“My favorite thing to do is to take a shower. I never had a shower in my house, in fact, I never had lived in a proper house. It did not have a bathroom or a kitchen. I never slept in a bed when I was a child. I never dreamed that I would have all these things one day. Now I do.”
These were the opening lines of a remarkable book I read over the weekend. It was recommended to me by a homeless teenage girl. Her name is Isabela. She is about 19 and like most of the older teens, she has been living in the streets since she was a young child. Although, unlike the others, she spent a couple of years in a shelter for children until she turned eighteen. Then she was forced to return to her family. She stayed for one day at her aunt’s house and then fled to the streets again. Our conversation did not go further than this. She was not ready to share more and we respected her privacy. Then she surprised us and asked us if we could buy her a book. This was the first time any of the teens or children asked for a book. Most of them dislike to read and naturally we were happy to find one who actually likes to read. She corrected us immediately. She told us that she did not like to read but this particular book touched her. The book is called, “Esmeralda: Why didn’t I dance.” It was a strange title and we had to search for it at several used bookstores before finding it. I open the first page and read the above opening lines of the life story of Esmeralda. I was drawn in immediately.
As I read her story I discovered that Esmeralda was living in the streets when we were working here twenty years ago. To my great surprise, her older brother was someone with whom I had good contact in the past. However, I cannot remember ever speaking to her personally even though her face looks familiar. Her story was similar to many of the children and teens in the streets. She comes from a family living in a tiny shack made out of scrap plywood. They had one mattress and everyone slept on the same bed. They were eight children but four died from illness. The oldest sister was ten years old when a group of men kidnapped and raped her before killing her. Her mother suffered a mental breakdown after this and started drinking heavily. The mother used to force the children to go the streets with her to beg for money. Many times they hardly had any money for food but the mother always found a way to buy alcohol. The shack they lived in did not have a bathroom or a kitchen; they cooked their meals on a makeshift stove using scrap wood as fuel. Consequently, their tiny shack was always filled with suffocating fumes which the children had to endure while eating their meals. This was the world of Esmeralda. It is hard to believe that people could live in such conditions and I would have found it unbelievable if I hadn’t been to some of these homes. However, according to Esmeralda, it wasn’t extreme poverty that led her to the streets. This is an important point to remember. The problem is not just poverty, as extreme and dehumanizing as it may seem. Children can adapt to extreme conditions if they feel that they are loved. And love was the one thing that Esmeralda did not feel in her tiny shack.
Esmeralda’s mother suffered from severe mental illness that made her violent. She would wait for the children to go to bed while they were fast asleep she would attack them. In the morning she would be remorseful. The children were naturally terrified of her. Eventually things got worse for the children. Her mother started bringing strange men to the shack and one day one of them raped Esmeralda. She was about 11. Her older brother had enough and ran away to the center. Esmeralda followed in his footsteps soon after.
Life in the street was not easy for Esmeralda. In her desperation to get money and shelter, she trusted the wrong people and she suffered more abuse. It was a miracle that she was not murdered like her sister. Gradually she got involved in crime and was sent to the juvenile detention center where the guards treated her with violence. By the age of eighteen, she was a hardened crack addict and considered to be a hopeless case.
Esmeralda shares that her faith in God gave her the strength to take the bold step towards leaving the street life. There was no radical conversion experience. It was actually a quiet and reflective process. She said that she found life in the streets to be monotonous. She used drugs not because she was addicted but to escape the monotony. She pleaded with God for the strength for a change. At this particular moment, she felt the presence of God in a real way. This presence opened her eyes to see the people who were willing to help her change her life story. She approached these people for help.
Her journey out of addiction was not an easy one. She had to struggle with the fact that she had to leave behind all her friends who had become very much like her family. She realized that she needed to change her way of thinking about the world and she was clueless how to go about doing it. She started by changing the way she thought about herself. She learned that she needed to love herself and she couldn’t do this until she forgave her mother and not only her mother but all those who wronged her. Then, finally, she had to forgive herself. I won’t say that there was a happy ending because Esmeralda is still young and there is a long journey for her. Esmeralda is happy now because she is where she wants to be emotionally and spiritually. She is in a place where she can learn and grow. For her, this is the perfect way to live her life. She did not want to become rich. She did not mind being poor. Her goal at the end of the book was to finish her high school education and go to college. Things she never thought she could ever hope for when she was a young child. The book ended at this point and it was written 14 years ago. I did some research on her and found out that she did finish her college degree on Anthropology. She continues to learn and grow into her vocation as God’s instrument in this world.
This is the story of Esmeralda. Isabela had already this book once and she wanted to read it again. When I told her that I found the book, her eyes lit up and she wanted to see the book right away. She grabbed it from my hands and held it close to her chest. Her face reflected an intense delight. The story of Esmeralda meant something very important for Isabela. It represented hope for her. Maybe she came from the same background. We don’t know. Isabela is a very private person. We know very little about Isabela and we hope that the story of Esmeralda will inspire her to open up to us. Maybe one day Isabela will share her story to the world as well.