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Episode 70

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Translation – Scars

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Before we get started, we have a warning for listeners. This story contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and violence.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Ok, in this story there are a lot of names, especially in the beginning. So, pay attention.

Judith is from Barranquilla and is one of the six sisters and one brother.  After living in Colombia for most of her life, she went to Venezuela for a while. She had a daughter there, Kenda. And then, in 1987 when she was 35 she went to the United States on a tourist visa. But she stayed. Later she got married and with her husband’s papers, she was able to become a resident. That was when she had her second daughter, Kenia.

Judith sent money to Colombia every month. With the money she earned in New York she bought a house in Barranquilla, where her siblings and nephews Kenia’s cousins lived. This is Kenia:

[Kenia Pérez]: Uh, my name is Kenia Pérez. I live in New York. I was born here in New York and I’m 26… 26 or 27? [Laughs] I’m 26.

[Daniel]: Throughout her childhood, Kenia lived with her mom and her sister, Kenda —who’s 15 years older than her— in a modest but nice apartment in uptown Manhattan, in New York.

[Kenia]: I never lived with my dad; my mom and my dad were never together.

[Daniel]: And even though she doesn’t remember those early years, when Kenia thinks about them, the feeling she has is that it was a place where she received a lot of love.

Her mother’s younger sister, Narelvis, moved from Colombia to live with them for a while… and Judith helped her get residency papers… Narelvis was almost the same age as Kenia’s sister. Both of them took care of her, spoiled her and loved her…

[Kenia]: She and my sister Kenda joked that I was like their, their doll, because they would do my hair and dress me, and they fought over who would do my hair.

[Daniel]: And Kenia really cared about Narelvis…

[Kenia]:

I, I really loved her. She was my aunt. “My aunt Nena,” that’s what I called her.

[Daniel]: Their life was happy, peaceful. For a while…

[Kenia]: And well, when, when I was around 7 years old, it was like everything changed…

[Daniel]: And this is the story how everything changed for Kenia, and the mark that would leave behind… Camila Segura is Radio Ambulante’s Senior Editor. Here’s Camila:

[Camila Segura, Senior Editor]: Everything changed when Kenia, her mom and her mom’s then boyfriend took a cruise for a few days, departing from Miami. Kenia has vague memories of that vacation…

[Kenia]: But what I remember is that when we got to the port at Miami, my mom was arrested…

[Camila]: And her boyfriend was too.

[Kenia]: And they took us to a room where I was with my mom, but she was in handcuffs. And, uh, I remember that we went to the bathroom and she was still in handcuffs and there was like a guard and she was crying and she said to me, uh: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

[Camila]: She wouldn’t stop repeating that: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

[Kenia]: I was afraid (sighs), I was really afraid (sobs) and honestly, I didn’t understand what was going on…

Then, someone came to pick me up… I don’t know who… A friend of a friend of my mom’s or something like that because my sister was in New York.

[Kenda Pérez]: They didn’t come back that day…

[Camila]: This is Kenda, Kenia’s sister.

[Kenda]: And I remember that I had bought my mom some curtains because they had finally paid me to decorate to, to welcome the two of them. And then they never came, they never came…I didn’t know what was happening, and finally I got a call.

[Camila]: They didn’t just arrest her mother. She was also sentenced to seven years in prison. The charge was drug-trafficking.

But they never told Kenia what had happened…

[Kenia]: No one explained it to me, no one explained what was going on. I remember the adults around me were having conversations and talking about the fact that my mom was in prison and lawyers and what was going happen, so in my memory, that was how I found out, from the conversations I overheard…

[Camila]: Her sister Kenda was about 22 at the time. And Kenia went to live with her. But Kenda…

[Kenda]: My stuff was really disorganized, honestly. I wasn’t a very mature person.

[Camila]: Kenda had just graduated college. She had a lot of expenses and a lot of debt, so along with her mother, they decided that it would be best for Kenia to go live with Narelvis.

[Kenda]: Because they were, they were more stable… their life as a couple was more put together.

[Kenia]: And the other thing was Narelvis had gotten married and had moved to a suburb and the education system was a lot better and, well, it all seemed like, like it was the best option.

[Kenda]: She also wanted to go spend all of her time there. So we were all happy with that arrangement.

[Camila]: Because with all the pain she was dealing with from what had happened with her mom, Kenia was excited at the prospect of going to live with Narelvis. They were being reunited.

[Kenia]: I had a good relationship with her and even her husband, who was her boyfriend when she lived with us. I was really attached to both of them… Oof!

