This is the second and final part of the Diana Romero story: How an East County girl survived an abusive childhood and grew above it. (The first installment ran Monday.)
If a child is a sapling that must ultimately grow on its own, Diana Romero was planted in starved soil without the nutrients of a stable family and a loving mother. She had to endure the buffeting of strong winds and sink roots in the loose sand of material want.
Though her mother, Olivette, had brutally abused her, and though she had suffered sexual abuse, she was not without love. Francisco Lopez, her stepfather, whom 17-year-old Diana calls both her “father and mother,” as though to say he has filled the role of both parents, has earned her trust and justified her love. He is a soft-spoken, slim man who seems to be of a mild temperament.
Diana says he worked in construction, leaving their Harbison Canyon home before dawn and working till dark. The kids learned to take care of themselves during the day.
“He did whatever was needed to provide for us, to make sure we were fed, made sure we had clothes, made sure we were happy. That was his main concern, because he wanted us to be happy. And we were.”
In 2010, Francisco broke his ankle and injured his back and shoulder when a scaffold collapsed. He is now on disability. The loss of his paycheck has forced the family to tighten the belt to the last hole.
Asked if the family is living thinly, Diana says, “Yes, very thinly.”
Francisco has since remarried, and Diana has a respectful but not loving relationship with his wife. Two women in the house sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.
Poverty has a gravitational pull that affects people the same as it does a falling rock. Those who doubt it don’t understand the laws of human nature.
Diana was a kid left on her own much of the time, with empty pockets and a sense of self that was about as slim. It was inevitable that she would fall in with the wrong crowd. Junior high is a petri dish for adolescent rebellion.
She started smoking pot, caused mischief in the neighborhood, skipped school and fought with other girls. That lasted into her freshman year.
Then two things happened, almost inexplicably. Without being coaxed or shoved, Diana joined the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class at Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley.
Her AVID teacher, Mary Bullock, says: “She’s an amazing young lady. She wants to go to college in order to help people in her community realize they can have a better life.”
Diana also joined Emmanuel Christian Church, a small congregation in Harbison Canyon. Beth Mueller, a high-school science teacher and church leader, says: “I think she’s wonderful. She came to church over two years ago and has kept coming. She would come to our Wednesday night Bible study and ask tons and tons of questions. She’s a good girl who overcame a lot of things.”
But a part of Diana is still doing battle. She is fearful of relationships because of being molested as a child by a man in her foster care home. “I felt so dirty. I feel like I am not good enough for guys, or I’m not pretty.”
You should maybe look in the mirror, I say. But I know that’s not really the issue.
“It has more of an effect than I like to admit. There are times I get depressed. I just don’t want to show it. I don’t want people to think I’m weak. I’ve always been, ‘I have to be strong.’ I want to show people that, even though I went through hell, I’m still smiling and I’m still striving to be better.”
Diana has had a green card since age 4 and looks forward to applying for citizenship as soon as she can save the $500 she’s been told is required. “I’m very, very patriotic.”
In the three years since her turnaround, Diana has become an honors student and a role model at her school. She has also been accepted to Johnson & Wales University, a small liberal arts school in Denver.
One problem with living in Denver is that’s where the hated Broncos lurk. Diana is a scream-at-the-TV Chargers fan. Life would be near-perfect if she could meet Philip Rivers.
With the help of a couple of small scholarships and grants, Diana has reduced her financial obligation to $4,000 for the first year of college. However, she has also taken out a student loan of $9,500, the repayment of which could burden her for years.
She’ll be showing up at school to mingle with students who have new clothes on their backs and money in their pockets, while she won’t even have a laptop and no minutes on her cellphone. But those obstacles are shrug-off trivial considering what she’s dealt with.
Diana wanted to go to a small school far away to get a fresh view of the world. She will take with her the earned praise from people she respects. She’ll also get a break from the things she’s fought against all her life, the things that whisper she’s not deserving, the things that remind her she’s still Olivette’s daughter.
She needs to get away.
But then practicality sticks in its irritating nose. To come up with that $4,000, she will work as a bagger for Ralphs this summer. I don’t think she knows how tough saving that much money can be.
She also has to travel to Denver twice. There’s as yet no money for tickets. She also has no clothes for winter. The girl has never once seen snow. The Rockies await.
Diana’s travels have just started.
It’s a cruel thing to live with maternal abuse and abandonment, maybe especially for a girl. Diana will be dealing with that in soul and psyche all of her life. She knows that, and is working to develop the strength to withstand it.
Becoming acquainted with Diana, with what she’s had to deal with, her spirituality and her passion for life, could cause even a stubborn agnostic to dust off the memory of an Old Testament blessing: “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.”
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]