For Her Daughter, a Different World

Ericka Hilario and children
Erika Hilario and her children

In October 2014, a friend in California noticed an article in the Los Angeles Times she thought I’d be interested in. Titled “Boyle Heights Girl Aims For More, With Help of Soccer,” it focused on a talented young athlete who commutes almost five hours from her gritty Mexican-American neighborhood in order to play with an elite team in Pasadena.

I was looking for subjects for an upcoming Townsend Press book to be titled The Power of Determination, and young Luisa sounded like a good candidate. Luisa’s soccer coach was easily found online, so I contacted him for more information and to ask to be put in touch with Luisa’s parents.

But after talking on the phone with Luisa’s mother, Erika, I realized that she was the person I wanted to write about. I found her single-minded dedication to her children’s futures remarkable, all the more because of the absolute lack of any such parental support in her own life.

I visited the Hilarios, interviewing Erika and watching her interact with Luisa and Erick (who were both delightful kids). I was, and remain, awed by Erika’s strength and intelligence.

The Power of Determination is expected to be published in 2016.

The Profile

Ándale! Apúrate! Come on, niños! We’re gonna be late!”

Luisa and Erick Hilario rush out of their room, carrying school books, a soccer ball, cleats, and water bottles. Their mom, Erika, hurries them out the door and down the narrow steps of their apartment building. She carries a cooler filled with cut-up fruit. They hit the sidewalk almost running.

The Hilarios are in a hurry. That is true on this particular day, when they’re starting the two-plus hour trip by train, bus, and foot from their neighborhood in Los Angeles to Pasadena. There, Luisa, 11, plays with one of the best soccer clubs in California. It is true on every other day as well. On weekends and weekdays, from early mornings to late evenings, in Spanish and in English, the family hurries. On the soccer field, Luisa scores goals. Off the field, the family focuses on goals of another sort.

“Through soccer, Luisa sees another world,” Erika says. In their own neighborhood, Boyle Heights, most residents have not finished high school. More Spanish is heard than English. Luisa’s and Erick’s father is a long-distance trucker who is rarely home. To earn money, Luisa decorates notebooks with colorful duct tape and sells them to her classmates, and Erick, 8, picks up recyclable bottles and cans. But in Pasadena, where the “CZ Elite” soccer club practices, Luisa plays alongside the children of doctors, lawyers, and professors. Those kids will go on to highly-ranked universities. They will have professional careers, live in fancy houses, and be financially independent. These are all things that Erika desperately wants for her own children. Especially for Luisa. In Luisa, Erika sees the little girl she once was, and the chances that she never had.

“Life is very heavy for a woman,” says Erika. “Women have to be the models if things are going to change.” And Erika is determined things are going to change. Her brown-skinned children are going to enjoy the same opportunities as the wealthier Anglos around them, even if it takes her last ounce of strength to make it so. Although Erika’s own life has indeed been heavy, she has taken her own pain and turned it into something amazingly strong and positive.

From the outside, Erika doesn’t seem unusual. She didn’t finish high school. She is a pretty woman, but doesn’t fuss over her appearance. Her usual uniform is sweat pants and T-shirts. Her beautiful red-brown hair is pulled back into a messy ponytail. She struggles with English, substituting the occasional Spanish word when she forgets. For work, she picks up a little money counting tortillas on a factory assembly line. But as she tells her own story, it becomes clear that she is extraordinary. Thinking back over the years, she can’t keep tears from spilling down her cheeks. But she dries those tears and reminds herself, “Like I tell my kids – look forward, always forward. Never back.”

She was born in Mexico City 32 years ago, to poor parents who could not read or write. Her father worked as a driver; her mother cleaned houses for rich families. Erika was the middle child of five siblings. As she grew up, she realized that her father had another wife and children elsewhere in town. Nobody seemed to think that was unusual. And no one thought it was unusual that he beat Erika’s mother and the children.

“My father was very machista,” she says, using the Spanish word that means sexist, overbearing, and often abusive to women. “He controlled our home entirely. If my mother went to the market to buy a chicken, he might decide she was with another man. So he’d beat her when she came home. He would hit us for anything, even spilling a drop of water. We lived in a crowded city, but we had no friends. We weren’t supposed to even say hello to people. We kids went to school and came home.”

Worse yet, when Erika was nine, her father began to sexually abuse her. Erika tried to tell her mother, but it did no good. “In my house, to speak of sex was a sin,” she says, tears running down her cheeks. “She never did anything to help me. But I do not blame her. I love my mother. She was ignorant, she was afraid. I can’t judge her.”

Instead of blaming her mother, Erika tried to help her. “My father would threaten to leave us, and she’d cry and say, ‘No, no.’ I’d tell her, ‘Let him go! We’ll be better off!’ When he’d hit her, I’d try to pull him off.”

Erika’s strong spirit made her father angry. When she finished elementary school, he told her he would no longer pay her school fees. “I loved school,” she says. “I threw myself at his feet, begging him to let me study. But he said that educating a girl was throwing money away.”

And so, at the age of 11 – the age Luisa is today -- Erika went to work. She attended school in the morning, took the bus home,showered, and put on a work uniform. By 3 o'clock she was at a local market, where she and other children bagged groceries and stocked shelves for tips. By working until midnight, she was able to keep paying her school fees for three more years.

When she was 14, she began seeing a boy who was four years older. As her boyfriend, he was “sweet, nice. Never jealous.” He taught her some valuable skills – how to drive a car, how to change a tire. She left home to live with him, to get away from her abusive father.

But once she moved in with the boyfriend, everything changed. Now he began to act like her father – machista. He hit her if she so much as said “good morning” to another man. In addition, he used drugs, which he introduced Erika to.