[Camila]: But not long after moving into their house, she started to notice that things weren’t going to be how she imagined and that Narelvis wasn’t the same caring aunt she was before…

[Kenia]: She was different. She changed. It was a very strict household. There were a lot of rules.

[Camila]: For one, Narelvis had become very religious. Her brother in law was a pastor at a Baptist church… When Kenia lived with her mom, they were Catholic, but they didn’t go to mass religiously every Sunday. They went every once in a while…

[Kenia]: And all of a sudden I was going to church at least two times a week and the Church’s rules where very strict. The women had to wear long dresses and so did the girls.

[Camila]: And those long dresses weren’t just for church. Narelvis also made her wear them to school… Kenia, who was only eight years old, wasn’t used to it…

[Kenia]: I felt bad. Sometimes the other students made fun of me. Why do you look… why was I dressed like that? Sometimes I tried to hide clothes in my bag so I could change when I got to school.

[Camila]: Kenia talked to her sister almost every day.

[Kenda]: I wouldn’t go a week without seeing her…

[Camila]: And when Kenda started noticing how Kenia was starting to dress, she spoke to Narelvis…

[Kenda]: I asked her: Nena, what happened with her clothes? What’s going on…? “No, it’s because we’re going to church.” So what happened was that if the girl was with me I changed her clothes.

[Camila]: But Kenia didn’t dare tell her sister anything. Kenda remembers it like this: When she says “the girl”, she’s talking about her younger sister, Kenia.

[Kenda]: She was a little girl and she, the girl didn’t tell me any of that. I said, “No. This, this… well, Nena is getting things from religion.” I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it but, uh, I tried to respect that…

[Camila]: Narelvis was becoming stricter and stricter and when Kenia didn’t want to listen to her…

[Kenia]: She would say that, that I had the devil inside me.

[Camila]: This whole change was complicated for Kenia. Now she understands that she was going into a kind of depression. She was so little, she didn’t have her mom with her and she was in an environment that felt so hostile.

[Kenia]: I, I didn’t want to study. I didn’t want to get good grades and I had always been a good student, and in the years I lived with Narelvis, I got very bad grades…

[Camila]: And when Narelvis got reports from school…

[Kenia]: She hit me with a strap. Uh, she hit me on my legs and I always had bruises on my legs. Once she hit me so hard I bled and it was like a raw wound…

[Camila]: And when Kenia didn’t want to eat because she didn’t like the food or she wasn’t hungry…

[Kenia]: She saw it as: “You’re really spoiled rotten”. Uh, “You don’t want to eat certain things”, I don’t know… So she would sit next to me. She had a watch and every so often, as time passed, if I didn’t eat, she would hit me with the strap. And sometimes we sat at the dinner table for hours and I would have tears in my eyes, swallowing food I didn’t want to eat and she was there with the strap in her hand hitting me.

[Camila]: But for Kenia, beyond the physical abuse…

[Kenia]: What had the biggest impact on me was the verbal abuse… What really stuck with me was her telling me that I was a very spoiled girl, that my mom had given me too much and that I asked for too much and that… that my mom was in prison because of me, because she wanted to fulfill all my wishes and buy me everything I wanted and everything I asked for, so that’s why she got in trouble and that’s the reason she was in prison, because of me and… That has always stayed with me.

[Camila]: The guilt was killing her. A guilt that she would carry for years.

Sometimes Narelvis would call Kenda and complain about Kenia.       

[Kenda]: And she would complain about the girl, about this or that.       

[Camila]: Kenda would get complaints from her aunt and then she would talk to Kenia. She would tell her not to talk back and to try to behave herself… but the truth is that Kenia didn’t really understand what was going on in that house.

[Kenda]: But it was never really clear what she was doing. And I saw the girl and her when she was with me… she didn’t awful things like that to me so I didn’t really understand. What is she doing? What terrible things is she doing? She didn’t do very bad things before. I saw that things were getting worse and worse and I didn’t know what to do.

[Kenia]: A lot of time passed and then I felt like I wasn’t accepted and I didn’t feel loved and that was all I wanted, because I didn’t have my mom’s love; and even though my mom and my dad were never together, I grew up, I had grown up in a house with a lot of love, so I always felt like an outsider, like I didn’t belong and she made me feel that way with her words….

[Camila]: The feeling Kenia started developing while she lived there was that she was a burden on everyone. On her aunt Narelvis. On her sister Kenda. Even on her mom, who she would visit from time to time.

