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Lydia Patterson Institute valedictorian perseveres after tragic loss of mother

by Cindy Ramírez/El Paso Times
 

On the 12-hour drive home from California, Estefania Anaya could hear only the car tires whirring against the road and her dad's somber words: "Tu mama ya no esta con nosotros."

"Your mother is no longer with us," her father said on the phone earlier that dreadful summer day in 2009, a day that Anaya, now 18, describes as "the longest, saddest trip of my life."

Anaya knew that her mother had taken her own life.

"I felt angry, sad," she said, her long brown hair framing her mournful face. She paused, took a breath, then added, "helpless, hopeless."

After arriving in El Paso, Anaya rushed into the arms of a grieving father waiting at a Downtown gas station. They embraced, cried, then embraced tighter. She washed off the tears, pulled back her hair and changed into black clothes in the station's muggy restroom.

She had only an hour to get to her mother's funeral across the border in Juárez.

Crossing the border had become a daily ritual for Anaya, now the Class of 2011 valedictorian of Lydia Patterson Institute, a private school founded in 1913 and supported through the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. The school will hold a ceremony for graduates on its campus today, and the formal pomp and circumstance graduation is set for Sunday at Bowie High School.

Lydia Patterson enrolls nearly 450 students -- about 70 percent of whom, like Anaya, reside in Juárez. About half of those Juárez residents are U.S. citizens, although Anaya is not.

Every school day, Anaya's father drives 15 minutes from their home to the Paso del Norte Bridge. There, Anaya waits in line, sometimes up to 90 minutes, to show Customs and Border Protection agents her student visa. Once she gets waved into the United States, she walks 10 to 15 minutes to the Segundo Barrio school.

Socorro De Anda, president of Lydia Patterson Institute, described Anaya as a great student who earned a 3.9 grade-point average, served as president of the school's National Honor Society and wrote for the monthly school newspaper, Lion Pride. Anaya also cleans classrooms for about an hour every day after school as part of a work-study program that helps pay her tuition.

"We're especially proud of Estefania," De Anda said. "She's one of the greatest examples on how our students overcome the toughest of challenges and achieve great things.

"These students are not your average students," De Anda said. She added that many have had friends or relatives killed in the relentless drug-related violence in Juárez.

Anaya earned a full scholarship to Simpson College, a private liberal arts school in Indianola, Iowa, that enrolls nearly 1,900 students. She'll start with a few credits in English and history under her belt because she's enrolled in dual credit courses online.

"Many students who are U.S. citizens, I don't think, realize how difficult it is for us to do everything we have to do to get this education that they have as a given right," Anaya said.

Ninety percent of Lydia Patterson graduates continue their education across the United States. In 2010, Lydia Patterson graduates earned more than $2.1 million in competitive college scholarships, a figure school officials expect the Class of 2011 will surpass.

Anaya had other college and scholarship offers, but Simpson offered her a full ride -- and an opportunity to study away from the border area where she grew up. Born in Aguascalientes in north-central Mexico, she moved to Juárez at age 12. As a child, she learned some English through a Disney edition of the Ingles sin Barreras video learning system, and took she private courses in her early teens.

"My father has always encouraged me to learn English, and to get to know more about the American culture than just what we know here along the border," Anaya said.

Her dad, a part-time instructor at the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juárez, or UACJ, has led by example. He expects to complete a doctorate in political science in 2012.

"The influence we as parents have on our children only goes so far," said Robert Anaya Rodriguez, 41. "But at some point, what becomes equally important are the steps they take and the choices they make on their own. (Estefania) has chosen, despite her pain, despite her setback, to move forward. To use a colloquialism, 'Nunca se rajo.' She never gave up."

Anaya plans to major in anthropology, or perhaps psychology, at Simpson this fall. Anaya said she's looking forward to the experience, but has mixed emotions about living away from her father.

"However difficult, it's going to be only a physical separation," Anaya Rodriguez said. "Perhaps it's the most difficult choice, but it's the best choice."

Captivated by the human spirit, Anaya said she hopes learning about human behavior will help her understand why her mother, Laura Elena, took her own life at the age of 41.

For now, she struggles with emotions that range from anger to sadness to guilt.

"Te perdono si me perdonas."

"I'll forgive you if you forgive me," Anaya said to her mother at her grave.

Anaya never looked in the casket: "I didn't want to see her lifeless. I wanted to remember her with her eyes open."

Choked up for the first time while relaying her story, Anaya said that at first she felt guilty for not being around when her mother hanged herself in the backyard of their home. She had long had bouts of depression but refused professional help.

Anaya questions whether there was anything she did to drive her mother to suicide, or anything she could have done to prevent it: "When this was recent, I had the sense that maybe she was never happy with us, with me, with my dad, with her family.

"I know better, but you can't help think it," she said.

She hopes time -- and professional counseling -- helps heal her heart.

"Time has changed my perspective a little. I hope it changes more as time passes on," she said.

Anaya said she hopes her career and community work will help others going through the grief she lives with daily.

"I believe one person can make a difference," she said, and added that she hopes to work in the United States after college. "If I'm going to be here in the country working and living, I want to make my community better, stronger. I'm not just going to get a job and live my own little life."

Part of her drive comes from feeling isolated and alone after her mother died. No one would understand, she thought. She found some comfort at school, but soon realized her support system had been there from Day One: Dad.

"It's been an extremely emotional journey, but she has chosen to put forth every effort to continue on a path to success," Anaya Rodriguez said. He added that he's extremely proud of his daughter.

How is she doing today? Anaya smiled shyly and said, "I think we're good. Despite everything, we're good. I have a reason to fight. My father. And myself."

As she works through her emotions, she says there's one thing she will never forget.

"When I hugged her, É I always loved the way she smelled," Anaya said about her mother. "It was comforting. She smelled like a mom, like my mom."


--Cindy Ramírez, El Paso Times


el Intérprete Online, mayo-junio, 2011