On July 26, 2018, a young Mexican musician set off on a solo trip before her band’s first concert.
Her name was María, and she was 25 years old.
At dawn on August 5th, 2018, she and a friend were walking on the beach in Costa Rica when two men assaulted them. María’s friend managed to get away and run for help. María was raped and then drowned. Her body was found later that morning on another beach.
While this was happening, I was on my way to rural New York to train with 28 women to become an Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) instructor. We covered the map for every demographic: ages 19 to 75, 13 countries, a dozen states, people with zero martial arts training to Olympic athletes. Our passion for making the world safer—for women, for children, for everyone—brought us together in an intense week of learning, training, and growing.
We talked a lot about the abuse of elite athletes, sexual harassment in the office, and intimate partner violence. All of these manifestations of violence against women break my heart and drive my enthusiasm for ESD, but they feel distant from my own experience. I have never been a serious athlete; I don’t work in an office; my relationships have largely been nourishing and positive.
I heard the story of María’s murder after my week of training. Now that was personal.
She was just one year younger than me. She loved mermaids. She was curious about the world and open to new experiences.
The second-to-last night of the ESD Global Self-Defense training, we had a board breaking ceremony.
I never thought I would break a board. To be honest, it was so far outside the realm of possibility that I never even considered whether or not I could.
I could, and I did. It felt powerful, raw, necessary…and inevitable.
The board is really just a symbol of the many problems we are breaking down through this work in empowerment self-defense: violence, oppression, injustice, control, fear.
I want to talk about that last one. Violence causes incalculable harm, but fear erases entire worlds of possibility.
One of María’s attackers has already been released. The other will leave prison within months. All of us in Costa Rica will carry a bit more fear with us when we go to the beach.
What enrages me most are the comments blaming the victim:
“She had no business traveling alone.”
“She shouldn’t have been on the beach at night.”
Traveling sisters, don’t let these words in. Don’t let doubt in. Don’t let fear in. We have every right to travel alone. We have every right to inhabit public spaces at every time of day or night. We have every right to total, uncompromised safety.
Now, María was not actually alone when she was attacked, but even if she had been, her murder would not have been her fault.
Even if she had been drunk, her murder would not have been her fault.
Even if she had been naked, her murder would not have been her fault.
Her attackers are at fault—not her decision to experience the world as a young person full of life and curiosity.
I have traveled solo for years without fear; not because there is no cause to fear (there are countless, and María’s story is just the most recent), but because I refuse to erase even a single possibility from my world.
They try to break us, but they forget how strong the earth is. How goddamn strong the sea is. How f*cking indestructible the moon and her daughters are.
One day, we will live in a world where no one wishes to cause us harm for our gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality. I believe in that future, but I do not believe it is imminent.
In the meantime, I break this board for my travel sisters, who have every right to move through this world without fear.
I am training to teach ESD because waiting for change is too dangerous.
I am doing this work for you, sisters.
I am doing this work for you, María.
I am doing this work because #vivasnosqueremos (We Want Us Alive).
And I am doing this work for myself. Because to do nothing is to be complicit in my own disempowerment as a traveler, a woman, and a human being.
The board is fear, and we are stronger.
Empowerment self-defense (ESD) is a violence prevention system developed by women for women for the situations women face and the way women fight. If inspired, help the non-profit organization here.