The less she bothered the adults around her, the better…

Judith, Kenia’s mom, was in prison in Miami for a few years but then she was transferred to a prison in Connecticut, much closer to New York.  There Kenia, Kenda, and sometimes Narelvis and her husband Iván could visit her. And Kenia…

[Kenia]: I was really happy. I was always waiting for the day we would go visit her again.

[Camila]: Kenda was happy too.

[Kenda]: We had a good time with her there. We would talk and hug her for a while. We would eat… There are vending machines in the prison and we would buy food. We spent the day there with her. We took pictures. You know? We talked, we told stories… It was all great… It was really great… because we were with her…

[Camila]: The two of them agreed that they would get dressed up to see her…

[Kenda]: We never went looking ugly [Laughs]. Mom looked pretty when we came to see her too: She would say: Yeah, I got my hair done at the prison salon.

[Camila]: And their mom, of course, was also happy to see them…

[Kenia]: She asked how school was and how I was… And…I always… I never gave her bad news. I always… I mean, I always acted super happy and carefree, and I didn’t tell her if I had a problem or anything.

[Camila]: A nine-year-old girl protecting her mom…

Kenia remembers that when she would go they would play and color,  but…

[Kenia]: What I remember most about, about going to the prison to visit her is that, from the visitation room you could see out to the parking lot, but from the parking lot you couldn’t see anything inside, so when we left, we would say bye to my mom, like I would wave from the outside because I knew she could see me, so until the very last moment I was always saying good bye, until they took her away.

[Camila]: For months, after those visits to the prison, Kenia would go back to that house and face the uncertainty of not knowing what she would get from Narelvis…

[Kenia]: Sometimes I didn’t know if she was going to wake up angry with me or not… And sometimes she would wake up angry with me and I don’t know why…

[Camila]: And sometimes, on the days when she would hit her, when Kenia was getting ready for bed, Narelvis…  

[Kenia]: She would give me a hug and a kiss and tell me she loved me, so I don’t know if she was sorry, but at some point she would be caring again.

[Camila]: And as is common in cases like these, time passed and…

[Kenia]: It became normal…so I, I felt like it was, it was part of living there: a few hits and then some affection every once in a while…

[Camila]: For Kenia, the best moments were when they went for walks on the weekend.

[Kenia]: I got really excited… I liked those happy, family moments because they reminded me of the moments we had when we lived in New York and usually her husband, Iván, treated me really well, so I felt good when I was getting love and affection.

[Camila]: And Iván, Narelvis’ husband, wasn’t bad to her. He never hit her. Besides, he worked so he was almost never there when Narelvis was mistreating Kenia…

[Kenia]: The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know if Iván knows how much Narelvis hit me… He was always very neutral…

[Camila]: And at first, the few times Iván asked Narelvis to ease up a little on the rules with Kenia…

[Kenia]: She got mad and started fighting, so, if I remember correctly, after a while he stopped defending me and kept quiet, and… he acted like it was none of his business…

[Camila]: One Friday in 2001, when Kenia was 10, some of Iván’s relatives visited them at Narelvis’ house. It was a few months after Narelvis and Iván’s first son, Daniel, was born. The baby was asleep and everyone else was in the living room…

[Kenia]: We were playing cards and talking and I don’t know, Narelvis said that I had to go to bed. It was 8 or 7, I don’t know, it was my bedtime, which was absurd, and I felt really excluded and really sad because they were laughing and having a good time and I had to go to bed.

[Camila]: She shared a room with the baby.

[Kenia]: The baby was in his crib and I was in my bed… I was so mad that I put my feet against the wall and was hitting the wall with my feet. Not fast, but hard…

[Camila]: Narelvis and Iván’s mom went to the room to tell her to stop, because she was going to wake the baby… Kenia was frustrated and didn’t stop…   

[Kenia]: And I remember I got out of bed and was fighting with them too and Iván’s mom grabbed me and was shaking me and the lady was saying: “She has the devil inside of her.” The lady was super religious: “She’s a demon. She’s a demon.” And I said: No, this, this isn’t going to happen, I mean now this lady is going to hit me too and she doesn’t even know me, she’s not even family. I and I said: “I’m going to call my sister to have her come get me.”

[Camila]: When Kenia tried to grab the phone…

[Kenia]: Both of them went after me and the lady, Iván’s mom, disconnected the phone so I couldn’t call anyone.

