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G-Sync: Boxer Jennifer Salinas Steps Up Her Game

Jennifer Salinas

Jennifer Salinas

Jennifer Salinas, in a message to her abusers.

Jennifer Salinas

Jennifer Salinas

Jennifer Salinas

Not everyone who comes to Grand Rapids will stay here forever. This week Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen continues his journey during Women's History Month by discovering a world-class winner who walked among us.
Often when I have an editorial planned for a later date, I like to conduct a pre-interview to break the ice with my subject before returning later, armed with a stack of questions based on research.

This was how I'd planned for my January 23 pre-interview to go with boxer Jennifer Salinas. I would return to our conversation in March as part of my editorials devoted to the changing face of West Michigan – a series seeking to share those often-unsung stories in a celebration of Woman's History Month.  

The conversation was about to wind down with Salinas, a former Grand Rapids resident who currently lives in Virginia, where she and her husband are raising their four children, when I felt a question was still not being answered.

As I quickly reviewed my notes, trying to keep up, I said, "Something is missing here. I understand your path from Virginia to Bolivia, where you have family. And I even understand the professional boxing life that began in Grand Rapids, but what I am missing is why you relocated from Bolivia to Grand Rapids at the age of 15 with only your mother."

"There are personal reasons as to why I came to Grand Rapids," Salinas said. Just as I was going to move on, she added, "While Bolivia is where I spent my childhood until age 15, my mother and I moved here after her divorce -- and after I revealed that, from the age of 5 – 14, I had not only been raped but had been sexually molested by members close to my family."

Salinas' father ran a transportation firm, and as a result of his limousine business and other related services, he would often invite people to stay with the family. Since Salinas' mother was working on her theology degree at the local university, young Jennifer was often entrusted to the care of her father's staff and other family members. It was while under this care that these attacks would occur.

For the young Salinas, born in 1982, her country of Bolivia was beginning a series of civil rights reforms that were seeking to change the machismo-fueled culture of Bolivia by granting women more protections.

Even with all of Bolivia's reforms during the 1960s, women and children in 1973 could still be beaten and abused by their husbands within reason and without fear of prosecution. According the book Women's Rights: A Global View, written and edited by Lynn Walter, if a woman should try and proceed within the courts, the burden of proof was shifted to the victim and not the perpetrator. Wives had no legal protections even in the case of sexual abuse until the 1995 adoption of the Law on Domestic Violence.

The world began to take notice and, just two years before Salinas was born, the United Nations General Assembly's Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was finally signed on May 30, 1980 by the country of Bolivia. It was a historic first step by the United Nations, stepping in to assist Bolivia and other nations in setting a new standard for how people should be treated.

Since then, progress has been made, and when Bolivia submitted its first report to CEDAW in 1991, it painted a picture of a country that was finally taking the issue of women's rights seriously, thanks to government oversight. But old patterns of abuse and power prove just as difficult to change in Bolivia as they do in our own city and country, and even after new reforms were put in place, the United Nation's Human Rights Committee reported in 1997 that "despite the constitutional guarantees of the rights of women in Bolivia, they continued to receive unequal treatment owing in part to traditional attitudes and outdated laws that clearly contradict the provisions of CEDAW" (Women's Rights: A Global View).

In comparison, America has had its share of struggles in this area with women activists and reformers. It would take more than a hundred years to restore a woman's right to vote after it was stripped away beginning in 1787. (New Jersey was the last state to remove a woman's right to vote in 1807.) On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified, granting all American women the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship.

Even with all the advances that would follow in the decades to come, women have become more vocal about a host of issues -- from health to access to even the obvious inequity within the workplace, where a 1960's American woman was making 59 cents to a man's dollar for the same work. President Kennedy attempted to close the gap with federal mandates, enacting the Equal Pay Act of 1963. In 2013, as this act celebrated its 50th anniversary, American women, for all their advances in their vocations, now earn 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.

So while it is easy to look at the sliver in the eye of other countries like Bolivia, when we look at "more advanced" locations closer to home, it becomes crystal clear that the way we treat women in both our nations is an universal problem.

Meanwhile, Salinas and her mother were immigrating to America, thanks to a serendipitous connection. "While my mother was seeking her degree, she met a pastor, Bill Gates, who was teaching at the college where my mother was attending," says Salinas. "Since my parent's marriage was over, and through the assistance of Pastor Gates and the Grace Fellowship congregation, my mother and I were able to relocate to Jenison starting with zero."

A clean slate in West Michigan might have been just what the young Salinas needed, but shortly after arriving she got into trouble, bouncing from Jenison Junior High and then later to Rogers High School in Wyoming before finally dropping out of school while in the 10th grade. She would later secure a G.E.D.

With lots of anger, whose secret source from years of abuse was still hidden from others, Salinas finally decided one day, after leaving a shift at the Division Avenue Mexican restaurant where she worked, to walk up the long hallway stairs to the neighboring boxing school, Pride Boxing.

"No one wanted to train me," says Salinas, recalling that first day. In spite of that, Salinas returned to the gym often because, while they would not instruct her, they certainly would accept her $35 per month fee to use the facility. "They all laughed at me but I would not let them stop me. I needed somewhere to place my anger so I used boxing to channel that rage."

For a long time, Salinas trained alone, mimicking what the male boxers were doing. One trainer, Mr. Love, broke ranks from his students to show her how to jab. Later, another trainer allowed Salinas to train at his home, where she logged countless hours punching a bag that hung next to a basement washer and dryer. She began competing, becoming so fierce in the ring that she garnered the respect of her mates in the world of boxing.

