Estela Peñaloza

Katy June-Friesen
3 min read
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Estela stands beside her washer and dryer and tells a group of American students the story of her family. Her cinderblock home hugs the side of a ravine in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The group sits in one room of the tiny home, under a corrugated plastic roof. Four beds, a couch, a refrigerator, a small stove, boxes, a TV and a stereo crowd the upper level of the room. Estela stands on the level below. Behind a curtain is a bathroom with a barrel of water for pouring down the toilet. On the walls are two guitars, a tennis racquet, a plastic NFL clock and a crucifix with a white Jesus.

Estela, who is 45, tells the group she has lived in Cuernavaca most of her life. She started working at age 7 to support her family because her father left them. She worked to pay for school, and she attended boarding school for a short time. Estela studied until grade nine, married at age 16, and started having children soon after. Her husband was a taxi driver. He died in an accident, leaving Estela alone and pregnant with her first child, Luis.

Recently, Estela dreamt that Luis was in her arms. She asked him if he wanted to eat, and he said “yes.” She woke up crying. Before he died at age 15, Luis never spoke. He was born with cerebral palsy. Every day, Estela had to leave Luis lying in his corner bed when she went to work. Because he couldn't walk, he would be there when she got home. Estella never had enough money to get Luis the kind of medical care he needed. In fact, Estella says she could never really give any of her children what they needed. Except love. Still, she says, “You give up everything for your children.”

Estela has five children still living. They all live with the consequences of growing up with one parent and no one to watch them during the day. When Nadia, who is now 27, was six years old, she was raped by a neighbor while Estela was at work. Estela found out about the tragedy from someone else. The neighbor was jailed for five years and banished from the community, but Estela's family is still overprotective of children. Today, in the house her neighbors helped her build, there are no windows.

But her children have made it, says Estela. Even without a father, she says, they ended up good children. Because they could not find good work in Mexico, three of her children are working in California. She has five grandchildren, some of whom live with her while their parents are away. The family is close, and Estela is responsible for her grandchildren. “No one is alone,” she says.

Still, the sadness of the past is always on her mind. She thinks of Luis, and she misses coming home to him. But she finds comfort in telling her story to American visitors who come to listen. For this reason, she says, “I know someone in the world is remembering.”

And Luis is still with them in the house. The other children say they see another child sometimes. The house is full of history, says Estela, and that's why she won't take it down, even though it isn't the nicest house and needs work. It's full of love, she says.

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