My mother was abused by my father. I was so little I didn’t notice. Soon after he physically abused my mother, he also abused my sister and me. My sister’s nose was broken, and my collarbone was fractured. My mother eventually left him. I was about 10.
That’s when I started working as a maid in a house, but the abuse continued. I was only allowed to go home once a month. I would leave the money I was paid with my mother (about $15 a month) and return to the house where I was fed very little and forced to sleep on the floor. After six months, my sister and I were totally exhausted and couldn’t take it anymore, so we returned to my mother’s house.
By that time, my mother was living with another man. The first days were amazing — he treated us well and we went back to school. Then he started to get upset when we were there. We weren’t allowed to turn on the lights to study, and when we arrived after school, he’d throw away all of the food. My mother was supportive of him, and when our neighbors saw what was happening, they fed us.
I lay on the floor trying to understand what had happened…To this day, I have flashes of that moment even though I’ve tried to erase it from my memory.
My stepfather told me my mother wouldn’t believe me. He was right. When I tried to tell her the following day, she wouldn’t let me finish the story. She interrupted, saying it was in my mind.
I spent some more months living there. He kept harassing me and continued to touch me inappropriately. If I was in the kitchen, he would grab my hair, or my butt, or touch my breasts… I was afraid to stay at home with him. If my mother was away, the harassment was worse.
My mother’s relationship was deteriorating. At one point, she tried to send him away, but the next day she went and brought him home. They had a really bad argument, and when I got home from school she said she didn’t want us there anymore. She said she was happy with him, and she didn’t want to leave him at any cost. Then, she opened the front door and asked us to leave.
My sister went to live with her boyfriend. I spent two days sleeping on the streets. I wanted to stay with my eldest sister, but it didn’t work out. My older sister is white. My middle sister and I are Black, and they didn’t want me there.
I started to grow in confidence. I was participating in many workshops, including those run by Plan International Brazil. I learned about sexual exploitation, my rights, and youth advocacy. I used to be very shy, but they encouraged me to find my voice. In fact, after I took part in a communication project, I finally found the strength to tell one of the social educators what happened to me when I was 13.
I also found hope through dancing. Dancing is everything to me. One of my favorites is "Samba de Gafieira" because it is happy and uplifting. Dancing has helped me fight this big monster that’s been at my side. When I danced, I grew bigger and stronger than the monster.
I get emotional talking about the dance because nowadays I don’t feel pain anymore. In my first dancing contest, I came in first even though I had no experience, just passion. I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I mean, I don’t feel sorry for myself. Dancing has set me free from the demons that so often kept me awake at night. Dancing, from samba to waltz, makes me feel like I was an ugly duckling who became a beautiful swan. There is no money that can buy this feeling.
Dancing has helped me fight this big monster that’s been at my side. When I danced, I grew bigger and stronger than the monster.
For me, I wish I hadn’t held my secret for so long. I felt like I was the one to blame. Now I’ve realized I’m not guilty. The survivor is never guilty. How can you be guilty when a sick person thinks they can rob you of your childhood?
Today, I’m 30 years old. I have graduated, I have my own dance studio, which I co-own with my husband, and I am an educator. I’ve achieved everything I wanted because I spoke out and those who believed in me made me realize I can make a difference.
A big part of my life has been pain, but today, I’ve set myself free. When I see my past, I put my present in front of all that, and I see the things I achieved from the moment I spoke up.
To all the girls and women who have suffered like I have, please, speak up! Don’t let anyone get away with it. Talk to someone you trust, who believes in you — and someone you know can make a difference. Let’s show society we don’t have to stay quiet.
If you live in the U.S. and have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). This personal essay has been edited for length and clarity.