By Jessica De La Mora
You know that one girl who swallows all her feelings? That girl who covers her pain with the great smile she has. The girl who hides in her room or in the bathtub to cry. The one who has to pinch her stomach and cover her mouth so no one can hear that she is crying her soul out? That girl who has no self-esteem or independence? Well, hello, that’s me, Jessica Monique De La Mora. I am 17, born on August 5, 1999. I am a girl who has a mother and father like any other girl. Little does anyone know, once you open me up, you will see my deepest pain and the true me. I am not really like every other girl. I am unique in my own ways. I was born and raised in Venice, California. My family is from Guadalajara, Mexico. Isn’t it nice to say your mother is your best friend and that you are Daddy’s little princess? I can only imagine how awesome that would be to say, and to mean.
My mother is Esmeralda Jimenez. Don’t get me wrong, when I say I can’t call her my best friend, I don’t mean she isn’t great. She is a great mother, and I wouldn’t ask for another. But she isn’t my best friend because she’s too busy being a mother. I can’t seem to build the kind of relationship with her that allows me to go to her with my problems. She misses the positive in what I do and always finds the negative, though she’s a wonderful role model. She raised me and my sister, Pricilla, who is 21, all by herself. All our lives, it was my mother who brought us everything we wanted and who tried to do everything she could to keep us happy. She did it because she felt sorry for us and wanted us to be happy. In her beautiful hazel eyes, I see all the pain she has endured—her pain and her anger because my father, Mike De La Mora, has been in and out of prison since he was 17 years old. He left my mother all alone with her two baby girls. He broke his promises that he wouldn’t go back to prison, his promises to be out here to help her raise us.
In 2001 my life changed forever on the day the cops took my father away from me and my family. We girls were left fatherless, my mother husbandless. I was only two years old, and Pricilla was six. I have no memory of my father living at home. I don’t remember the details of the day they took him away, and I don’t know why they did. Everything I write on paper now are the things I’ve been told, not my memories. Since I was two, I have been fed lie after lie about why my father was taken from me. The first lie I remember was my mom telling me he was taken away because he didn’t put on his seatbelt. The last story I was told was that he was taken away for committing armed robbery and violating his probation. My father told me this himself just a year ago, on June 19, 2015. I remember the date because it was Father’s Day, and I asked because for the longest time I had wanted to know the truth. I finally had the guts to ask him. Before I was always afraid to ask because I was afraid to know the truth.
Along with telling me what he was charged for, he finally told me the truth about how many years he has to serve. My father, Mike, the guy who is supposed to be my superhero, was given 21 years. This year I am 17 and going into my senior year in high school. All I ever wanted was for my daddy to watch his little girl walk the stage wearing her graduation gown. All I ever wanted was to hear him cheering my name. For years, year after year, my father has told me he was getting out in one more year. Now that I’m older and I can see the picture more clearly, and I’m not afraid to ask questions, I see why he fed me that lie. He did it so that I wouldn’t lose faith in him, so that I would still talk to him. He didn’t want me to give up on him. He didn’t want to lose his little girl.
About a month ago, my cousin Jose, who is 24 years old, was talking to me about my dad. When I asked him if he remembered the day my dad was taken away, he stopped sweeping the floor, looked up and smiled. The expression on his face gave me a glimpse of that day. As he began to tell the story, his movements told me even more. He said he was at my grandma’s house, my dad’s mother’s house. Jose and his sister, Adriana, Pricilla, and my Nina Nelly (Jose’s mom) were all there. Jose remembers being upstairs with Adriana in their room when the phone rang. Adriana answered it. It was my dad, and Adriana quickly gave my Nina Nelly the phone. The call was a three-way call, Jose remembers. He said he had a bad feeling when he looked at Adriana’s face. Then Adriana took the phone downstairs to Pricilla, and she began to talk to him like this was just a regular call. But my dad started apologizing to her, telling her he was going away again, this time for a long time. Pricilla began to cry hysterically, repeating, “No, Daddy, you promised…” and she fell to the ground. Jose says she “went crazy.” Adriana grabbed the phone and tried to calm Pricilla down.
