Fighter: How Domestic Violence Fueled her Advocacy

Meggie Hernandez-Zayas: Reclaiming Me

Alison Pfaff, Head Photo Editor

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As her boyfriend’s hands clamped down on her neck, Meggie Hernandez-Zayas started to see spots. At the same time, her thoughts became clear. One of two things was true. She’d never leave the Glen Ellyn apartment alive. If she did, she was never coming back. Not to the apartment. Not to the relationship.

Hernandez-Zayas did escape from that apartment. She’s spent her life since then helping other women who have not yet escaped, or are still dealing with the trauma they faced.

 Fighter. Survivor. Advocate. These words may describe many, but not as much as they describe Hernandez- Zayas. A paralegal student at COD, she  has turned her experiences with domestic violence and sexual assault into being an advocate for state legislation, survivor support and education.

Hernandez-Zayas’ decision to return to school after graduating from North Central College in 2013 stems from her passion for to help fellow survivors.

“In 2015 I started getting involved in legislation and the state government because of the budget crisis. I was trying to find out who my reps were, who my senators were and how the process of government works. It snowballed into learning how does legislation function, how do you file a piece of legislation. What is the process from the moment it’s filed to the moment it’s signed? How do you draft a piece of legislation?

“I started getting involved with that and the grassroots organizing,” Hernandez-Zayas continued “With filling out witness slips and creating actions in our state government.”

Hernandez-Zayas is also a survivor of domestic violence. In a four-year span, she experienced two abusive partners.  Like so many women who find themselves in an abusive relationship, she tried many times to leave her first partner. It took more than two years.

“That was a very manipulative relationship, emotionally abusive. It was sexually coercive. There was a lot of sex abuse in that relationship, and that one I left six times. Six times was a charm. On average, it takes a woman seven times to leave a domestically violent or dating violent relationship,” she said.

Hernandez-Zayas’ second relationship came soon after the first one, which is common for survivors of domestic violence.

“That relationship was emotionally abusive, verbally abusive and very physically abusive,” she said. It culminated in him trying to strangle me to death in his apartment in Glen Ellyn.”

Throughout all of this, she volunteered for Mutual Ground in Aurora, Ill., where she received an Advocacy Certification. Mutual Ground is an organization that educates and provides services to those affected by domestic violence and sex abuse. She also was an events planner for Women at Risk International, which gives women who have been trafficked protection through intervention projects.

“I have had this background, even though this is happening to me behind closed doors, and people who I worked with and advocated with and volunteered with didn’t know.Because of all the training I went through, and because of everything I learned and researched, and the presentations I was giving as an educator, I learned a lot about what trauma does to people and things to expect with my trauma,” Hernandez-Zayas said.

She credits this training with why she is so open with her own story, speaking at various colleges and universities, such as Benedictine University and North Central College, about her own experiences.

The first time her second partner became physical in August 2014, he squeezed her hand so hard she heard a pop.

“That was the first injury he gave me that kind of never went away,” Hernandez-Zayas said.

Following this, a cyst began to grow on her tendon sheath, located between her pinky finger and ring finger, which she had removed with surgery.

“It was very frustrating,” she said.  “My hand was bandaged up, and I couldn’t play the piano, and that was always like catharsis. I am a classically-trained pianist. I have been trained since kindergarten, and I couldn’t play piano because my hand was all bandaged up.”

Hernandez-Zayas then turned to photography, founding “Reclaiming Me,” which is a photo series where her, along with other survivors, choose a word that represents them after abuse, as well as their stories. The first photo taken was of her on top of a parking garage in Wheaton by her husband.

“I brought my leather jacket and my motorcycle helmet and had my hand bandaged. I felt so cool and powerful. I had [my husband] write ‘Fighter’ across my neck, because that’s where I had been strangled.”

Reclaiming Me has continued to photograph survivors, both publicly and anonymous, with survivors choosing a word that represents them.

“We are kind of ‘defined’ by this moment [of abuse], but that is not all of us, what we are,” she said. “That is one chapter in our book; that’s not our whole book.”

Today, along with other efforts, Hernandez-Zayas as well as her colleague Annie Wegrzyn continue advocacy by researching to propose legislation on a solution to Transcript Notation, where students at colleges and universities would have a mark on their transcript indicating if there was some type of disciplinary action taken, such as sexual assault, etc. Many survivor organizations are against this. Some of the problems with this legislation include not specifying the offense that occurred, and the risk for lawsuits if the notation bars perpetrators from getting into the school.

She also has in the past contacted former COD Trustee David Olsen to ask for his support on various bills. Olsen was supportive of her efforts and would come to her events, such as Take Back the Night at North Central College in 2017.

Reclaiming Me continues to advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and the photo series has been displayed on various Illinois college campuses throughout.  

Hernandez-Zayas’ photos will be displayed at North Central College at Meiley-Swallow Hall on Oct. 4 and 5 with a presentation from 12:30-1:30 on Oct 4. For more information visit: