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Mending the shattered past

She’s witnessed countless fights between her mother and father. She’s endured a volatile and strained relationship with her brother. She relocated from Puerto Rico to California, lost the house she lived in and temporarily stayed in a motel. But, senior Yaisha Torres is not a victim of her upbringing.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, senior Yaisha Torres grew up in a small neighborhood surrounded by kids her age with her brother, mother and father. But what seemed like a normal childhood — complete with hide-and-seek games with her neighbors and games of gallitos — contrasted her home life. 

Torres remembers standing by the living room, hoping to understand why her parents were fighting. When she was three, her father tried to stop her mother from going to the supermarket while her mother was sitting in the car. He shattered the car window to get the car keys, leaving him with a bloody hand. Torres watched as her mother, worried for the safety of her children, fled inside the house to try to protect Torres and her brother while Torres’ father proceeded to aggravate her. Torres’ father ended up taking her mother’s car, leaving the family without any form of transportation. Days later, Torres’ grandfather and uncle arrived with a car for her mother to use, and her father left to live with his parents.

“I don’t think I understood what was going on. I knew it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know if it was normal or not,” Torres said. “I never had a good relationship with my dad because I was always resentful against him from what I remember with all the abuse toward my mom.”

Torres’ mother’s sought legal help requesting child support and custody. Her lawyer submitted documents to the court stating what had happened, resulting in a three-year-long court case. An amount for the child support pension was established, requiring Torres’ father to allocate about $500 per month to spend on utilities, such as food, electricity, gas and water. Her mother would receive full custody over Torres and her brother, while her father would be allowed to visit them every other weekend. 

But life carried on for Torres. In her community in Puerto Rico, she still enjoyed all the staples of childhood — hide-and-seek, card games, Chequi Morena, 1 2 3 Pescao and Trompo. 

“Even though I did witness domestic violence in my house, I would say I had the best childhood because life there is completely different from life here,” Torres said. “Here, you live in a bubble. Over there, you go to each others’ houses any day, any time, ask for food and hang out. My whole neighborhood was full of kids, so every single day, we’d play outside.”

When Torres was entering sixth grade, her mother looked for a better life with more opportunities and better schooling for her children and made the move to California. They lived with Torres’ aunt and uncle in the Snow Creek neighborhood of Walnut. Because her first language was Spanish, Torres struggled to assimilate to the English language and American schools. The concrete floors, vintage jalousie windows and chalkboards she was used to in Puerto Rican schools were now carpeted floors, tinted windows and sterile whiteboards.

Despite the change in scenery, domestic violence remained a part of her life. When she was 12, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) became involved after frequent police visits to her home. 

“You hear about these things in school about other kids, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, what kind of family does that?’” Torres said. “It was embarrassing for me to have to say that, and I know you think it would never happen to your family, but it does. It’s unexpected, but we’re all humans and we can all turn into different things.” 

DCFS wanted to provide the Torres family an opportunity to resolve their problems on their own. At 13, Torres began going to mandatory therapy with her mother and her brother. 

“I didn’t acknowledge that I hadn’t healed [from my parents fighting] until I came across other problems with my brother or with school. When I went to therapy, I had to talk about what happened in my life,” Torres said. “I realized that everytime I started talking about it, I would start crying. I knew that there was something wrong, and there was something I needed to heal in order for me to become a better person. I didn’t realize until later in my life that I needed to work on that first.”

That same year, she received news that her aunt and uncle lost their house in Snow Creek because of financial issues. Her family was forced to leave as soon as possible. To avoid sleeping in the car or on the street, Torres’ family applied for financial aid and was approved a three-month stay at a nearby discount motel along with food stamps. 

“[Losing the house taught me] how to appreciate everything you have because all of a sudden, it could be gone,” Torres said.

After two months of staying in the motel, the crossing guard at Suzanne Middle School informed Torres about affordable apartments in Pomona. A week later, they were living in a one-room apartment. At the same time, Torres’ mother applied for a residence at the newer apartments built in Pomona for low-income families.

Torres stayed in the one-room apartment for three months until her family was accepted into a new apartment complex. By the spring of 2017, Torres and her family had settled into an affordable, three-room apartment. 

“We felt so blessed. We each now had a room which was better because we were growing older and needed more space,” Torres said. “It reminded me of my childhood because here, the kids play outside too, and there’s more diversity [in the] ages and races.” 

She remembers trying to go to bed one night when her brother’s blaring music made it difficult. She walked downstairs and knocked on his bedroom door, asking him to turn it down. The situation escalated and turned violent. Scared, she told her mother what she had witnessed. Her trembling fingers dialed the digits, 9-1-1. She was 15 years old. 

“I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen to my brother and what the procedure was,” Torres said. “I was worried of what would happen next.”

When the authorities arrived, they tried to control the situation and make sure everyone was safe. They then allowed the family to work out their problems in therapy.

“I didn’t show it, but I was literally broken inside. [My brother has] been my best friend forever, and all of a sudden, he’s the enemy and becoming like my dad,” Torres said. “It was scary because everything that we’ve been through and everything that my mom taught him — it meant that he would become the opposite.”

Torres’ brother had been dealing with depression and told the authorities and his therapist that he could not control his actions. The doctors lowered the dosage of his prescribed testosterone shots which they presumed were the cause of his violent tendencies. He stopped acting aggressively. 

“Now, he’s the total opposite. He protects us. It was hurtful to see how my brother, the person that I love most in the world, act in a way that bad. It made me feel that he didn’t feel anything for us, but it wasn’t that. We knew he was a great person; he just couldn’t control himself,” Torres said. 

While her father was still in contact with her brother, Torres had not spoken to him since she left Puerto Rico. However, in 2016, Torres’ father sent her chocolates and flowers, asking her to visit him in Puerto Rico. Although she was hesitant, Torres and her brother booked a flight to Puerto Rico. After seeing that her father’s temper had subsided and that he was making an effort to change, she began to open up to him. She has visited every summer since 2016, and they have bonded over jet skiing, going to the movies and traveling throughout Puerto Rico.

“When I came here, I was super resentful of him since sixth grade — I remember not talking to him that whole year. But, I wanted to give him a chance because I knew he was trying,” Torres said. “I didn’t choose him, and sometimes dads are not the men you want or need them to be. But, he is my dad. He has made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes, but I’m not going to hold a grudge.”

Currently, Torres lives in the same three-bedroom apartment with her mother and brother. The domestic violence has ended, and she speaks with her father on a weekly basis. Torres, now a senior, is on the varsity water polo team, is learning a third language and takes rigorous classes all while maintaining above a 3.5 grade point average. Life carries on, but Torres is no longer a victim of her past. 

“These past four years of high school, I have worked so hard to prove to others and myself that my current situation is not going to hold me back; instead, it has been my engine to persevere in everything I put my mind to,” Torres said. “I haven’t let this define who I am or who I become. I know that there’s always a way out of every bad situation, and I have made it my duty to not make myself a victim of this situation.”

By Flora Lei, Feature editor
Photo by Ian Lee, Photos courtesy of Yaisha Torres
Photo illustration by Tristan Gonzalez and Ashley Liang