Men like Cesar Muniz are bound to be rare. But there are plenty of good and decent guys out there. Don’t settle for anything less.
By Bella English
‘What I saw was a generous woman, a talented, beautiful woman’
Crusita Martinez, who was disfigured in an attack from an ex-boyfriend in the Dominican Republic, has built a new life in Lynn with the help of her husband and baby daughter.
Seven years ago, Crusita Martinez was a teenager with a flawless olive complexion and glossy dark hair. She was 18 and in an abusive relationship when she broke it off. Her boyfriend begged her to come back. She said no. “If you’re not going to be with me, nobody’s going to want you,” he taunted just before throwing acid at her on a sunny afternoon in their native Dominican Republic. Relatives who saw Martinez soon after did not recognize her: Much of her face had been burned away by the acid-and-urine mixture. Doctors weren’t certain she’d survive. Her chest and arms were also disfigured. Though her vision was spared, it would never be the same.
When she returned home from the hospital, her 3-year-old son hid under the bed. “You’re not my mommy,” he cried. “You’re a monster.” Those words stung almost as much as the acid had. At 18, Crusita Martinez just wanted to die.
Today, Martinez, 25, sits in her Lynn apartment, laughing and cooing at her baby, Arianny Marie. In the next room, her 10-year-old son, Vladimir, plays a video game and says his mother looks pretty good now.
The same woman who wanted to die now has much to live for: a loving husband, a new baby, and a long-awaited reunion with her boy.
It was a long journey.
Martinez left the Dominican Republic five years ago for treatment at the Boston Shriner’s Hospital, leaving Vladimir behind with her mother. With her wounds, the painful surgery – she’s had more than two dozen procedures – and the absence of her son, she was desolate.
Gradually, she began to make friends, but she never thought a man would see beyond her scars. In spring of 2005, Martinez was at a friend’s party in Lynn, in the kitchen preparing rice, beans, and chicken. As she cooked, she spoke to another woman in Spanish, encouraging her to get out of an abusive relationship.
Cesar Muniz, cousin to the party host, was impressed. “I listened to her. I thought, wow, how can you have the strength to help another person? I looked at what was inside Crusita. What I saw was a generous woman, a talented, beautiful woman.” His face darkens at the subject of domestic violence. “We were born from mothers, and you should never hurt a woman.”
Crusita remembers him saying, after she finished cooking, something she’d never heard a man say before: “You need to sit. I need to serve you.”
Six months later, the couple was married at the house where they met. He takes her to all her medical appointments, holding her hand and singing – “off-key,” he interjects – during procedures. “Sometimes, I’ll come home from work and he has dinner on the table,” she says.Continued…Though happy, Martinez was anxious to bring her son to the US; she hadn’t seen him in four years. Muniz made and paid for the arrangements, and a year ago Vladimir joined them. The day before Thanksgiving, Martinez delivered a baby girl. Her family was now complete.
Martinez says she has never met a man like her husband, someone who will cook, clean, bathe, and change the baby. “When the baby cries at night, he says, ‘Don’t wake up; I’ll do it.’ In the Dominican Republic, men don’t do that,” she says. “When I see my elephant nose, I cry, and he says, ‘Please don’t cry. If you cry, I want to cry, too. Every time I go to surgery, he helps me. I used to feel alone. Now, I don’t.”
She’s on maternity leave from her job as a hotel housekeeper, which with her limited English and her scars, she feels is the only job she can hold. Still, working around chemicals scares her, and Cesar wants her to return to school. “Going back to school is her future,” he says. “And it will be a perfect example for Vladimir.”
Muniz, 40, is a medical assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is studying to be a physician’s assistant at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He leaves home at 6 a.m. and returns at 9 p.m. Though money is tight, he plans to take his wife to the Top of the Hub at the Prudential Center for a Valentine’s lunch today.
“She is a wonderful mother, a wonderful wife, she’s the greatest human being,” he says. “I feel lucky to have met her.”
He’s also proud of her domestic violence work. Martinez has met other battered women, including one burned so badly that she wore a mask over her face. The two became friends and the woman gradually heeded Martinez’s pleas to discard the mask.
Martinez also began to speak at women’s shelters. Her message: If I can recover, so can you. She and other Latina women go to New York every year for the annual “Brides March” in honor of Gladys Ricart, who was shot dead by an ex-boyfriend on her wedding day in 1999. The women don wedding gowns and protest what they call the denial in the Hispanic community over domestic violence. In 2007 Martinez received an award from the New York State Assembly for her activism.
As for her ex-boyfriend, she says he is serving a 30-year prison term for attempted murder. She worries about her sister, who she says is embroiled in a violent relationship there. Her mother, she adds, was abused by her father, who left the family years ago.
Martinez attributes her own healing to the ROSE (Regaining One’s Self Esteem) Fund, a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence. ROSE partners with surgeons at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary to help battered women, and Martinez came to the group’s attention. An ophthalmic plastic surgeon, Aaron Fay, worked on her eyes. Doctors Mack Cheney and Tessa Hadlock of the Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center rebuilt her nose from a rib covered with skin from her forehead.
The hospital’s Facial Reconstructive Surgery Program has provided free treatment to more than 20 battered women through the ROSE Fund. Martinez’s case was one of the more extreme.
“She was so traumatized,” Hadlock says. “He did accomplish what he was after, to try to totally ruin her life.”
She and Cheney say such complex cases are gratifying because they witness the women’s courage and optimism close up. “We don’t have a magic wand, but the process of going through treatment strengthens them psychologically,” Cheney says. “It’s incredibly inspiring.”
When Martinez was honored by the ROSE Fund in 2006, she wore a sleeveless red V-neck gown and made a speech before hundreds at the Fairmount Copley Plaza hotel. “She doesn’t feel compelled to hide her burns,” says Missy Allen, a board member. “Like every woman, she wants to feel pretty and she does her hair, wears nice clothes and makeup. These terrible scars she has to bear are part of who she is and she bears them with a kind of regal quality that I just so admire.”
Crusita Martinez is due for more nasal surgery on Feb. 26. Her husband will be by her side, singing, maybe a little off-key.