photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

Domestic violence affects women all around the world, but the number of Latinas who are victims of abuse are frightening. According to recent studies, 30 percent of Latinas living in the States have been victims of domestic violence and abuse. But Puerto Rican actress and domestic violence survivor April Hernandez-Castillo — known for her role as Eva Benitez in the award-winning film Freedom Writers — is making it her mission to change that disturbing statistic. 

The committed activist, who has been raising awareness about intimate partner and teen dating violence for years, is a spokesperson for the National Coalition of Domestic Violence and the founder of "The L.O.V.E (Love Overcomes Violence Eternally) Walk," created to encourage victims to reach out for help. She hosted a book signing event for her new book Your Voice, Your Choice: My Story of Resiliency and Success at Vivala's offices on October 26.

Hernandez wanted to write a book that not only touched on her personal experience with abuse, but also empowered young women to speak up, leave their abusive relationships, and learn to love themselves again. 

"This book is a call to action. I didn't want to just focus on the abuse. It's about getting back to who you are as a person. Remembering the things that you love about being you."

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photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

Abuse wasn't something she saw at home while growing up, but having two amazing parents gave her the strength to finally get out. 

"I woke up one morning ready to commit suicide, and I remember at that moment is when I heard my father's voice the most," says the Bronx native. "I prayed to God to give me a chance, and here I am today, alive, and speaking about this in my book."

But she recognizes that not all women have that kind of support system or upbringing, especially in Latino households. 

"A lot of us don't really speak. If Papi came home drunk and was beating on your mom, that was normal and it just wasn't spoken about," she says while pointing out the numerous online resources available to women today that she didn't have, like the National Coalition of Domestic Violence. Organizations like this work anonymously to help women leave their abusive situations. Women can log onto the site and the site will automatically delete itself from their Internet search history, making it impossible for their abusers to find out.

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photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

"It's interesting because no one knew that I was in an abusive relationship. I told my parents years later," she says. 

"People become very good at hiding it, which is why it's important to look for signs if you have a friend you suspect is being abused."

Educating others about domestic violence and helping women get out of it has become Hernandez's life calling. But there's still so much more she wants to do, like creating a domestic violence program for schools that would allow them to have these conversations with teenagers while offering them the support they need.

"I didn't write this book to just inspire," she says. "I want to ignite a movement — a fire in someone's bones. I know what it's like to literally have nothing, fight for my life, but be able to say I got out. I found love, and you can too. If I can get one person to walk away and forgive themselves then I've done my job."