Notsu and Happy will soon join Mufasa in becoming steaks, but their sacrifice will be for a good cause.
Because these three steers will have taken their place on the dinner table, a young woman will have found a fuller meaning for her life.
Well, there is more to it than that. But for Giovanna Camuñez of Oceanside, taking on these animals for a high school FFA (Future Farmers of America) project could be the turnaround point of a life pointed in a wrong direction.
My wife and journalistic partner, Kathy, was walking among the cattle pens at the recent county fair in Del Mar. She stopped and beckoned me to meet a young woman fussing with two animals — and happy to be doing it. Giovanna was short, vigorous, open-faced and chatty with a stranger. However, something about her was different from the typical Valley Center farm kid.
She has spent almost all of her 18 years in an east Oceanside housing pocket north of state Route 76. It’s a place where ’hood “role models” pied-piper kids down a twisting path that will more likely lead to jail than college. Or down the road to nearby Eternal Hills. A reminder of that final destination is a “monument” just down the street from Giovanna’s family home to a dead youth who ran afoul of his peers.
Giovanna gives a macabre verbal tour: “What happened was a murder right down the street. It’s actually a couple houses down. That was my brother’s best friend. It was a drive-by and they killed him. There’s a cross there.”
And then, in a park a block or two away: “There was a kill of a teenage couple right in the park. That’s why there’s lights there now.” She also recalls two other young people slain in that park a few years ago.
The first neighborhood “elementary” lesson is survival. It’s a primer studied on the street, and often in the home. You learn quickly to “get along by going along,” which is the same lesson taught in La Jolla except the destinations are different. Violence is not only a tool, it’s also a business plan, administered by gangs capable of 9-millimeter discipline.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of gangs,” Giovanna says. “I’m scared. They know me by my brothers, because my brothers are well-respected. I’m perfectly safe, but at the same time, I don’t feel comfortable.”
We sit at a small table in the small house that Giovanna recently called home. The house has two bedrooms, plus an add-on room, plus a garage bedroom. The living set-up is dormitory. Giovanna says she lived four years in this house with lots of people, three dogs, three cats, crowded bedrooms and two bathrooms.
How many people live here?
She pauses. “I have no idea. I haven’t counted.” But then, she ticks off on her fingers: “Right now I think it’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven … I think eight to 10 people.”
Who live in this house?
“No, nine. Nine people, yeah, right now.”
She lives not far away in a two-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend, along with a woman and her son. Asked why she moved out, Giovanna says, “It’s kinda cramped here.”
She grew up with a brother, a half-brother and three half-sisters. Her widowed mother, Raquel, still lives there, a friendly woman who speaks “get-by” English. Her father is dead, but that requires more than four words in this story.
Giovanna’s early life promised nothing for her future. Her brothers had gang involvement and brushes with the law in the past; two sisters got pregnant early and the third left home at 18.
Giovanna was a tough kid. She wanted to construct a don’t-mess-with-me aura that would protect her and gain approval from her brothers.
“No one messed with me. I was actually trying to be like my brothers, trying to be those big guys. I was a girl, yeah, but it doesn’t mean you can mess with me.”
You would fight other girls?
“Yeah. I got in trouble a lot for getting in fights.”
“Because I looked up to my brothers. I saw how they were so respected in the neighborhood. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be well-respected. In my sophomore year, I was actually kind of getting my act together. I was actually studying, but at the same time, when someone made a comment during class, I got up, I walked over to them and I told them to shut up or we can take it up outside.
“I had the muscle and the build to back it up. I still do. I’ve gotten a little chubby, but I’ve still got it.”
But you’re not a fighter anymore.
Huge smile. “I’m a lover now.”
For her past actions, Giovanna barely avoided continuation school, which is generally for troubled kids. However, she was assigned to independent study for her final two years. That meant she did her work outside class and met with instructors once a week.
She could handle all that, but it was the death of her 50-year-old father, Adolfo, that continued to grip her spirit.
Adolfo was a self-employed tow-truck driver and Giovanna’s hero. She still calls herself a “daddy’s girl.” Her fondest memory is of riding along on calls with him at 2 a.m. and sitting high up in the truck cab to share his world.
