I met Maria on my second day in Casitas.  I had noticed her on my first.  Feisty.  Eyes narrowed.   Always on guard.  Seeing her made me feel more like I was in juvenile jail than a girl’s home.  I had accidentally gotten chummy with her equally as intimidating friend on the first day and struggled to remain nonchalant when she joined our conversation on the second.  I mean, I’ve chatted it up with the girlfriend of hired assassins before.  (Not really, this is me being nonchalant.) This clearly is what she was, right?  She smirked a little, with the symbol of one of the largest gangs drawn with eyeliner in the corner of her eye.  This couldn’t just be a facade that she puts on to get others to leave her alone.  She couldn’t simply be modeling what she has seen others do…. Right?

It took her roughly three minutes to win me over.  I think it was when our mutual friend made her laugh.  Something clicked and I thought to myself “Ah, yes, this truly is a child in front of me.  Now go wash that ridiculous makeup tattoo off your face.”

She heard we were going to the government home in the afternoon and piped up that she has a son there.  He is four years old and had been taken away from her ‘because they didn’t want boys in a girls home’.  Somehow, I feel like boys under the age of five should receive a pass on that rule.  At Nueva, I went on a hunt for her son and found a boy that clearly has some issues.  His eyes are extremely wide set.  His head is too big for his body.   At four years old he doesn’t talk much and what he says is incredibly hard to understand.  It’s a good thing I had a three year old with me to interpret.  I put two and two together.  Maria had done drugs or drank excessively while pregnant.  The merciful side of   my brain countered with “But at fourteen, she probably had no idea how her actions would affect the life growing inside her.”  Then I showed him pictures of her.  He became excited and agitated, calling all the other kids in the room over to see the camera.  “This is my Mommy!”  (Awww.) “She hits me a lot!”  (Dang it all.)

Returned to Casitas the next day ready to give Maria a little lesson in parenting and anger management.  I showed her, and the fifteen other faces crowded around my camera, the pictures.  Quietly, I mentioned what her son said when he saw her picture.  She began to cry.  Not just the little sniffle, wipe that tear away before it falls type cry, but the ‘I would like to ask you what you’re thinking but I’m not going to be able to understand your response so we’re going to need to wait this out’ type cry.  She sat with the camera in her lap for a while and little by little the other girls in the crowd wandered off to other parts of the room.

Still thinking the tears were mainly from him saying that she hits him, I asked if her parents hit her often when they were angry.

“No. I’m here because my dad sexually abused me.  That’s how I have my son.”


Suddenly the slight physical deformities and the cognitive delays made sense.  This child was not affected by drug or alcohol abuse.  This child is the product of incest.


The words started tumbling out.  It started when she was eleven.  She was sent to live with him and at first, they were just close.  She loved and trusted him.  And then IT started.  She was pregnant by fourteen.  She lived with her grandma for a while after she had the baby, “But she was always criticizing me.”  My thoughts:  “Yeah, it would be hard to have someone critiquing your parenting or calling you lazy or nitpicking your behavior after what Maria has been through.” Reality: “My grandma called me a whore all the time for stealing my dad from mom.”


Deep breath.

She said that now all she has is her son.  Usually, she tells people that she has no family other than him.  That she’s an orphan.  “Because they don’t deserve to be called my family after what they’ve done to me.”  Agreed, my friend.  And I began to encourage her to have hope that she will be able to find friends that she can trust that can be like family to her.  I told her about people in my life that have been like family to me even though we don’t share the same blood and how much of an encouragement those people have been.  I wanted her to know that there are people out there that won’t turn their back on her.  As I searched for the words to explain what those people might look like I realized that in helping her, I was also leading her down a slightly dangerous path.

Like a family

Not blood related

Support you

Fight for you

Feeling of belonging

Won’t turn their back on you

Do you know where you can find these things?  In a gang.  So, when she leaves Casitas and has no responsible adult to turn to and no hope of gainful employment, where can she go for help?  A gang.  And here I am, telling her to look for all these things that she wants but hasn’t experienced, therefore can’t positively identify.  Do you know what is a GREAT impostor for all that I talked about?  A gang.

Director of Small Non-Profit Encourages Minors to Join Gangs to Find Love and Support.


I quickly start listing my disclaimers, all pointing back to ‘please don’t ever, ever, never, ever join a gang’.  She said that when her son was first taken from her she was so angry and sad that she fantasized about escaping from this home, joining up and literally returning with muscle to both seek revenge and get her son back.  But then she said that this is not the life she wants for herself or for her son.  She just wants to live in peace, start over and be a good mom.

I sat there feeling so proud of her, but also feeling so much despair.  What are the chances that she will succeed?  What are the chances that she’ll never be victimized again?  How do I give her anything other than false hope that her pipe dream will come true?

It was at that moment that hope came up and tapped me on the shoulder…

(Stay tuned for part two in 168 hours.)

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