This is an old story, one I don’t enjoy telling. The subject is Theresa Vega, and you’ve heard stories similar to hers. However, we dare not lose interest in Theresa or the sisterhood she marches with.
When I meet her, she has $20 in her purse and stories that take the sunshine out of a bright afternoon.
Theresa stepped off the Amtrak two weeks ago herding four young children, with her possessions in duffel bags and no idea what to do or where to go. She arrived in this unfamiliar city from Oregon because her research said San Diego offered the most help for a woman fleeing an abusive relationship — make that an abusive life.
Theresa is a small, blond woman of 29 who flits around her kids with the energy of Buster Keaton being chased by a locomotive. They’re remarkably well-behaved and cheerful, considering their lives have been turned upside down, shaken and spilled out like a dice roll in a strange place far from home.
They have been cooped up in motel rooms for a dozen nights with no place to romp. The kids are a boy of 2 and girls of 3, 5 and 10. It’s obvious they trust mom and know they are well-loved.
This will shock no one, but Theresa says she, a brother and a sister grew up in a dysfunctional household with parents who were drug users.
“I spent a lot of time locked in a room as a child. We also were homeless for a while. We lived in tents. When I was 3, my parents separated, and my mom got with my first stepdad. My mom would go out to the bars a lot. We’d have a lot of baby sitters.
“My mother was into crystal meth, and so was my real father, who died. Mom got out of it, she says. I caught her a couple times doing it after she left my real dad.
“I was 6 or 7 when I met my stepdad. He was loud and mean and spanked our butts really hard. They started locking us in a room about the time we were 9 or 10.
“My mom would sleep all day. We couldn’t ask her to go to the bathroom. We peed in a corner, and when we did that, she’d get mad. We couldn’t ask for food while she was sleeping. We couldn’t wake her up or anything because she was just mean if she woke up.”
As you might expect, when Theresa was 15, she met an older guy. And — surprise — he said he loved her.
She says she was intimate with him from age 15, and although he spent time in jail for statutory rape against her, he came back and they resumed the relationship. After she got pregnant, they married when she turned 18.
Right after tying the knot, Theresa says, her husband became violent and possessive, and forced himself on her sexually.
“I left because it got really bad, really violent. Then he went back to Mexico, and I moved in with my mom.”
I ask Theresa why she never divorced her husband.
“I’m afraid to get a divorce, because I might get married again.”
You realize that doesn’t make any sense?
“Yeah. A lot of things I’ve done don’t make any sense.”
Regardless, she was now free of the guy. She went back to high school, two years behind, but she graduated.
In 2007, she ran afoul of the law. Her oldest girl, 3 at the time, burned herself in two places, on the arm and side. Theresa says she applied burn ointment and called her mother for help.
Her mother responded, and Theresa says her mom took the child to the hospital and left Theresa behind. Later, the police arrested her for “criminal mistreatment” for not having had the child hospitalized.
“When they arrested me and said I refused to take my daughter to the hospital, I said, ‘Wait a minute, but that’s exactly what I called my mom for, to take her to the hospital.’”
Why didn’t you call 911?
“Well, I didn’t know anything about anything, life or anything. I just called mom.”
She lost custody and says she had to plead guilty to the charge to get her daughter back. To this day, it is on her record as a felony. She says her mother had lied for the purpose of gaining custody of the little girl.
Hearing all this, my whole-truth antenna starts to quiver. However, she apparently did everything the court required, and it was seven years ago …
Theresa got a job as a waitress, and there met a waiter named Armondo. His persistence finally paid off, and they moved in together in 2008, when she was 23. She says Armondo, then 29, already had a family in Oregon.
He wanted a child, so Theresa gave birth to a girl. But the two youngest children were not planned. She says she was on birth control, but for some reason, it was something else that didn’t work.
“Armondo wouldn’t let me work, because he was possessive and crazy jealous when I was around other men. I begged him all the time, ‘Please, just let me go back to work. I’m bored.’ ”
She attended college for two years but ran out of money and transportation, and had to drop out. “Now, I have all those student loans I can’t repay.”
Theresa says that as the relationship soured, Armondo gave her a black eye and pulled her through the house by her hair. Last December, she entered a women’s violence shelter for a month, but as frequently happens (and makes domestic violence counselors tear their hair out), she went back to him. Why?
“Because I’m scared of everything, and he fixes everything, if that makes any sense.”
Actually, yes, I think it does.
Armondo also said he was going to commit suicide, and waved a large knife that Theresa interpreted as aimed at her, she says.
They entered into a live-in agreement for benefit of the kids that she thought was platonic. However, “He would still have sex with me knowing that I didn’t want it.”
Well, would he force you?
“That’s where it gets complicated. I got forced, but I didn’t fight him off, so he was aware that I didn’t want it, but I didn’t want to get beaten up, either. And I know the difference between just laying down and taking it and fighting it off. Fighting it off is a lot more painful, so I just laid down and took it.”