Finally a crisis came. Erika was asleep when her boyfriend, crazy on drugs, attacked her with his fists, beating her savagely. “I truly thought I was going to die,” she remembers. In great pain, blood streaming down her face, she ran from one neighbor’s apartment to another, begging for help. (She learned later she had a fractured skull.) One after another, women turned her away. “They said they didn’t want a problem,” Erica says bitterly. They were too afraid of their husbands to help a beaten woman.

Afraid to stay in the same town with her ex-boyfriend, Erika fled to another part of Mexico to live with an uncle’s family. There she thought about her options. Ahead of her, she could see two ways of life. “I could live like my mother. Or I could be with bad people, the drugs and all that. I said no, those are not for me.”

She spoke to another uncle, one who was living in Los Angeles. He offered to help her come to the United States.

“He would pay a coyote (a person hired to smuggle people) to take me across the border,” she says. “I decided to go. I would live in L.A., pay him back, and start a new life.”

Erika’s first attempt to cross the border almost ended any hopes she had of a better life – or perhaps of life at all.

She was one of a group of 50 people, 49 of whom were men. They were guided by three coyotes. The group walked for two full days, through desolate desert territory. One coyote attached himself to Erika, never leaving her side. As the group became more scattered, he separated her from the others.

“I didn’t know where I was,” she says. “We lost sight of the group, and I was alone with him. He began saying dirty things.” She was terrified, but there was nowhere to go to get away. Finally they stopped to rest, sheltering under a rock. The coyote became aggressive. He tried to force Erika to touch him in sexual ways. She fought him off, moving as far from him as she could. Finally he fell asleep.

Alone in the desert night, Erika wept with rage and fear. She thought of her father’s abuse, of her boyfriend’s beatings. “I thought, ‘WHY? Why me, again? Why do men treat women like this, like basura, like garbage? We are not objects just to be used!”

Looking at the sleeping man, she thought of what he would do when he woke. She came to a decision. “I will not let this happen,” she told herself. “If have to kill him, I will do it.” She searched for a heavy rock. She held it, thinking how she would smash his head.

And then the Border Patrol showed up.

“Thank God they came,” Erika says, shaking her head at the horror of the memory. “I would have assassinated him.”

Erika and the rest of the group were taken back into Mexico, where they were held briefly in jail and then released. After a week, Erika was ready to try again. Again, she traveled with a group of 50 people, but this time the coyote “was a good person. He told us, ‘If you have food, share it.’ When it snowed, he covered me with his chamarra, his jacket.”

Soon, Erika reached Los Angeles. In time, she gained legal residency in the U.S. She met her husband, Luis, a gentle man 11 years older than she. As Luisa and then Erick came along, Erika discovered a passion for parenting. She threw herself into learning English. “In Mexico, we have a saying, ‘A la tierra que fueres, haz lo que vieres.’ When you go to a new place, you do as those people do. And to help my children here, I have to speak English.”

As the children started school, Erika became determined that though they were not rich, and were the children of immigrants, and didn’t live in a fancy part of town, they were still going to get opportunities that more privileged American kids get. When classmates at Luisa’s kindergarten teased her about her crooked teeth, making her self-conscious about smiling, Erika pulled her out. She went to a local private school and begged until they gave her a discount on tuition. She enrolled Luisa (and later Erick), cut her household budget to the bone, and somehow found the money every month to pay the fees.

She watched their school progress like a hawk, demanding that they do their best. She posted learning tools, like multiplication tables and spelling lists, all over the house. She refused to install cable TV. “We can use that money for shoes and for lessons,” she said. She went to library sales to buy inexpensive books to fill the bookcase that stands in Erick’s and Luisa’s bedroom.

Today, Erika’s efforts are paying off. The children are excellent students. Luisa is preparing to take the admission test to one of the highest-ranked middle schools in Los Angeles. “We will have to work very, very hard,” says Erika. When Erika speaks of her children’s futures, she always says, “We.” Recently, the family was written about in a story in the Los Angeles Times. To everyone’s delight, a reader offered to pay for Luisa to get her teeth straightened. She now proudly flashes a mouth full of braces. Friendly and giggly, she mentions that she dreams of being a professional soccer player.

Erika reminds her, “Maybe, but not many people can play professional soccer. You need Plan B.”

Luisa agrees. “I’d also like to be a veterinarian,” she says. Erika nods in approval. That is a more realistic goal.

Thanks to her mother, Luisa knows that her dreams can become a reality. She can go to college. She can become a veterinarian, or a professional athlete. She lives in a world where women are not treated like basura.

“Luisa sees her teammates, and their families,” her mom says. “I tell her, she can study and work, and she can live like them. She can be independent, not having to rely on anyone else. Or, she can stay in this house and be one of those.” Erika points to the alley beside the house, where young people hang out to smoke marijuana.

“I don’t judge them,” she says of the pot smokers. “I was one of them. But my children – they deserve more.”

Erika sends her children off to complete their homework. She’ll check it when they are done. Later in the evening she’ll bring a whiteboard into the living room, where Luisa’s soccer ribbons and trophies line a shelf, so they can have a Spanish lesson. Erika insists that the children be fully bilingual, using perfect grammar in both languages.

As the children study, and Erika cleans up the kitchen from dinner, her words hang in the air: “Women have to be the models if things are going to change." Once beaten, abused, and denied an education, the amazing Erika Hilario has found the strength to become that model.

About the Author

Beth Johnson

Since 1988 Beth Johnson has been an associate editor for Townsend Press, an educational publisher in New Jersey. She has published more than a dozen books of profiles about and for “people who have struggled with a variety of life obstacles,” in addition to books in “The King School Series” for reading instruction in Grades K – 2. She earned a B.A. in English and Communication from Goshen College in 1977 and an MS in literacy communication from Syracuse University in 1979. She lives in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, with her husband Bob Anderson.