Elisa Xolalpa has three daughters and has found a job she enjoys since an ex-boyfriend tried to destroy her life by throwing acid on her when she was 18. Two decades later, she is still seeking justice.
Acid attack survivors like Xolalpa are banding together and raising their voices in Mexico despite the country’s high rates of violence, which often target women, and staggering levels of impunity.
“I thought I was the only one,” said the 38-year-old, who grows flowers in southern Mexico City. “But we are no longer alone.”
Earlier this year, the Carmen Sánchez Foundation formed here to support and lobby for legal reforms for acid attack survivors. He has recorded 29 such attacks so far, five already in 2021, but believes it is only a fraction of the actual number.
Survivors want the attacks to be classified as attempted femicide, help with the countless surgeries that follow, and psychological support. They want to be seen even if their face hurts.
“Mom, what is acid? 9-year-old Daniela once asked Xolalpa. For a moment, Xolalpa was silent. Then she told her daughter that it was a liquid they were using in the greenhouse that was dangerous. Another day, Daniela left school in tears. “Some kids told me you were ugly, mom, and that’s not true,” Xolalpa told her daughter.
Xolalpa has a gentle look. She enjoys growing flowers in chinampas – fertile islands interwoven with canals in the capital’s Xochimilco district – as her ancestors did. She admits that one day she will have to explain to her three daughters, the result of another relationship, the attack that changed her life and left her for a time wanting to die.
These days, she’s focusing on mental preparation for a new hearing for her attacker, who was finally arrested in February. She lodged three complaints with the authorities and suffered constant threats from them. For now, he only faces one domestic violence charge, but Xolalpa hopes that will hold him long enough to pursue a charge of attempted femicide.
His attacker’s lawyer was dismissive. “He says I’m fine because I was able to start a family,” she says indignantly. She entered into a relationship with the father of her three daughters “to feel that I could please someone despite the scars,” Xolapa said. “It was a mistake, I am still damaged.”
To spray someone with acid is to want to dissolve a person physically and psychologically. It’s always premeditated, according to the United Nations.
In Xolalpa’s case, it was tied to a pole. The acid dissolved the ropes, but also her clothes and body as she ran half-naked for help. She had 40 surgeries to repair her body.
Carmen Sánchez, who started the foundation that bears her name, was having breakfast with her mother and sisters at home in 2014 when her partner walked in and threw acid on her face. He fled with a driver waiting outside as Sánchez’s chin melted against his chest and his cell phone dissolved in his hand.
It took years before Sánchez turned to activism.
One day in 2017, Sánchez called Gina Potes, a Colombian survivor, whose “Rebuilding Faces” collective is helping other women who have survived attacks. Potes was on his way to a doctor’s appointment.
“She told me about all her pain, she cried, she told me about her operations,” Potes recalls. When Potes got to the doctor, “I said to Carmen, ‘Look, I’m going to take my clothes off, but we’re going to keep talking, don’t worry.'”
Seeing Potes baring his scars without any shyness shook Sánchez. She realized that trying to hide what had happened wasn’t helping. So, as she sought justice in her case and underwent surgery after surgery – she is up to 61 – she began talking with other survivors, looking for donors, psychologists and doctors.
“From the start, I had only two options: let myself die, which she considered several times, or look at my scars, inside and out, and understand that this was my new reality. Sánchez told lawmakers in late July when she received an award from Mexico’s lower house of Congress.
Sánchez made it clear to lawmakers that women like her face not only violence from their attackers, but also “state indifference and impunity, media revictimization and social and professional exclusion.” and discrimination ”.
There are children and men among the victims of acid attacks, but 80% are women, according to The Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI).
They are usually attacked by partners or former partners or people paid by them out of jealousy or revenge, according to UN Women, the United Nations entity for gender equality.
ASTI documents about 1,500 acid attacks per year, but says the real number may be higher.
The acid attacks are not confined to a particular part of the world, to certain religions or cultures, but rather to conservative institutions and “to the deep economic and social gender inequalities that exist,” said Jaf Shah, director of the organization.
“Many attacks can go unreported,” Shah said. “If they are reported, they may be classified under a different offense.”
Sayuri Herrera, Mexico City’s special prosecutor for feminicides, said more acid attacks were being recorded in Mexico. His office is currently reviewing older cases that were originally classified as serious injuries to see if they can be reclassified as attempted femicide like Xolalpa’s.
Only two of Mexico’s 32 states classified acid attacks on women as attempted femicide. Violence against women in Mexico extends far beyond acid attacks, making it harder to gain attention.
During the first half of the year, 1,879 women were murdered in Mexico and more than 33,000 injured, according to federal government data. Over 10,000 rapes have been reported and nearly 24,000 cases of domestic violence.
“They see us as their property and act on the reasoning that ‘if you are not mine you will be nobody’,” Herrera said.
In June, Xolalpa and other women demonstrated outside the prosecutor’s office in the capital to press for their cases to be resolved. Meanwhile, new cases continue to surface.
Ximena Canseco, co-founder of the Carmen Sánchez Foundation, recalled a day on July 29 when they learned of the existence of an attack survivor 30 years ago and they found a message asking for help on Facebook from the mother of a daughter who had just been thrown at her by someone on a passing motorbike. On the same day, Canseco learned that a 30-year-old woman who had recently shared her story had died of COVID-19.
“She never made it public, she had lost everything and was still receiving threats,” Canseco said. “We talked for an hour.
Xolalpa said we cannot allow violence to be normalized and this is a message she wants to teach her daughters.
“I have to turn this pain into something else,” she said. For now, that means demanding justice and not being silent.