[Camila]: But in the end Iván stepped in and let her use the phone. It was almost midnight… Kenda remembers that after she spoke to Kenia, she passed the phone to Narelvis.

[Kenda]: She was very erratic [Yells] angry, worked up. She started yelling into the phone and this and that…I said: OK. Leave her alone. I am going to get the girl today and that’s the end of it. So, I asked a friend of mine: Please, please, take me to go get my little sister… So, the guy did me a favor [Sobs] and we went to get the girl…

[Camila]: Kenda helped her put her things in a suitcase.

[Kenia]: She picked me up and we left and I never went back.

[Camila]: Kenia stayed with her sister for a while. And there Kenda realized how much her sister had changed…

[Kenda]: The girl wasn’t the same… she was, it was like she was afraid… it was like she was shut off. She wasn’t the same person.

[Camila]: Kenda tried to make her happy, to make plans for Kenia to have fun but there wasn’t a lot that made her happy…

When they told her mom what had happened, they decided it was best to send her to live in Colombia, for her to go to the aunts she had in Barranquilla because Kenda still wasn’t ready to take care of her full-time.

Kenia had only been to Colombia once, when she was 4 or 5. They didn’t have any family in the US other than Narelvis. Kenia still remembers that flight. She went alone, with the help of a flight attendant and she remembers she was crying on the way and two women next to her asked her why she was crying…

[Kenia]: “No, because I don’t know where I’m going, I’ve only been to Colombia one time and I don’t know. I’m scared. I’m afraid.”

[Camila]: They told her not to worry, that Colombia was incredible.

[Kenia]: But they couldn’t imagine everything that had already happened to me and it was much more than that.

[Camila]: The new family, her doubts about how they were going to treat her, if she was going to feel like a burden again… The fear that no one in the world was going to want her…

[Kenia]: I mean, I’m a burden on my sister. I’m a burden on my mom. I’m a burden on my aunt, I’m too much… I mean, I blamed myself because no one could take care of me.

[Lee]: When Chechi got off the plain… went she came out of the room

[Camila]: This is Lee, one Kenia’s cousins who went to pick her up at the airport in Baranquilla. She called her “Chechi” because Kenia’s name is Kenia Cecilia and that’s what her aunts in Colombia always called her.

[Lee]: She came with a, with a little doll that didn’t even have a nose. It was all scratched up. I think she had been carrying that doll since she was two, I don’t know…

[Camila]: Lee remembers the group that went to get her at the airport: aunts and uncles, cousins and her grandma…

[Lee]: Well everyone was there to hug and kiss her… She didn’t hug anyone of us back and… (Sobs) She was scared (Takes a moment to breathe) Chechi was afraid, which is normal, she had never seen any of us in her life; and that fear stayed with her for a long time, Camila…

[Camila]: Kenia went to live to live with Lee, another cousin and two of her aunts: Cecilia and Alba. Lee still remembers what Kenia was like in those first months. It made a big impression on her.

[Lee]: She was like a mistreated puppy that backs away when you get close to it, that looks at you with sad, begging eyes.

[Camila]: But what was perhaps the most moving for her was Kenia’s silence.

[Lee]: It was a very profound silence, it wasn’t the silence of a person who doesn’t talk much or who’s shy, it was a profound silence, a silence like: “I know things but I can’t tell them to you.”

[Camila]: And there was something else…

[Lee]: I was also very surprised because she never cried, about anything.

[Camila]: Kenia didn’t talk about how her aunt had abused her and barely said anything about her mother’s situation… and they didn’t ask her very much either…

[Lee]: We never did because we didn’t want her to relive those memories or out of respect for her, we never asked her anything at all.

[Camila]: Slowly, Kenia started getting used to her family… she started school and made new friends and started doing better at her studies…

Once, about two years after Kenia had gone to live in Colombia, when she was around 13 years old, Narelvis and Iván went to Barranquilla. That was the first time she saw them again since she left… she doesn’t remember too much about the meeting but she does remember…

[Kenia]: They came to the house and sat with me in a rocking chair and said: “No, we wanted to say we’re sorry for everything that happened.” At the time I hadn’t realized how much trauma I had experienced, how much the rest of my life had been impacted by everything I went though there, uh, So I said: “OK, it’s fine. Alright.”

[Camila]: Her mom was still in prison and now that she was far way, they only spoke on Sundays…

[Kenia]: Sometimes when I think about that time, I feel guilty because I remember that after I moved to Colombia I felt like, it was like: I don’t want to call my mom again, we say the same things: “I miss you”, “Everything is fine”, “School is fine”…

[Camila]: She felt like those conversations were always the same. But beside that, the calls were so short that…

[Kenia]: I felt like there was no point.

