Hickory Hill

CasaLuz fights domestic violence, supports Spanish-speaking victims in Memphis

CasaLuz is a nonprofit working to reduce domestic violence and related crimes among the Mid-South's Spanish-speaking communities. It's a small operation with just three full-time employees and three part-time employees, but its work is vital.

It's the first and only agency of its kind in the greater Memphis area.

In 2018, Tennessee ranked fourth in the nation for domestic violence. In Memphis, domestic violence is half of all violent crime and affects all races, cultures, classes and neighborhoods.

CasaLuz supports survivors, educates the public and advocates for equal access to legal services and systems for Spanish speakers. The staff teaches clients about the cycles of abuse and effects of domestic violence on children. They provide legal advocacy and assistance in navigating court systems and exercising legal rights. They also provide referrals to lawyers and social services. 

Providing all supports in Spanish and English ensures individuals and families can be fully engaged and informed in what can be a complicated process of legalities and personal recovery even without language barriers. 

CasaLuz also offers weekly support groups and provides classes with presentations on child support, divorce, orders of protection, violence prevention and more. 

“We have our own support groups in our offices, and we have a Latina counselor to provide counseling for our clients," said Inés Negrette, executive director and founder of CasaLuz. "That's what we do. We see the need and want to be part of the healing.”

The organization is located in Hickory Hill, but its exact location is private for the safety of the clients and staff. Negrette said new clients typically get in touch with CasaLuz by phone for a brief screening process before scheduling an appointment.

Negrette is originally from Venezuela. She's lived in many places, but moved to Memphis in 2000 from Miami, Florida. She began volunteering with an immigration services program in 2008 and eventually became a bilingual legal advocate. She founded CasaLuz in May 2016.

Since that time, the organization has served over 600 clients.

“When we opened our doors it was based on a grant we received from the federal government," said Negrette. "We served 166 clients during our first year."

"And you know why? The need is huge," she said. "I have clients that come here from Arkansas, Mississippi and from around the whole city." 

Inés Negrette (center), founder and director of CasaLuz, speaks at an event as part of CasaLuz's outreach and awareness work. (CasaLuz)

Why don't they just leave?

In the U.S., domestic violence victims return to their abusers an average of seven times before leaving for good, often because they lack resources and a support system outside of their abuser.

For many Spanish-speaking victims, legal status, language barriers and an unfamiliar culture add to the reasons they stay. 

“Often people will say, 'Why didn't you just leave when he hit you the first time?,'" said Negrette.

"I know a lot of people have good intentions, but it's easy to judge when you don't understand the trouble that they have. They don't understand the culture or the language.”

She said some families also hesitate to involved law enforcement or courts if anyone in the household is undocumented. If the victim is undocumented and has children, they may be even less inclined to report. 

“That happens more than you think,” said Negrette. “There's that fear of getting deported and never seeing their children again." 

Negrette takes pride in the fact that CasaLuz does not judge a person's social or cultural status.

“The way I see it, I just have a human being in front of me, and I'll do anything to help that person and their family," she said. "I don't want to judge. I just make sure they're safe.”

Negrette said cycles of abuse can survive for generations, which is why she's passionate about confronting the issue.

“Let's say a woman has six kids that are not American citizens," she said. "If we don't help her, her children will get used to that hostile environment ... and keep the cycle going."

Negrette said its important to remember that domestic violence is not specific to any one race, culture or income bracket. 

“We want to stop the cycle of abuse for everyone," she said. "We need to unify ourselves. We're human beings, and we're part of one race, the human race.”

Safe spaces and critical conversations

CasaLuz is funded primarily through donations and three major fundraisers each year. The organization's next goal is to build their own emergency shelter.

"Domestic violence makes people feel embarrassed so it'd be nice to have a safe, quiet place for them to go," said Negrette.

They're also preparing for an upcoming event in partnership with the Refugee Empowerment Program and Mid-South Immigration Advocates.

“October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month so we're going to have a workshop called 'Domestic Violence Through An Immigrant And Refugee Lens,'" said Negrette. "We're going to talk at length about immigration and domestic violence." 

The workshop is slated for October 4 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Caritas Villiage, 2509 Harvard Avenue.

Need help or want to support CasaLuz? Call 901-500-8214 or email [email protected]. Donations can be made through their website at casaluzmemphis.org.
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Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)