After that my dad was on the run for some time. He sneaked into family parties through the back door. Once he stole Jose’s bike to take off. Jose remembers waking up the next day and feeling angry because his bike was gone. The cops caught up to my dad, and the day he was finally taken away, was in front of my grandma’s house. Jose remembers my dad staying calm. All the time he was being handcuffed, he kept up a conversation with my cousins and aunt; he kept smiling, asking how their day was going, telling them he was going to be okay and smiling, saying they wouldn’t have to worry anymore. My father was charged for GTA, possession of an illegal weapon, violating probation, armed robbery, and gang enhancement was added to his sentence.
As I got older, whenever I saw friends and family with their fathers, I cried and wondered where my daddy was. For years I always thought I wasn’t good enough to have a father, but my mom used to take me and Pricilla to visit him all the time. All I remember about those visits was my mom being angry and the two of them arguing. But I was young then, and I didn’t pay much attention to their arguments. I used to hold my hand against the glass, pretending to hold my daddy’s hand, trying to get his attention so they would stop fighting. But after a few years my mom began to give up on my dad, and she took us to visit less and less often. She realized she didn’t want us to have that kind of lifestyle—the one that included visits to prison. But she felt guilty not letting us see our father, so she had his sister, my aunt, take us instead. Pricilla had it worse than I did—she was older and more aware of what was going on, and after a while she was angry at the world. She never talked about our dad. She still doesn’t. I don’t blame her. She saw more than I did, but she holds in all her anger and pain.
In 2008, my mother left my dad. That was the year his mother was dying, so those were dark times. He told me that a lot of crazy things were going through his mind, and often he wanted to give up. But, he said, Pricilla and I kept him going; he said we were what kept him strong. My dad was in prison when both his parents died, and when his brother and his cousin died, too. He was supposed to be at my grandma’s funeral, but it became too complicated and expensive. His sisters told him they were willing to pay the expenses to get him there, but he knew they were already paying a lot for the funeral, and he refused their offer. So he wasn’t there.
Pricilla stopped talking to my dad a few years ago, but a few months ago I was on the phone with him and I told him I had a surprise for him. I put the phone to Pricilla’s ear and made her talk. They both started crying, and I could hear my dad saying over and over and over how sorry he was, and I thought about how before I was always ashamed to talk about my dad, and part of that was because I didn’t know much about him. I only remembered seeing him in an orange jumpsuit through a glass window. Whenever my friends asked about him or talked about their dads, I just walked away. As I got older, I started opening up a little, but only to the point of telling people where my dad was. Sometimes I told them why he was in prison and sometimes I mentioned how long he had been gone. But whenever they asked questions, I couldn’t answer. Then one day when I was in eleventh grade, my friend Kat told me I should go with her to POPS. POPS stands for Pain of the Prison system, and it’s a club at my high school for kids with incarcerated loved ones, kids with problems they don’t know how to deal with. The club meets every Wednesday during lunch. They feed you and help you learn how to write out your feelings. Even before Kat invited me, the smell of the food had been enticing. I always wanted to go in, but I was afraid of being judged or looked at the wrong way until Kat convinced me to go. The moment I walked in, Amy welcomed me in the warmest way; she’s the woman who started POPS with her husband, Mr. Danziger, an English teacher at our school. That day Amy introduced herself and made me feel like I was home. After I sat down and listened to other people telling their stories, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I felt like I had finally found a family. Mr. Danziger gave me a notebook to write poems, my story, or anything I wanted to write, and within a week I’d written two pieces. By the next week I was showing Mr. Danziger my first piece, and he was so happy and willing to help me edit it.
POPS is the reason I am able to open up and talk freely about my dad now. I don’t need to cry every time, and lately I have made my dad so proud. My stories were published in a book, and my piece Fatherless Girl was read at a show POPS put on; a famous actress read my piece. And then I went to Washington, D.C. where along with 18 other youth who are the children of the incarcerated, we talked to Federal officials about the problems we’ve gone through. When I first arrived in Washington and met all those other kids, I was hesitant to talk to them; I knew nothing about them. But then I thought about POPS, and I remembered how scared I was at first, and as soon as I started talking to the others, we connected. That first night 16 of us went out to dinner together, and in just a few hours we felt as if we were one big family; we felt as if we’d known each other for a long, long time. The experience is hard to explain, but I know that it’s because we children of the incarcerated have so much in common, and I know that it was POPS that made me strong enough to begin to tell my story. I no longer worry about being judged or going through dark times. I know there are people I can reach out to when I feel sad. And I know now that I’m a strong, independent young woman who is going to get somewhere in life. I am going to be someone extraordinary. I am Jessica Monique De La Mora, and I am 17 years old.
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