In observance of Violence Awareness Month, we sat down with domestic violence survivor April Lee Hernandez, (Freedom Writers). The Puerto Rican actress, 29, currently stars as a professional woman who is brutally beaten by her husband in the Off-Broadway play The Death of A Dream, showing through Nov. 9. She spoke to Latina.com about her new play and the relationship that almost ended her life. April is sharing her personal story in the hopes that it will raise awareness and help save the lives of other women who are likewise afflicted.
What does the play’s title, The Death of a Dream, mean to you?
My character has a line. I say, “It felt like the death of a dream to have it all end.” To me, that means that we all have dreams of having our marriage last, of having everything—and then to have it all end, was just death. It killed us. It killed the dream of having that American family and having it all last. But in the end, we are all survivors.
What attracted you to this play?
I am a survivor of domestic violence. I was in a relationship when I was 19, and I was the victim of my boyfriend’s rage. He beat me up. He was physically, emotionally abusive. So that’s really why, when I read this piece, I was like, 'oh my gosh—someone is finally doing something, and I get to be a part of it.' And not only was I a victim, but I am a survivor, which is the most important thing.
How bad did it get?
There was a point where he and I had a very serious fight and he tried to rape me. I thought he was going to kill me. I really was just there like, “wow this is it. This is going to be my last breath if I don’t get out of here.” I was at his apartment and we were fighting, and fortunately, I got away. He let me go after hours and hours of fighting.
Did you make excuses for him?
When that was going on, I didn’t have a justification at all because I just didn’t understand what was going on. It’s hard for me to explain. I justified it a little bit where I was like, 'no one knows about his past and I feel like I’m the only one who can save him,'—especially since he was my first boyfriend in every way. So I just had that connection to him, but then I also realized that the [relationship] became a sexual relationship after a while—that became the addiction. You know, I felt like I was addicted to the sex, because there was nothing else.
How did you work up the courage to extricate yourself from that relationship?
I got up one night [breaths deeply] and I didn’t recognize myself. I looked in the mirror and I just couldn’t recognize myself anymore. I didn’t know what I liked to eat, I didn’t know what colors I liked, and I just said a really simple prayer. 'God, if you don’t get me out of here, I’m going to die. And I don’t want to die.' I grew up in my house with my mom and father always telling me that I was beautiful and that I could be anything that I wanted to be. And that the man that loves you would never mistreat you, and it was like that voice never went away.
While you were in the relationship, were your parents aware of what was going on?
They were aware that I was dating him, but they didn’t know anything. No one knew. I was hiding this abuse that was going on, and I hid it very well.
What did they say when they found out?
Well, I just confessed it to my father about a month and a half ago. I kept it for about 8-9 years. I never told him. I just knew it would break his heart. I knew how my father would react. When I told him, he was like, 'why didn’t you tell me?' And I said, 'because I was protecting you.' As crazy as that sounds, I felt like I knew I had a fighter in me, and I felt like I was going to die. But I just felt like there was a way out. I took that chance because I know my father. He’s a crazy Puerto Rican man who loves his daughter. It would’ve been very bad.
Why do you think it’s so hard for people to leave their violent lovers?
I think it’s a variety of things. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have a way out. God created women so that we are able to see things that men can’t. When he wasn’t this angry man beating me, I saw this other side to him. I think that that’s what some of the women feel like, like there’s a man inside there that they know is their man, it’s just that there’s a monster that comes out. So they overlook that monster for the man that’s deep down inside, but never really comes out. Like, I know that this guy is good. I know he’s so good. After a while, you train your mind to start thinking that way and hoping that he will be that prince charming. But in the end it rarely happens that he becomes that prince charming. It’s insane.
Nancy Genova, the playwright, (and fellow domestic violence survivor) said that it was therapeutic to write about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered in the past. Was that the case for you: Was it therapeutic to star in this play? Or was it hard reliving some of those experiences for art?
It’s both. It’s therapeutic because at the end of the play I have a huge breakout moment and every time that moment happens I scream. I go crazy because I know that I’m screaming for the women who don’t have a voice. And then it’s also tapping into those areas where I’m like, 'wow I cannot believe that I was in this.' Sometimes it’s really hard for me.
What advice would you give to a woman in a domestically violent relationship?
I would guide her and get her numbers to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence. There are shelters for women who are battered, and the men will never know where they’re at. There are so many ways out now. It’s just, do you want that help? Because you can tell a woman to get out, but unless she’s ready to really get rid of it, she’ll remain there. If she is, there are options.