We know more about the hidden side of Jupiter than the hidden side of the human spirit. Why do some people grab life and shake the misfortune out of it, while others sink below its weight?
An exemplar of this puzzle is Diana Romero, a determined young Latina striving to overcome the burden of poverty and the living memory of a brutal mother who turned her childhood into hell’s daycare.
The ambiance of Harbison Canyon in East County is as far from urban San Diego as Birmingham from Boston. You get the feeling no one is in charge out there, and they like it that way. The roads are as rumpled as corduroy, either unpaved or moon-surface potholed. Middle-class houses sit next to shacks as would diamonds to rhinestones.
Rural quietude is ripped apart by the loud growling of those nasty little four-wheelers that scoot down the roads like brats in a restaurant. Horses look up from backyard corrals, just happy to be doing nothing.
Some live here because it’s the lifestyle they chose, others because it’s where they landed. Among the latter is where we find Diana Romero.
Diana is a 17-year-old senior at Steele Canyon High School, gleefully counting the days until graduation, the same as seniors everywhere.
Unlike most, however, she knows there’s a bad alternative to high school success, and she knows it’s scary because she felt its hot breath.
Diana walks with practiced care down the widely-spaced and broken concrete steps that descend a steep hill. Above her is the small peeling-paint frame house where she lives. The house … uh … well … it needs lots of work. She shares it with two younger siblings, a disabled stepdad and his wife.
Diana cheerfully smiles as she looks at a stranger without shyness. Her Mexican-Indian ancestry is prominent on her face. She is a beautiful girl, but seems unaware of it — or disbelieving of it.
We drive to a nearby park where, sitting at a picnic table, she tells her life story. It’s more dramatic than it should be for a kid her age.
Diana was born in Mexico and brought over the border as a 3-year-old. Her stepfather, Francisco Lopez, a U.S. citizen, had traveled to bring her north so he could reunite her with her mother, Olivette, disastrous though that turned out to be.
Left behind, somewhere in Mexico, was Diana’s birth father, a man whose name and face is forever hidden from her. It’s possible that even her mother barely knew him, perhaps only in passing.
For whatever sad reasons, Olivette was her daughter’s nightmare. Diana believes she may have had mental-health issues, but that may simply be groping in the dark for a way to understand what she remembers as brutal treatment from a woman she only refers to as her “biological mother.”
Olivette was a Mexican who had her first child at 15 and Diana at 22. She has had five children by four different men, Diana says.
(Diana has a hyphenated family. All her siblings are “half-,” and the man she calls her dad is actually a “step-.”)
Diana has lost track of her mother and has little recollection of her, other than “a lot of bad things.”
Living under Olivette’s sway from ages 3 through 9, Diana says that whenever her mother was angry, she would beat her with a belt, or a straightened wire coat hanger, “or whatever she could grab hold of. She beat me so bad.
“I remember one time I dropped a cup of water and she got so mad she beat me really bad. She would take me out of school so I could clean the house for her before she went to work. This is when I was in first grade.”
Diana says the meal her mother would commonly cook would be spaghetti, which Diana didn’t like. So, in the finicky manner that children have, she would throw it out and wait for her stepdad to come home and cook for her.
One day, however, Olivette came home unexpectedly from her job at a casino and caught Diana putting the spaghetti in the garbage.
“She tried to shove the food down my throat, and I couldn’t, I wouldn’t (swallow it). She also did a lot of witchcraft in the house. I know that sounds strange, but she would hang dead flowers from the ceiling and she would have these Voodoo dolls. She would do all that Voodoo stuff.”
When Diana was 5 — in 2002 — a neighbor called Child Protective Services to report child abuse in the Lopez home.
Diana and her 1-year-old sister were placed in a foster home, and for Diana, it was not the island of safety that the law intended. She says a teenage son in the foster family beat her and taunted her sister.
However, the boy was not the worst threat in the family, Diana says. “His father would sexually abuse me. He would make me touch things and all that.”
Touch things? His genitals?
“Yes. I don’t remember him ever doing anything to my little sister. I just remember it would always be me.”
Did you know that was wrong at the time?
“At the time, no. I didn’t know.”
But you felt odd about it.
“Yes. Like, ‘Wait. I don’t want to do this.’ I (realized) it wasn’t right after I got out of foster care. I never wanted to go back over there, but we would visit them because no one knew.”
You didn’t tell what he was doing?
“No, because the only person I ever told didn’t believe me.”
Who was that?
“My stepdad. At the time he didn’t believe me. Now he does, but I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble, and I didn’t want them to think I was lying.”
I ask Diana about the psychological blowback of the abuse: Do you have a fear of men or of people?
“Yes. I find it hard to trust people fully. I will say I trust them, but in the back of my mind there is always that doubt. It has more of an effect than I like to admit. But I can’t live with anger. I’m a better person than that. I feel bad that it happened to me, but at the same time, maybe I can help someone else.”
(The man whom Diana says abused her subsequently died of cancer, she says.)
What has that experience taught you?
“I know that the world is not such a wonderful place. I know what people are capable of. Some people my age, they don’t know that. I just want to be able to help someone who maybe went through that. I want to help people.”
She and her sister were in foster care for two years and then were reunited with their family. She says it was her stepfather who showed an interest in the children’s welfare, who was the only one to visit them, who fought for their return.
Two years after returning from foster care, Olivette gathered up her four kids in 2006 and went with a boyfriend to Tecate, Mexico, where they lived in a small house of two rooms plus a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. One room was for Olivette and her boyfriend, and the other was for the four children.
The house was so small that fights between Olivette and her boyfriend, both verbal and physical, became a family affair. “I remember arguments and fights every single day. They would be arguing that she might be cheating, or he might be cheating. We didn’t have any money.”
Diana says her mother treated her like a girlfriend, not a daughter, and would show her photos of her many boyfriends. As she looked at the line-up of strangers, Diana could only wonder …
“I had to say, ‘Oh, he looks like a nice guy.’ I could never say, ‘Oh, is that my dad?’ I remember when we were living with her boyfriend, I thought we were going to stay with him, so I asked, ‘Do you want me to call him dad?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”
Your father’s picture might have been one of those you saw.
Do you ever wonder about your birth father?
After two months in Tecate, Olivette decided to return to Harbison Canyon. Diana, who was 9, says, “I remember we were in her minivan and we had packed up all of our stuff and she was hitting me for some reason. I don’t know what I did, but she was hitting me.”
Did you block things out?
“I blocked a lot of things out. But with her, I remember only bad things. I don’t remember her ever saying, ‘I love you.’ I don’t recall her ever hugging me.”
It all came to a head when Olivette returned to Francisco’s house. Diana says the four kids were told to wait outside while her stepfather and mother talked. Then, the kids were told the marriage was over and they had to choose: Olivette or Francisco. Each one chose to stay with him.
Olivette Romero Lopez left Harbison Canyon, and the family lost track of her. U-T San Diego was able to locate her in Hermitage, Tenn. In a phone interview assisted by a translator, the 39-year-old Olivette was told of the accusations made by Diana. Without responding, she terminated the interview.
Francisco later confirmed Diana’s accusations.
When told that her mother had been found and contacted, a concerned — almost tense — Diana asked: “You didn’t give her my contact information, did you?”
I would never do that, Diana.
Later, Francisco said that afterward she went into her room and cried for a long time.
Tomorrow: Part 2 — out of sadness comes promise.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes your thoughts and ideas at [email protected]