Susana Matta Valdivieso on the Parkland Shooting, Abuse, and Anti-Immigrant Laws in Florida

Her rapist is in a cell at the Okeechobee Correctional Institution, but some nights, she swears she can see him in the dark. She can almost hear the sound of his knife on her door frame. She can feel his hand on her mouth.

Susana Matta Valdivieso doesn't often talk about her past. Few of her neighbors at the RV park know much about her.

They don't know she hid in a dark classroom as a gunman claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They don't know that, six months later, she sat in a cold, antiseptic rape center, and that she's not a US citizen.

Susana doesn't strike up conversations and is rarely outside her trailer long enough for someone else to. She is only 22, but her eyes are ringed with dark circles, making her look exhausted.

She's had to put her trauma into words more times than she can stomach.

Susana first told her story to police officers, then to the Department of Children and Families, and finally to a judge. She told them how her cousin — a US citizen and a ranking member of the Marine Corps — adopted her. She told them how he used to linger at her bedroom door while she changed, how he climbed into her bed at night while his wife and children slept, and how, for two years, he raped her and said if she told anyone, he'd have her deported.

Five years have passed since her rapist's arrest. Susana had tried to live a simple and quiet life on the rural outskirts of Tampa. But when the sun begins to dim and her Murphy bed comes down, she can't sleep. "I feel like I'm waiting for him," Susana tells Teen Vogue.

She is one of 119,414 immigrants who, since 2018, have applied for legal protection under the Violence Against Women Act, according to recent data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Stories like Susana's are not just about the individual men who entrap them, but the system. Her family's survival in the US relied on favors — an out-of-state driver's license from one friend, an apartment leased under another.

<cite class="credit">Darian Mattos</cite>
Darian Mattos

To live here without authorization from the federal government is to live with "overlapping forms of legal, financial, and social hardship," as Asad L. Asad, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, put it in a recent article for Inquest.

Susana's mother saw ángeles in those who extended a hand. For every angel, though, Susana knows there's a demon — those without empathy who see opportunity, who exploit women with the promise of citizenship or the threat of deportation.

Renata Bozzetto, the deputy director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, tells Teen Vogue that the true prevalence of sexual assault within immigrant communities is unclear: “We only know the number of women fortunate enough to escape these situations.”

Most sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and the likelihood of a victim contacting law enforcement is much lower in immigrant communities. Legal experts, such as A.J. Hernández Anderson, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project, say laws like Florida's SB 1718 further dissuade undocumented victims from reporting crimes.

The new law makes it harder for undocumented immigrants to live and work in the state. It punishes companies that hire them and requires hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask whether a patient is undocumented.

"It's the perfect recipe for abuse," Susana says of Florida's tilt toward aggressive immigration reform. "The question should be, ‘Who do I need to call to report this?’ But the question [will become], ‘What is going to happen to me after I report this?’"

One Republican lawmaker in Florida has said SB 1718 is "supposed to scare" undocumented immigrants; another said it demonizes them. Bozzetto and Hernández Anderson say these comments enable abusers.

<cite class="credit">Darian Mattos</cite>
Darian Mattos

"That any one US citizen could hold that much power over another person simply because she is fearful of deportation should be an example to us all, especially those in power," says Asad.

Susana knew she had to leave Florida when she read that law. She sat on her coil-spring mattress in late May and called her mother. "I can't do this without the family, Mom," she said. The better life they dreamed about, the white picket fences, wouldn't happen for them — at least not in Florida.

Yet her mother, who worked over 40 hours a week cleaning houses their own family couldn't afford, maintained hope. She tried to instill that optimism in Susana.

"Things are bad," Susana said. "We have to leave."

She remembered a time, years ago, when her mother had told her the same thing. Susana was only six years old then, too young to completely grasp the harshness of their circumstances in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Her father had planned to leave alone for the US. He'd find work, save money, and, eventually, come home. But her mother couldn't bring herself to accept that. She saw the bond Susana shared with him. "We leave together or not at all," her mother decided. They boarded a plane to Tampa in 2007.

