The Muffling of Eliana Lopez

It was perfect timing last night when I ran into San Francisco sheriff Ross Mirkarimi on the corner of 24th and Valencia. I was feeling particular sympathy for him at that moment. Not ten minutes before I had gotten out of his wife’s Spanish bilingual one woman performance What is the Scandal? an intimate depiction of her relationship with Mirkarimi and the events surrounding his conviction for domestic violence in 2012. There was a media field day following the incident in which Mirkarimi forcefully grabbed Lopez’ arm inside a car, leaving a bruise that she documented on video the next day. In the show Lopez defends her husband, not downplaying the severity of his behavior, but defining it as an isolated outburst hardly worthy of being labeled a violent crime.

On the street Mirkarimi seemed rushed. I had time only to tell him I had just seen the show before he walked on. I think he felt bad about cutting me short because he turned around several steps later and asked “Well, what did you think?” I said it was heartwrenching and that it made me realize things weren’t what I’d thought.

I don’t know the true circumstances of what happened in his jeep on New Year’s Eve 2011 or in the relationship before that night, but what is clear to me is that City Hall, the police and the media subjugated the narrative. But the issue goes much deeper than that. It raises questions that resonate under current political and social conditions about how seriously the voice of an immigrant Latina is taken, about the definition of domestic violence, and about who should have the right to invoke the law against someone else.

In What is the Scandal? Lopez opens a space to tell her side of the story. Speaking primarily in Spanish with English subtitles, she frames the story around the development of her relationship with Mirkarimi, from the time of their initial courtship when she was still living in her native Venezuela, through his campaign for sheriff, to their reuniting seven months after a court-ordered separation. Lopez doesn’t minimize the quarrel that led to the bruising, and gives a detailed account of filming the video with her neighbor that documented the injury. Her focus, though, is that when the neighbor turns the video over to the police, Lopez loses control of her own identity. She did not choose to seek police protection. Rather than empowering her to fight back against a crime, the law compelled her choices and broke up her family. Suddenly she became a public media victim of domestic violence. And the portrayal is tinged with racism, the belief that her defense of Mirkarimi stems from a background growing up in Venezuela, land of Hugo Chavez machismo, where consciousness about gender relations lags far behind an enlightened United States that confronts domestic abuse as an intolerable crime. Apparently she can’t even see abuse when her own body reads it. I admit my own complicity in supporting this image. I had been contemptuous of Lopez as events unfolded, seeing her as another woman who condones abuse by internalizing the messages of the perpetrator. I assumed Mirkarimi was guilty.

He was guilty. But of what? I don’t defend grabbing another person’s body against their will, but what is legally punishable domestic violence? Anyone who thinks such a definition is clear cut fails to acknowledge the profound complexity of how intimate relationship plays out on the physical level. Our culture is struggling mightily with this issue. Perhaps the most volatile manifestation is on college campuses where schools are trying to define codes for what constitutes consensual sexual contact. It is work that has to be done, but objective enumeration is ultimately crude. I have for 30 years had what I like to believe is a pro-feminist perspective, but I also believe with perhaps political incorrectness that in this realm there is an unfortunate zone of murkiness we must acknowledge if justice is to be served.

The most moving moments in Lopez’ show come in her description of a couples therapy session when Mirkarimi describes how he was separated from his father at age 12. He tells his childhood story to explain why he reacted so forcefully that New Year’s night to Lopez’ decision to visit Venezuela for four days with their son Theo. Mirkarimi had left his native Chicago on a vacation with his mother. He never saw his father again and feared that if Lopez left for Venezuela he might never see his son again. It’s a difficult moment in the show because it creates a conflict between repulsion at his abusive behavior and sympathy for his wounded self. In those moments and throughout the show Lopez offers something beyond politics. She situates what became a highly sensationalized act in an intimate context. And in that way she goes to a deeper reality previously untouched in the public sphere.