[Camila]: After living in Colombia for about four years, when Kenia was 14, her mother’s sentence was up. Since she was resident and not a citizen, as soon as she was released, she was deported.

[Kenia]: I remember we were all super happy. Going to get her at the airport and being able to hug her was a very happy moment…

[Camila]: After 7 years apart, they were finally reunited.

[Kenia]: My mom was definitely even happier than I was or she was better at showing it, she liked, uh, to spend a lot of time with me.

[Camila]: They started having a normal day-to-day life again. They got to know each other again… and have little rituals…

[Kenia]: Every time we went to the supermarket to get the money my sister would send us and buy groceries, we would eat a dessert together.

[Camila]: They also went to church every Saturday…

[Kenia]: And I remember that I didn’t necessarily like going but I didn’t mind going to church either, but what I did like more was going with my mom…

[Camila]: Seeing her mom dressed like that, looking pretty, brought back memories…

[Kenia]: I really reminded me of what my mom was like when we lived in New York, because my mom always dressed really nice… and she looked the most elegant and she had her dresses… So I liked seeing her dressed up to go to church on Saturday…

[Camila]: They slept together in a big bed in the main room of the house… and they talked about things, but never about her time in prison.

[Kenia]: It’s interesting because my mom only saw me as a girl…

[Camila]: And not as the adolescent she was at that point. After all, Kenia was nearly 15 by then…

[Kenia]: So I don’t think my mom felt comfortable telling me those more unpleasant things… Or not that she didn’t trust me, but she didn’t think it was appropriate.

[Camila]: About 11 months after her mom arrived, in December, Kenia was about to turn 15 and…

[Kenia]: I didn’t want a party, but I did want to go to New York to visit my sister.

[Camila]: Her sister bought her the ticket.

[Kenia]: But the week of my birthday my mom got sick…

[Camila]: She caught very bad case of the flu… she was very weak and when they took her to the hospital she had a respiratory arrest.

[Kenia]: And my mom died…

[Camila]: Kenia and her sister flew to Barranquilla to bury her. And once she was there, Kenda said:

[Kenda]: Now that I’m here, I can help my sister. Because by then I was older. I had a partner. I had a good job.

[Camila]: She asked Kenia if she wanted to come back to New York to live with her.

[Kenia]: I remember that I felt very sad because I had already gotten so used to life and Colombia and honestly I was really happy.

[Camila]: For the first time she felt like she belonged, that she had a place where she felt comfortable. But going back to New York and living with her sister was logical.

[Kenia]: I remember that I didn’t even have to think about it very much. It was what made the most sense.

[Camila]: Her life in New York was nice. She liked who she was with and she had her own room. Even though she was very sad about her mom’s death…

[Kenia]: I cried without making any noise, so my sister wouldn’t find out… how I felt and that I was so sad.

[Camila]: She lived in New York until she went to college, in the fall of 2009, only a few hours from New York.  She studied creative advertising and it went really well for her. She graduated in 2013 and moved back to New York. She got a job at an important ad agency and in March of 2018 she moved in with her boyfriend.

We know everything we just heard, this whole story, because Kenia wrote an email to Radio Ambulante… She told us a little about what she’s been through. And she told us something that happened to her.

One day she was driving back to New York… She was in the back seat…

[Kenia]: And I think, uh, it was one of those moments when…because I have them sometimes…when I feel sad…It happens sometimes when I’m quiet…we were driving in silence.

[Camila]: And she started thinking about her mom, which is something she does…

[Kenia]: Especially when, when there are a lot of good things going on in my life, I start to think about my mom and how proud she would be of me and all that…

[Camila]: That’s when she realized that they were close to the town where Narelvis, Iván and their children now live. And…

[Kenia]: That’s when I knew. I knew I needed to go back and talk to them…

[Camila]: After we read her email and I spoke with her for the first time, Kenia was eager to contact Narelvis to ask her for an interview. Narelvis was happy to accept. She was even excited that Kenia was calling her after so many years.

I spoke with Kenia again a few days before the visit. That day I asked her why she felt she needed to confront them.

[Kenia]: I think in the past 3 or 4 years I have been more accepting of the fact that I have this trauma and that I have this story that clearly lives with me and can be seen in my action and everything I do and how I act.