Susana's parents, who obtained their undergraduate degrees in Colombia, took whatever work they could find: Her father peddled shaved ice; her mother cleaned houses.

They warned Susana that if she got into trouble or revealed too much about where they came from, the US government could separate them. Her mother remembers, during those first few years, whenever she or her husband came home late, they'd find Susana crying — worried something had happened to them, that she would end up alone.

Susana learned English at school. But in her thrift store outfits and well-worn Skechers, she understood America in ways her parents couldn't. Even as a child, she seemed aware of how her family craved luxuries that would never be theirs.

She once asked her parents for a Nintendo DS. Her father and mother hadn't even bought a car yet. Still, they worked extra shifts to afford it. Months passed, and her mother noticed that Susana hadn't used the console. When she asked her daughter why, she answered softly, "I can't play — I don't have games." Her mother didn't realize she had to buy them separately, and Susana didn't tell her because she knew they couldn't afford it.

By ninth grade, Susana recognized the challenges her undocumented status posed for her future. She couldn't get a learner's permit. She couldn't get an after-school job. She couldn't afford college.

She signed up for her high school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps after realizing the military could provide her with citizenship and the financial support needed to pursue higher education.

It was on Christmas Eve in 2015 when Susana's cousin, a captain in the Marine Corps, first heard about her plan to join the armed forces. She says he walked up to her that night and asked her why.

Her cousin explained that if someone adopted her, they could petition for her citizenship; he offered to do so a few days later. Susana thought his offer seemed too good to be true. Ultimately, it was.

Susana's parents remember how hard it was to let her go with him. Her father tells Teen Vogue he felt guilty for not being able to provide his daughter with the opportunities she deserved. "You feel frustrated, you feel incapable, you feel bad because you can't give your child what they need," he says, speaking Spanish. “Every kid wants to be stable.”

Susana on her way to elementary school
Susana on her way to elementary school

Susana, however, didn't find the stability she needed under her cousin's care. She encountered pain at every turn.

On February 14, 2018, when she was 17 and in 11th grade at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a former student armed with a semiautomatic rifle stepped out of an Uber and walked toward his unsuspecting peers and faculty.

Susana didn't know the school well enough to run out of it. She sat on the vinyl floor of her classroom in a floral dress. She remembers that, for a brief moment, she hoped to die, to escape the hell at home.

Seventeen people were killed that Valentine's Day. Susana, like countless others, knew it could have been prevented. She knew that it should have been prevented. So, she protested. She joined the burgeoning March for Our Lives movement.

“I needed that first step of speaking out,” Susana tells Teen Vogue, "of feeling empowered and emboldened to push me to do that in other areas of my life."

"We love Florida," she says. "But Florida doesn't love us."

She became a reliable source for reporters in Tampa looking to put a local face to a shooting that had roused the nation. Susana's name, in print or onscreen, became synonymous with tragedy.

Five years later, on July 28 of this year, Susana hitched up her trailer and left Florida for good. Her mother and father wouldn't go with her. They had worked for 16 years to obtain a fraction of the amenities that drove them to the US and feared losing it all.

How can a family that fought harder than most to stay together, that traveled hundreds of miles to find a comfortable life together, that longed for one another in every moment of separation — how is it that after all they sacrificed, they wind up apart?

Susana's answer is simple: "We love Florida," she says. "But Florida doesn't love us."

She spent her last night in Tampa at her parents' house. Her father tried to make her laugh. Her mother cried. Susana can't remember how long the three of them stood on the porch.

Her mother and father said a prayer for her and watched Susana's black pickup truck inch down the street toward the setting sun.

It was early afternoon when Susana arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She parked the truck at a nondescript campground, stepped out, and for a moment let the warmth of the desert wash over her.

She unfolded a beach chair and sat beneath her trailer's awning. She peeled a small, dimpled orange her father had given her. She took a bite. Hogar, dulce hogar: home, sweet home.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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