“Dad tried giving his legacy to my two brothers, but they didn’t want it. Me, I was into it. It made me happy to be bonding with my dad and him letting me be a part of it.
“Actually I was his princess, because two sisters, they got pregnant at a young age. The other sister ran away twice. My dad invested so much money to find her the first time she ran away; the second time he didn’t even care. He was like, ‘She’s gonna come back anyway, sooner or later.’”
Four years ago, her father’s murdered body was found alongside a road in Tijuana, wrapped in a blanket. His pickup was found nearby, smashed. The crime hasn’t been solved.
“I was really depressed. I was cutting myself, trying to harm myself. I tried committing suicide. The week of the funeral, I found these pills my dad had and I took them. I took like six.”
Do you know what they were?
“They were for his digestive system, so I had the runs for a good couple days.”
Giovanna carries the burden of her father’s death sadly but proudly. He was the one who made her feel special. It has left her with competing ambitions: She wants to be a veterinarian but also run a tow-truck company in her father’s memory.
Implausible? That’s OK. She’s 18. Time will sort it out. But the towing ambition shows a good heart, and the veterinarian ambition shows a newborn awareness of a better world.
She has earned her high school diploma while supporting herself with a near-full-time job bagging groceries. And perhaps thinking of her sisters, she says she won’t get married or pregnant until her 30s.
At the beginning of her junior year, Giovanna discovered her softer side — not for people, a species often not to be trusted in her purview, but for what the ancients called a “beast of the field.”
She somehow came across an FFA program for students to adopt farm animals as projects. She talked her way into the program and was able to borrow money from a special fund. She bought a year-old steer, named him Mufasa and promptly fell in love.
“I just grew very soft when I started raising Mufasa. Honestly, he saved my life from a lot of things. It just made me so happy just how sweet he was when I would get there. He’d moo because my old car had a huge muffler, so he’d actually hear it when I’d come in. I’d play with him. It hurt me so bad to let him go, but that’s the reason I raised him for. I know that. But he changed me in soooo many ways.”
She spent hours currying and feeding Mufasa, starting every day at 6 a.m. When she sold him at the 2014 fair, she broke even after feed costs and paying off her loan.
Last year, after having proved herself, she bought two calves and named them Happy and Notsu. They were also shorthorn-angus crosses. She calls them “cows,” but as a term of affection. A new love affair was born.
“I wouldn’t say they were smart. I think they were just smart in understanding me. Every time they were laying down, I would sit there and talk to them. I’d tell them how my day was and then ask how their day was. I do think they have feelings because Notsu would just put his face on me and I’d just rub him. His huge head would fall asleep on my lap. Same thing with Happy.
“They just changed me. I have no idea how. I felt so much more comfortable to be myself instead of being so tough and hard and having my guard up and everything.”
This girl never was a tough kid. Inside, she was just a softie whose heart was scratching against the wall to be set free.
At the end of this year’s fair, Giovanna sold her two beeves, and after subtracting her costs and debts, turned a profit of $3,000. She tries not to think of her animals’ fate, but knows the slaughterhouse is always the eventual end. She also knows that farm animals will exit her life as she pursues other goals.
Looking back, she says, “It makes me cry. I know for a fact my dad’s looking down on me and telling me he’s proud of me. I graduated with A’s and B’s. I didn’t get pregnant. I feel very proud of myself. I have never told myself that until I picked up my cap and gown.”
She has glimpsed a vision of a better life, and this fall will enter Palomar College. Giovanna will continue her quest for all the exciting things she is destined to learn about this lively, interesting person that cows fall in love with.
A girl being turned around by an FFA project makes a great story, but the three steers were only a means, not a reason. The true impetus of her growth came from something wispy and hidden inside her that has made her look inward and upward.
The challenge now for Giovanna is to keep her grip on the ladder. She is bright, assertive and unafraid of the unknown. However, the grimness of her earlier years will not give up easily. As she moves into a more genteel but challenging area of society, every little slight, real or imagined, will cause her past to whisper, “You’re not good enough. Come home.”
She will have to answer that voice.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org