Born in El Centro, California to a 17-year-old mother and a father who was barely 21, Elizabeth Escobar’s parents were too young to know themselves, much less take care of a small child. Due to her dad’s quick temper, Elizabeth witnessed a great deal of domestic violence, though she spent considerable time with her paternal grandparents. When she became old enough to go to kindergarten, school became her refuge. Learning new things excited Elizabeth and provided distraction from her harsh reality at home.
Then in first grade, a boy started tormenting her, constantly calling her names because she was chubby. In second grade, the bully’s taunting became worse when her teacher berated Elizabeth in front of the class for not being able to make it across the monkey bars. That same teacher continued to chide her publically in the fourth grade, stripping the little self-esteem Elizabeth had managed to hold onto. Her mom visited the school to talk to the teacher several times, but the woman refused to stop forcing Elizabeth to hang from the bars until she fell off, all the while scolding her for not being able to grasp the next rung (after decades of mistreating children, this teacher is finally under investigation, according to an aunt who still lives in El Centro).
During this time, Elizabeth walked into the kitchen to get something to drink, just as her father flew into one of his rages. He backhanded her in the face, giving her a bloody nose that took what seemed like hours for her and her mother to quell. She remembers her mom crying, holding towels soaked in blood. The incident gave her mother the strength and resolve to leave her dad.
At age nine, Elizabeth moved into her maternal grandparents’ house in a smaller town. The first week at her new K-8 public school, a girl with a reputation for picking on people chose Elizabeth for her next target. Elizabeth couldn’t believe she’d captured the attention of yet another bully. At the end of the day, the girl and her group of minions stared at Elizabeth walking toward them from outside the school gates. Elizabeth knew the smirks on their faces meant trouble, so she turned around and headed back to her classroom. As she was about to escape inside the door, the bully caught up and punched Elizabeth in the back. Her new fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Murua, heard the commotion and took off to find the attacker. The occasional grumbles from other kids, accusing Elizabeth of “snitching,” had been worth being left alone from that day forward.
Elizabeth flourished after that rocky beginning. She met some of her all-time favorite teachers at that neighborhood school.
“Mrs. Mura protected, mentored, and saw something in me. She…was my angel…who changed my life…followed by Mr. Galindo, Mr. Colunga, and Mr. Lozano,” Elizabeth recalls. “Thank God I had teachers who looked out for me!”
Elizabeth graduated from the eighth grade as the class valedictorian.
In the meantime, her dad got help to learn to control his anger, so her parents got back together, and her home life improved. Her mom went back to school to become a licensed vocational nurse (LVN), and her dad enrolled in the Correctional Officer’s Academy.
“What I went through during my childhood made me realize…an education was so important because no one could take that away from me,” Elizabeth explains. “It was the only way I could become independent.”
Elizabeth did well in high school and attended the local community college. She held two jobs to support herself and to pay for classes, since her parents didn’t have the means to contribute financially. At one of her jobs at a fast food restaurant, her sociology professor used to show up and sit at a table near where she’d be cleaning. “You are too good for this,” he would tell her. “You need to leave the [Imperial] valley.”
In three years, Elizabeth earned an Associate of Arts degree with honors and had decided to take her professor’s advice. Although the Criminal Justice department at San Diego State University (SDSU) was severely impacted, she applied anyway – and she got accepted to the program!
She attended SDSU part time and worked full time until she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice in 2004. During her senior year, she completed an internship with the County of San Diego Public Defender’s Office, where she works today.
In the Public Defender’s office, Elizabeth had mentioned her desire to help kids, especially girls, “not to get caught up in the system.” One of her co-workers saw an ad in the Union Tribune asking for mentors to participate in the Hermanitas® (Little Sisters) program in 2006, an affiliate of MANA, a nationwide Latina organization.
That was almost eight years ago.
Since then, Elizabeth has been mentor for up to three young Latinas at a time.
This year, Erika, Elizabeth’s Hermanita since sixth grade, will graduate from high school, so the two of them are busily planning SAT dates,
revising Erika’s personal statement to apply for colleges, and making lists of possibilities for the institution where Erika will begin her next education adventure a year from now.
And Elizabeth has become the Director for Hermanitas®, determined to give as many girls as possible the tools and support to succeed in today’s world.
Elizabeth has powered through adversity and found dreams were attainable if she stayed focused and moved through her fears. Along the way, mentors helped her to create a path for her future. They provided advice, and most of all, they believed in her. Now Elizabeth returns that support and love to others, so they, too, will find themselves living successful, fulfilling lives.
We’d love to hear from you! If you or someone you know has a story of success through grit and determination, or you have something to say about our small town girl who touches more lives than she’d ever imagined, please write a comment below, and share this with your friends. J