My life story may sound sad and even tragic, but it’s a matter of perspective because for me, my story is a source of pride. Yes, I lived through things that no child should ever experience. But my survival and success against the odds proves that where there’s a will, there’s certainly a way.

I was born in Florida in 1971, the second child to a teenage mother and an immature young adult father. My mother had her first child at 15, and not long after I came along. She didn’t raise her first-born. My father, who worked as a cook in restaurants, liked to drink and chase women after work. He would come home at dawn every day, only to sleep a few hours before going out to his job. When I was an infant, my mother would leave me by myself at home while my dad was away. Both my mother and my father neglected me.

A neighbor told my father that my mother went out every night with another man. One night, my father took his work break and came home to confirm the tip. He found me alone, hungry, crying, dirty, trying to grab a bottle of spoiled milk. He changed my diaper, fed me and rocked me. Then he left me alone, again asleep in the crib while he went back to work. Apparently, he thought it was okay to leave me to fend for myself. I was three months old…

My father plotted on how to get me away from my mother. Eventually, he abducted me and took me to his parents’ house in Puerto Rico. My grandparents, Mami and Papi as I always called them, had no telephone. My arrival was a surprise. My father just dropped me in their hands and returned to Florida on the same day. Then he left my mother, telling her she would never see me again. I did not see my mother again until I was 23 years old.

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When I was 2, Mami and Papi took me to Florida to visit my father, who had married another woman named Alice. My father convinced them to leave me with him. Living with my father and Alice was hell. Alice beat me several times a day, every single day. She broke my skull, an arm and both my legs. She cut me with a knife, pushed her nails into my ears, and tried to drown me a number of times. She would tie my hands and legs and submerging me underwater in the bath tub, using her body to pin me down. She used to wake me up in the middle of the night by pouring cold water on me, and then send me back to my bed with no blankets, shaking. She sat me down for hours, screaming at me. Both she and my father used drugs in front of me. She lashed me with a whip every day. When my father was in the house—which was only for a few hours a day—Alice used to shoot me intimidating looks so I wouldn’t tell him what was going on. I feared her more than death.

One day, my father had a big fight with Alice and took me back to Puerto Rico. When I got there I had pneumonia, and scars and bruises all over my body—scars that I still have and serve as a reminder of that harrowing time. My body was in so much pain, if anyone picked me up I would start crying. Papi was in rage. He told my father that I wouldn’t go back with him. I didn’t.

My grandparents and I lived in extreme poverty. We had only enough money for the bare necessities. My father didn’t help with financial assistance, and we had no ties or information about my mother. Papi and Mami did their best to provide me with a safe environment, but they couldn’t protect me from everything. I was sexually molested by my uncle, a school teacher who was married to my father’s sister.

My father always seems amazed at how much of the abuse stayed in my memory. But he says there was much more than what I recall, yet to this day has never told me more. One thing I do know is that he never pressed charges against Alice.

I was raised in a traditional Hispanic household and taught traditional Hispanic norms. Papi was loving and caring. Mami was strict and unbending. However, I always challenged the norm and refused to conform to the constructs being imposed on me. I was born to fight!

In spite of all these unfortunate events, I excelled in academics. I was considered very smart. I became a leader in school, in my community, and church. I was at the top of my class throughout school, and I realized early on the redeeming power of education. I believed education would pull me out of poverty and give me a better life. I dreamed about being the first in my family to go to college. Encouraged by teachers, motivated by the scarcity around me and driven by a will to succeed, I realized I was the only one who could change my reality. I made my education a priority and obtained two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s, and a doctorate.

Today, I pay it forward by helping young Latinas go to college. Education worked for me and I believe it can work for everyone. Education gave me the key to a better life and I fervently believe it can change people’s lives and destinies.

When I told my 8-year-old son my story of survival and triumph, he asked me why my stepmother subjected me to such brutal abuse. He says he’s afraid she might come back to harm us. I told him that she can’t hurt us anymore, that I am not afraid of her, and that I will protect him like a lioness against anybody who tries to harm him. I have instilled in him the value of education, and that with perseverance and commitment he will realize his dreams.

My story may sound like a tragedy, but it is a story of triumph. The scars on my body are evidence of my courage. The memories of my past are the fuel that drives me to want to be a better mother, sister, citizen, and human being. I rose above my reality. I am blessed to be alive. I have forgiven all those who hurt me. Forgiveness set me free. Education gave me options. Now I am on a quest to empower Latinas and all women realize their full potential.