malaver was that the husband became the Mayor of a small town, Heidi lived in London, and Graciela was still alive. Violence in The Country goes much further than insults, blows, and punches. Natalia Ponce de León, and the hundreds of cases of many women like her, came to light the same year of the Incident. A man obsessed with de León threw sulfuric acid at her, burning her face, arms, abdomen and one of her legs. Journalist Martha Soto wrote El Renacimiento de Natalia Ponce de León (The rebirth of Natalia Ponce de León), a book offering details on de León’s case. Algunos jirones de la piel de Natalia Ponce de León fueron encontrados por su hermano Camilo en el piso de la casa (Some shreds of Natalia Ponce de León’s skin were found by her brother Camilo on the floor of the house), writes Soto, mezclados con sangre y con un líquido negro, de apariencia viscosa y de olor nauseabundo. Hacía unos minutos, un litro de ácido sulfúrico en su estado más puro le había sido lanzado empapándole su cara, labios, dorso de la lengua, párpados, oído izquierdo, antebrazos, abdomen, cadera y piernas (mixed with blood and a black liquid, with a viscous appearance and a foul smell.

Nereida Caicedo Dajome, acid attack survivor, photo courtesy of Camilo Ponce de Leon

A few minutes ago, a liter of sulfuric acid in its purest form had been thrown over her face, lips, the back of her tongue, eyelids, left ear, forearms, abdomen, hip, and legs). Soto also quotes de León’s surgeon, Jorge Luis Gaviria, El químico seguía avanzando y, de hecho, suele ser más agresivo a las 12 horas de haber sido usado. Lo más probable era que perdiera su nariz, que ya estaba negra, y también toda la piel al nivel del abdomen, que parecía un cartón. Al final, en la cara no le quedó ningún pedazo de piel, todo era músculo y grasa (The chemical product continued to advance and, in fact, it is usually more aggressive within 12 hours of being used. Most likely, she’d lose her nose, which was already black, and all the skin on her abdomen, which looked like cardboard. In the end, there was no skin left on her face, everything was muscle and fat). Once she was back on her feet, de León initiated an intensive communication campaign to expose her case, created a nonprofit organization to defend, promote, and protect the human rights of acid attack victims which carries her name, and gave interviews nation and worldwide. In November twenty fifteen, The country’s congress approved the Natalia Ponce de León law. The law provides prison sentences of between thirty and fifty years for the attackers, aggravated if the victim is an infant or a woman. The practice of maiming and disfiguring another person with acid, out of jealousy or searching revenge, is not exclusive to The Country. There are hundreds of cases every year in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Iran, Uganda, Pakistan, and Italy.

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