Within 8 months, not only had Salinas fallen in love with boxing but she had also risen to the ranks of champion in 2001, when she won the Golden Gloves Tournament representing Michigan.

Salinas, like every good boxer, has plenty of light-hearted moments and stories to share -- even funny ones, like when I asked her if Rocky had inspired her in any way when no one would teach her how to box. She said, "You know every boxer watches that film and while that punching the raw meat in the locker is pure Hollywood, I did learn how to run in the snow, which came in handy in Michigan."

She also had a few thrilling moments, including knocking out an opponent in the ring during the second round of a fight, earning a trip to Las Vegan to train with Floyd Mayweather's trainer. Salinas, who fights for Bolivia now and is nicknamed The Bolivian Queen, clinched the World Championship in the super bantamweight division of the World Boxing Federation for Bolivia. She became the fourth Beltway Boxer to win such honors, with an impressive record of 15 wins, 3 losses to date. (And of the 15 wins, she has scored four KO's.)

This year, at the pinnacle of her career, Salinas decided, under the guidance of her therapist, to write a letter to her childhood abusers, creating first a letter, then a poem, and finally a video, which she posted on her Facebook page. To her surprise, the video attracted hits from throughout South American, and plenty of attention.

"What attracted you to me? Was it my tenderness, my innocence? Was it the smile that God gave me?" asks Salinas on the video (embedded at the end of this article). Both the video's pace and her knowing and triumphant smile haunt the viewer as she speaks in semi-hushed tones, standing over her sleeping youngest child in the nursery. Ever the boxer, Salinas spins around in a hypnotic dervish dance, taking the camera with her as if to make the men she addresses feel dizzy from her new-found voice.

Up until the moment Salinas made her video, these men's names were only known to a close few. In this video, she not only reveals that one of the two has passed away but shares with the world the name of the other man.  

As a result of this act of coming out, Salinas was inundated with phone calls and messages via her social platforms -- but also outcries from those closest to her, from her husband, her trainer and even her manager. And not all the comments were positive, but Salinas has been willing to speak to all about this matter.

"They were not happy that I did this but, as a person who understands that I cannot do this forever, it felt like now was the time," says Salinas, 31, mother of four children, who faces the next challenge to her title on May 28.

"As I am training for this next fight in May to defend my title, I am also cooking, cleaning the house and taking care of the children," says Salinas. She has no remorse because what she is able to do is a result of being incredibly driven.

The result of this coming out has been fruitful, according to Salinas. Since this video revelation, she has been conversing with victims of abuse and also folks who were abusers, some of whom have even phoned her crying, not realizing how their actions could impact a child's worldview.  

The morning after the video was launched on her Facebook page, Salinas was phoned by her manager, stating that she must fly to Bolivia the next day to meet with the Vice President Álvaro García Linera.

At first Salinas thought it was because the video she had posted did not paint a nice portrait of her homeland of Bolivia. However, her agent, who had initially wanted her to take the video down, lest it alienate potential sponsors, revealed it was to sign an impressive contract for Salinas to become the face of Bolivia TV – a state-sponsored TV network devoted to the education and advancement of Bolivian culture.

Because she refused to remain silent, she went to Bolivia and clinched that endorsement deal – and she also got to share her struggle with Vice President García Linera, who, upon learning of her childhood plight, pledged to help her set up a foundation that would assist other women and children of sexual abuse in Bolivia.

The circle of abuse was coming around to a new chapter. With Salinas out in the open with her plight and many others speaking up in support of her, Salinas was free of her demons and more able to focus her energy back in the boxing ring – though speaking out has brought its own complications to her competitive spirit.

"Now when I am training, I try and summon these men's names again as I have in the past to fuel my anger, but the rage does not appear as it once did so easily," says Salinas, who explains with an air of frustration in her voice, "So, I am wondering if maybe I am getting close to hanging up my gloves and getting a divorce from boxing."

But by the time we speak again in March, I'm not so sure. "You know what, Jennifer, I don't think you need those men anymore in your life because, from what I hear in your voice and your story, they were never the source of your ability to win in the first place. It was all you and your ability to overcome anything," I say to her.

"Ooh, the hair just stood up on my arms when you said that," Salinas says, as she gives credit to God often for her strength.

And with that, I wrapped up our time and hung up the phone as the tears finally broke through, surprised and humbled by the wisdom that a Bolivian-American boxer, mother, and advocate can share with those of us still living in the city where she began her boxing journey.

I like to believe we provided a nice foundation here, a place where she learned to be assertive, to find her path, to get what she needed, and, in doing so, got to rise to the top, where now she is poised to start a new fight as she takes on this topic of abuse.

She is on the top of the world and has its attention. As she steps out of the ring to share more of her life, she takes all of us with her on a journey. And she's a good reminder that when you're on top of the world, you can use your time in the spotlight to stand strong for the causes and people who don't have a platform of their own; that every journey has a different start; that many successes are fueled by failure, pain, and anger; that we should never underestimate the strength and determination of an immigrant high-school dropout with boxing gloves and an iron will; that women of all ages and cultures deserve our respect and attention.

I hope that when girls from Bolivia to Grand Rapids and everywhere in between hear her story, they will know there is a tomorrow… and with a little push from all of us, a better one, too, when we all respect women.  

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

This week's G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!
Editor's Note: All images provided by the Salinas. Image of Salinas at Mayweather Promotions by photographer Mary Ann Lurie Owen, who wrote the book "Extraordinary Women of The Ring" based on her years of access ring-side to female boxers. To inquire about the book, please contact the author/photographer here.

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