[Camila]: Kenia has gotten therapy and that has helped her a lot. She had been able to separate herself somewhat from the girl she was and it has helped her to realize…

[Kenia]: That some things weren’t my fault even though Narelvis taught me and told me they were…

[Camila]: For a long time, Kenia thought she was better and she was…

[Kenia]: But I think something inside me still wants to know why Narelvis acted the way she did… And I want it to be clear. I want her to know the harm she caused me… because… I don’t know, I don’t know, if she knows…

[Camila]: I asked her what fears she had…

[Kenia]: I’m afraid she’s going to deny everything and she’s going to say: “No, it didn’t happen like that. You’re remembering it wrong” or something like that.  Or that she’ll get mad at me or Iván will say: “You’re not going to come into my home and say these things, and, and attack us.”

I’m also afraid that I won’t be brave enough to, uh, to talk about what it is I’m going to talk about, but obviously I’m going to do it. It’s that moment when I say “Ok. We have to talk.” And, and starting that conversation and saying everything.

I want to walk out of there and feel… and feel peace. And I think I will. I think I will feel peace, because just saying it out loud, just telling the truth, saying what happened is enough.

[Camila]: I wish you the best of luck. It’s all going to be alright and you are going to feel peace after all this…

[Kenia]: OK. Thanks. Thank you, Camila.

[Daniel]: After the break, Kenia visits her aunt Narelvis. We’ll be back…

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[Maria Hinojosa, host of Latino USA]: Hi, I’m Maria Hinojosa host of the NPR show Latino USA. This week a conversation with the supreme court judge, Sonia Sotomayor. We talk about her life and what it’s like to write two books, not for adults, but for young people.

[Felix Contreras, host of Alt.Latino]: Hi, this is Felix Contreras host of the podcast Alt.Latino. For fans of Cuban music, we will present a great treasure in our next podcast: classical recordings that are fundamental in the sound we know as Cuban. Always in Alt.Latino from NPR Music.

[Daniel]: Welcome back to Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. And this is Kenia.

[Kenia]: OK. It’s Saturday, May 12th. Right now we’re five minutes away from Narelvis and Iván’s house. And I’m… I feel very nervous. I am very nervous. But I’m also very excited because it’s finally here. This is the day I’m going to be able to talk to them and tell them everything I have been carrying with me my whole life. I don’t know if that’s what they’re expecting and I don’t know if they’re going to be in shock and shut down because of it or not accept what I’m saying. But we’ll see.

[Kenia]: [Dog barking] Hi, Hello, Hi. [Laughs] Hi…

[Camila]: Kenia went into the house and they talked informally for a little bit. Before they ate, they sat at the dining room table to record their conversation. After a few basic questions to help them break the ice, Kenia asked Narelvis about her childhood.

[Narelvis]: Well, my home, I was born in a place where there was a lot of domestic violence. Uh.. my dad had very drastic mood swings. We would be talking and all of a sudden he would change. Uh, my mom was always, she was… now I see it as tough love, very tough love. She didn’t let us do anything, there was a lot of discipline and she was very good.

[Kenia]: Uh, why did you decide to help my mom and take care of me?

[Narelvis]: Out of love! Because, for example, she brought me, without any conditions, to this country and what I am today is because of her, she, she treated me very well, and it wasn’t a kind of repayment, it was a way to tell her: we’re here for you.

[Camila]: This is Iván.

[Iván]: Well, you were going through a, a difficult situation. And you were a little girl and we were making a home with, with Narelvis, and well this situation arose and we wanted to help your mom a little and well it was the best place for you to be, and for me, I loved my wife, so you were like, like a daughter as well, and well, you came to be like one.

[Kenia]: This is for Narelvis, some of the things you told me when I li… lived with you have stuck with me. Do you remember any of that and the way you used to discipline me?

[Narelvis]: Ah, yes I remember some things… when I said you had to do chores. Uh, I can say that now I’ve had the experience of being a mother and the Lord has come into my heart and I have changed so much —because only the Lord can change someone— I was too…  I can tell you… I loved you so much, I mean so much, the stress that I felt to protect that girl who, who I had seen grow and had seen when she was so small and it was like I wanted to protect you, but I realize now that I wanted to protect you through my own strength. I didn’t do a good job. I did a very bad job and there are things that if you asked: “What would you do if you could go back and change things”, that would be one of the things.

[Kenia]: Now I’m going to talk a little about what that experience was like for me…

[Camila]: One of the things that surprised me when I heard this audio was how quickly Kenia came to this point. She turned back a few times but not many, honestly.