The clincher, Theresa says, was when Armondo started having sex with her sister. To soften the blame on her sister, she says, “My sister’s been homeless for a long time. She has a hard time with life skills and stuff.”
It was time to go. And doing that required Theresa to dig for courage that she wasn’t certain she had. A state agency dealing with domestic violence issued her some money, she cobbled together a few hundred dollars from her welfare check, and she received help from her local Mormon bishop.
Like a frightened bird, she took wing.
When Theresa arrived in San Diego, she contacted a Mormon bishop who offered to pay for a motel. When she got spooked at the first motel, she checked out and was walking down the street with the four kids, one in a stroller, and several duffel bags of clothes dragging along. A woman saw her and contributed $100. She stopped on the street, exhausted, in front of a Marriott hotel. She went inside and stayed for two nights, too tired to care about the cost.
An older man in a convenience store gave her some money and offered to help her with her rent if she would get an apartment through the Alpha Project, a housing charity that the man supports.
Theresa is preoccupied with the macro challenges of her run for freedom, but the micro clamors for attention, too. She obviously is in need of dental work, and hearing me remark of it, one of her children opens her mouth wide, and says, “I have cavities, too.”
Theresa has made contact with the Women’s Resource Center in Oceanside and is getting assistance from the Alpha Project and Casey Gwinn and his National Family Justice Center Alliance. Maybe what she read about San Diego is true.
In a pensive moment, Theresa asks, “Why do these people want to help me?” I tell her, “You have to find that answer for yourself.”
There is desperation in her circumstance. She has no money or prospects, but she does have four children who are chicks at the edge of the nest. This is not a live-happily-ever-after situation.
If Theresa has to surrender and return to Oregon, a downward spiral is the likely result.
She knows she could be charged with kidnapping for spiriting the kids out of state. She has been advised to be the first into court to keep legal matters in California. She’s seeking a pro bono lawyer to help make that happen.
In an attempt to protect herself when she arrived, she made a statement to the San Diego Police Department’s domestic violence unit, explaining that she is here and why.
Personally, I didn’t just arrive fresh from the farm, so I know there are pages to this story I haven’t turned. I was prepared to learn that she had been a drug abuser, but she adamantly denies it. I tend to believe her because she’s clear-eyed, energetic and purposeful, and gives all-consuming attention to her kids. Druggies, on the other hand, tend to ignore whatever keeps them from their highs. Likewise, alcohol. I see none of the telltale signs.
Of drugs, she says, “I was afraid of that stuff. My mom was crazy with that stuff. I saw what it does to people. It changes their face. It makes them mean. It makes them different. Good people turn into bad people.”
I contact Armondo in Oregon to hear his side. I first ask if he was happy with Theresa.
“A tough question to answer, because yes, I was happy with her.” He also says she was happy with him. He denies having been physically abusive.
Have you ever demanded sex from her when she was unwilling?
“I always ask her. When she say no, I say OK.” He also denies having threatened her with a large knife. “No, it’s not true,” he says.
I ask whether Theresa was unfaithful to him.
“Yes. I want to get done with this conversation, and maybe I can call you another time.”
He says he wants her to come back, but “I don’t want to ask her to do something she don’t want to do. So if she wants to go and do that, that’s OK. But I think I want to get done with this conversation, because I feel uncomfortable.”
I tell him I have more questions, but the conversation ends at that point.
Theresa’s mother was more cooperative but still reticent in personally sensitive areas. She says she approves of Theresa fleeing Oregon to get away from Armondo, and would like her to return when it is safe. She considers her daughter to be a stable woman and good mother.
However, she says that in 2007, Theresa did not ask her to take the burned child to the hospital. But she doesn’t say why she made that police report.
Now, things get touchy. Did you use crystal meth during Theresa’s adolescence?
A pause. “Well, only when I was first married.”
Did Theresa’s first stepdad abuse her physically?
When Theresa was a child, did you lock her in a bedroom while you slept?
“Uh, well, the door knob to the room was broken …”
Did Armondo have sex with Theresa’s sister?
“I only know what I’ve been told. A definite possibility.”
Her mother says she has nothing to add.
Driving home from my talk with Theresa, I have a sick-sad feeling. There are thousands of Theresas out there who are exploited, abused and thrown into a pile like yesterday’s underwear.
I don’t know why Theresa made such poor choices and did some of those crazy things. But I’m not really surprised. Remember, she had been taught for a long time that she was worthless and stupid.
What will happen to her is yet to be known, but she’s got some good people helping her already. And she’s taken a huge first step: She’s helping herself.
Thanksgiving in a motel room: Maybe 7-Eleven has turkey burritos, but definitely not with cranberry sauce. But you know what? Home is where freedom is, and that leaves a good taste.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org