By Anita J. Martin
As an adult, Victor Rivas Rivers has been an NFL player and a film star, and as a teenager, he was a member of a street gang. His story shows how it’s possible for individuals and families to break the cycle of abuse and rebuild their lives.
Rivas Rivers shared his story June 15 at the Celebrate Independence Luncheon sponsored by DAIS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services), which took place at the Concourse Hotel.
Speaking about the transformational programs DAIS offers, he stressed the children’s program should be a model for the state as well as the nation.
Rivas Rivers referred to the old African saying, ‘How are the children?’ and the modern African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’
“I am that child that was raised and rescued by his village,” he told 720 people at the 7th annual program, which is the main fundraising event for DAIS.
The keynote speaker said domestic violence is “real, terrifying, scarring, and sometimes, it’s deadly.” It involves physical, psychological, and spiritual wounding, he explained, as he told about how his father abused his mother, him, and his siblings.
“When there are no rules, everyone copes in their own way,” he said, as he described living in an atmosphere of family violence.
Rivas Rivers said “witnessing violence against an adult is the equivalent of child abuse, plain and simple.”
The physical abuse his father inflicted upon him was done in such a way that clothing covered the wounds. “Battering of the psyche and soul takes longer to heal,” he stated, referring to the times his dad called him stupid and worthless.
The speaker revealed how he ended up in his father’s custody, and eventually ran away from home. On a desperate search for a sense of belonging, he ended up joining a street gang for a while.
After his friend saw him on the street, he ended up staying with an unofficial foster family for his last two years of high school. Thanks to a number of angels and advocates along the way, he was able (at the age of 15) to take his dad to court in 1971 for abuse. By senior year, the former gang member’s life took a different turn (“bit by bit, angel by angel”), and he became president of his graduating class.
Rivas Rivers discussed how he could have become a statistic, had caring people not stepped in to help over the years. Many of the young men between 12 and 18 that are incarcerated, he said, are there because they killed their mother’s abuser. In fact, he said, studies show most incarcerated men started as victims of domestic or family violence.
He emphasized the need to better equip people to respond to crisis situations, and to invest in strategies to break the cycle of violence.
According to Rivas Rivers, “how we treat women in our society is a measure of our collective character.”
He raised the issue of domestic violence in professional athletes, and said returning to the team when a player has been violent is “an injustice to society” and to the rest of his teammates.
The vast majority of sports figures/professional athletes are good men, he said, good people off the field and not violent to their partners. Rivas Rivers said for him, athletics and sports served as “a healthy, necessary outlet” for his rage.
Though his experience with family violence was 40 years ago, he said not everyone today gets the message love should never hurt. “Domestic violence, family violence continues to be the most underreported crime,” he said-“the quiet crime” that thrives in an atmosphere of shame, denial, and silence.
“Domestic violence is learned in the home and in relationships,” Rivas Rivers attested. His mother encouraged him to start speaking out against family violence, in order to have a positive impact on the whole community.
Victor Rivas Rivers is the author of the book, his memoir, of abuse and survival, A Private Family Matter. For more than 15 years, he has served as a national spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. His main messages as he speaks to groups throughout the country include: To be a strong man, you do not have to be a violent man; and it is possible and imperative to break the cycle of abuse. For more information, visit www.victorrivers.com
To learn more about the services DAIS offers for children and abuse prevention for young men, visit www.abuseintervention.org