[Kenia]: And, uh, I want you to know that I’m not here to attack you, but for me, uh, for I along time, I never said anything about, uh, what happened to me, not even about my mother being in prison, because, when my mom was arrested, I don’t remember anyone sitting down with me and explaining what happened. And I think it was that in the culture we grew up in, not talking about things that were taboo and hiding everything that was bad…. so, I remember being very confused when I was little and I remember that I felt a lot of love for you, and I felt very excited to, to live with you, but I think that when I finally did live with you, I didn’t feel that love and I think you made me feel as if, as if I were a burden and, uh, not all the time, but a lot of the time…

And something I remember you said to me once is that my mom was in prison because of me and that I was, uh, very [Sobs] spoiled and that I asked for too much and that’s why my mom was in that situation and I don’t know if you said it because you were mad or you, you weren’t thinking, I don’t know, but it’s something that has always stuck with me and, and I have always felt very guilty about what happened. Uh, and well, uh [Breathes]…

[Narelvis]: I want to ask for your forgiveness, I really, Ceci, I don’t remember saying those things to you, but if I hurt you, forgive me because I have suffered a lot too [Cries]… I have suffered a lot. I have suffered a lot because of your absence, because still, I have a lot of love in my heart for you, not just because you’re the daughter of the sister who brought me here, but because I’ve seen you grow up, because even if you don’t believe it, I think of you as if you were my daughter and now with the experience I’ve had, of having a teenager and the problems I’ve had with a teenager, I realize that really, Ceci, I made a lot of mistakes. Forgive me, forgive me because I’ve been praying for this. I have prayed for this. I have fasted for this. There are times I get up, I wake up and, and it’s like there’s something accusing me and yes, you’re right. I wronged you deeply but still I have a lot of love because the Lord has taught me to remember the good moments that I spent with you, the good moments I spent with your mother… because remembering the good moments fills my heart with love because you have always been special to me. Forgive me, Ceci, because I really don’t remember having said those thing, but forgive me.

[Kenia]: Another thing I would like to talk about is the physical discipline you gave me when you hit me with the strap and you did it because I wasn’t eating and I remember that I sat at the table for hours eating and, and you hit me with the strap if I went a certain amount of time without, without eating. Why? Why did you do that? And, and I want to know if that’s how you continued to discipline your children.

[Narelvis]: Really, I don’t know why I did it, but yes, I have hit given my children the strap… until Daniel reached a certain age, I think the last time I hit Daniel with it was when he was 7 or 8. I have with Vanessa too.

[Iván]: Can I say something? Ehm, Narelvis has that kind of personality, right? She’s a little bit like a soldier. Do you understand? I’ve told you that you’re like a sergeant, right? The truth is I have raised a hand to my children, I didn’t like hitting them or anything like that, but I understand that a lot of the time they need that…You don’t have children yet, but when you do you’ll realize that there are situations when kids are really rebellious…I don’t know the situation called for it when you were with us, I think that she was very forceful, very forceful, because she was a person who… she’s always… been that way, she still is very strict, and well that’s why she did that…but, uh, the way she raised our kids, is like what happened with you.

[Kenia]: Iván for me the discipline I received at your house…I see it as abuse and I don’t have kids but when I do I’m not going to discipline them like that because I grew up very confused. I didn’t know how to tell the difference between, like, OK, love means beatings. Love means getting hit with a strap. I think that’s something I carried with me for a long time, even when I was in college. Uh, I was in an abusive relationship and my boyfriend would tell me he loved me and sometimes he treated me badly and he would push me and he never, he never hit me in the face or anything like that, but it was an abusive relationship and I think I carried that confusion from my childhood with me up to that point and, and I associated love with abuse and that is something that scares me. That if I have kids that’s something they’re going to experience, that’s why I think it’s something that, that I really wouldn’t do…

[Narelvis]: If I think back, I really do agree with you because yes, ah, ah, when I think back to my childhood, I see that there were also abuses and that’s what I carried with me… to answer your question. Ah, you give what you have, the way I was raised, I didn’t know any other way to raise a child… You were, as they say, the first…

[Iván]: Can I say something else? And before I forget, because I don’t want the situation to pass, I also want ask your forgiveness, Ceci… I’m sorry… There’s one thing I always told her [Pauses to sob] from the bottom of my heart… I’m sorry… In my life there is one thing I regret, one thing. there are things you don’t do a lot and things you do that are excessive, but one thing I regret is what happened that night… because it left a mark on me as well, for the rest of my life. I’ve also asked God to someday have the chance you’re giving me know to tell you, now that I’m older, that I realize what you went through… [Sobs]

[Narelvis]: Ceci [inaudible] There’s nothing we can do.

