Lynn, Mass. – Crusita Martínez can never forget the face she once had. A constant reminder stares back at her from the wall in the Massachusetts home she shares with her husband and two children. It is a framed photograph that was taken just two days before the brutal attack that would change her life forever.
The photograph reveals a 17-year-old with smooth olive skin and dark brown eyes. Martínez had gone to the photographer’s studio in her native Dominican Republic to take pictures for her upcoming 18th birthday. The photographer said he loved her face so much that he would give her the pictures for free if she would just pose for him.
Two days later, her ex-boyfriend kidnapped, raped and threw battery acid and urine on her when she refused to take him back.
“I have [the photograph] there so that the kids can see how I was,” Martínez, now 29, said in Spanish during a recent interview. “It doesn’t affect me anymore to look at it. I already cried over that picture, but I overcame it. Now it’s just a memory.”
That positive attitude is something that Colombian-American filmmaker Monica Gutíerrez is hoping will come across in “The Face of a Woman: A True Story of Triumph Over Tragedy,” a documentary about Martínez and how she turned her life around.
“There’s more to a woman than just a face,” Gutierrez said. “Society looks at the face but there’s the spirit; there’s who she is. Even though Crusita lost her face, she never lost her soul.”
But it was a struggle from the beginning.
Her third-degree burns were so severe that doctors gave Martínez nine days to live. But days later, she woke up from a semi coma-state despite doctor’s doubts about her survival.
For Martínez, the worst part was accepting her 3-year-old son’s reaction. He called her a “monster” and hid from her.
“I was scared of being at her side,” said Vladimir Tiburcio, now 14. “She was like another person.”
They ended up being separated for four years when Martínez came to the United States through a special visa for medical treatment at Shriner’s Hospital in Boston. There, she underwent a number of surgeries and later received additional treatment at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary through the R.O.S.E. Fund, a non-profit that provides free medical treatment for victims of domestic violence.
“It’s the second worse case I’ve ever seen,” said Missy Allen, manager of The Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center at Mass Eye and Ear. “She had really, really bad burns.”
According to Allen, surgeons took part of Martínez’s rib to rebuild the septum in her nose. She has had well over 20 procedures done over the years and Allen was by her side, holding her hand through nearly every one of them.
“Everyone adores Crusita and we’ll give her whatever she needs for the rest of her life,” Allen said. “I think that she’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”
During those years of treatment, Crusita met César Muñiz, 43, a physican’s assistant. The couple met at Muñiz’s cousin’s house and talked all night.
“I started to see who she was on the inside, not the outside,” Muñiz said.
The pair married six months later and now have a 3-year-old daughter, Arianny Marie.
When she met Muñiz, Martínez had already become an activist, speaking to women in shelters and to girls at high schools about the dangers of domestic violence. Martínez met Gutíerrez, the filmmaker, at the annual “Bride’s March” in New York in honor of Gladys Ricart, a New Jersey woman who was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend on her wedding day in 1999.
Gutíerrez said she was struck by Martínez’s courage and knew she had to tell the story of a woman who overcame her scars and found true love. The project, now six years in the making, still needs to be edited and needs a distributor to be shown.
“There’s a lot of films out there about domestic violence, but in this case it’s about the recovery,” Gutíerrez said. “What happens when you already have the scars?”
Muñiz, who is Puerto Rican but grew up in the Dominican Republic, said that the acid, known as “acído del Diablo,” is commonly used to unplug street gutters but has also been used against women during domestic disputes. The man who attacked Martínez is currently serving a 30-year jail sentence.
One in four women worldwide will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetimes. In Latin America, violence against women is a major problem – though governments have strengthened its laws to make punishment more severe. Domestic violence, advocates say, is widespread.
“I wouldn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, it’s those people in DR,” said Elizabeth Speakman, director of The Haven Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Domestic violence happens everywhere and I don’t think this type of assault is particular to a certain culture or country.”
If Martínez had the chance to see her attacker again face to face, she would ask him why he did what he did.
“It’s not so much that I’ve forgiven him; it’s more that I never held onto my anger,” she said. “Instead of feeling like a victim, I decided to raise my voice and be heard.”
Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance writer based in Boston.