[Iván]: I have regrets in my life, I really do… because I loved you like a daughter. We have pictures with you, Ceci. And I’m very sorry.

[Kenia]: OK. Uh, thank you very much. Like, this means the world for me, hearing you ask for forgiveness, hearing that, that I’m not crazy and I didn’t make it all up… Uh, I was nervous you were going to deny my story and my, my experience, uh… but this means a lot to me… thank you, thank you for sitting down with me. Thanks for being willing to be recorded and having this conversation.

[Iván]: Thank you, Ceci, because like I said to Narelvis:  You have given me the chance to put an end to that situation [Sobs], because it has caused us pain too. It left a mark on us too and the truth is we thought that you didn’t want to have any relationship with us at all and we understood completely, but I’m grateful for the chance, too.

[Narelvis]: Thank you, Ceci, for giving us the chance. I was nervous too, talking with you now I realize the pain I caused you was greater than, than I thought, but now I realize, Ceci, how much harm I caused you. How could I have cause you so much pain? [Cries]

It’s OK if you don’t forgive me, but I have suffered from your being gone too. I’ve also suffered from everything that’s happened, everything that happened. I miss you. I don’t have family here, my only family is you and Kenda and because of what I did, for all the wounds I inflicted on you, I don’t have a family. I have felt alone a lot, and forgive me, Ceci. I’m asking your forgiveness with all my heart. I didn’t think…I know I hurt you, but I didn’t know it was so much [Cries], I didn’t know it was so much.

[Camila]: I spoke with Kenia a few days after that meeting and one of the first questions I asked her was…

I think the main question is… what do you think you got out of this? I mean, do you feel peace?

[Kenia]: Yes, I definitely feel peace… I have peace… I have… It seems like I have clarity.

[Camila]: Clarity because for so many years, when she thought of Narelvis, her evil aunt, it was as simple as that. The cruel, evil woman who had abused her just because. Because of some fixation she had on her, because she hated her… But until she saw her, face to face, Kenia had not considered that maybe she also suffered, that she was also, in some way, a victim of a violent childhood, of domestic abuse. That doesn’t excuse anything, but seeing that, looking in her eyes, seeing her cry, helped Kenia to see her in another light…

[Kenia]: It makes me see a more human side of her, it makes me… I don’t know, looking into her eyes while she asked for forgiveness… I felt like she was being honest…

[Camila]: And she understood a little better where Narelvis was coming from. But perhaps what was most important was confirming once and for all that suspicion that it hadn’t been her fault.

She told me something her boyfriend told her when she got in the car that night, after leaving Narelvis’s house…

[Kenia]: He said: “You got your family back”. You got your family back. And… that [Laughs] I don’t know, I thought: that wasn’t the point, it wasn’t about that and that wasn’t what I wanted or even what I was expecting. But it’s interesting…

[Camila]: She told me the last thing she expected was to walk away feeling reconciled…

[Kenia]: Hearing from them that they want to have a relationship with me, to have that family bond with me is… it’s nice, I think.  At the same time, I think it’s not fair that all of this happened and then it’s erased like it was nothing…

[Camila]: Knowing if she wants to have contact with them isn’t the kind of question that has an easy answer… or a fast one. Those are the kinds of questions that bother you, eat at you, make you uncomfortable. And they’re the kind that at a given moment almost answer themselves… At least for now, Kenia has what she didn’t have as a child: The possibility for the choice to be hers, and no one else’s.

[Daniel]: Kenia Pérez lives in New York. She works for Spotify.

Camila Segura is Radio Ambulante’s Senior Producer. She lives in Bogotá. This story was edited by me. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Silvia Viñas and Luis Fernando Vargas. Our interns are Lisette Arévalo, Victoria Estrada and Andrea López Cruzado. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.

Every Friday we send out a newsletter where our team recommends movies, music, series, books, and podcasts that inspire us. It has great links for you to enjoy during the weekend. You can subscribe on our website by going to radioambulante.org/correo. Again, that is radioambulante.org/correo. If you use Gmail, check your promotions folder and drag our email to the main inbox so you won’t miss it.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

For more episodes and to learn more about this story, visit our webpage, radioambulante.org.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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