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Erika Santana: Building a Culture of Courage

“Be not afraid.” Pope John Paul II

We all know and observe people that work hard to achieve happiness in the absence of Christ. We live, work, and interact along side of people everyday that have turned away from Christ because they feel pressured to. We are in fact living under tremendous pressure to conform to the new social norms. People more and more are having to get on one side or the other of this spiritual battle, and the opposition isn’t playing nice. The opposition preys on people’s weaknesses. This isn’t a cultural battle which threatens us physically, but rather a societal strong arming of people. The psychological threat of non acceptance. It is a symptom of the larger attack on Christianity, and very much preys on people who’ve suffered deeply because it validates their weaknesses and their doubt in God. When we doubt God, we doubt Godly things, like redemption. Like forgiveness. We are to gain acceptance within our social environment, and we are obligated to conform to the social norms of the day or stay silent altogether if and when we have moral objections. The paths that we choose in the face of this pressure often seem to be empty, even melancholy in the absence of something desired. The right promotion hasn’t materialized or even the right person to spend your life with. One peer after another is making their choices based on some sort of new moral code. One that gives comfort in short order and seems gratifying, but that cannot give you nourishment for a lifetime. Or, for eternity, for that matter. Many young men and women find themselves trapped in this cycle. Trapped by a culture of pressure, and a culture of influence. We face it in the workplace, amongst our family and friends. Accept the prevailing wisdom, or be marginalized. We’ve all faced it. Many of us face it down. Too many of us, don’t. There lives a pressure to accept the changing times even if it feels wrong in our hearts. We tell ourselves that we’d like to fight back against these pervasive norms, but often can’t really find the courage to do it. It is an insidious evil, what our culture is doing to the minds of fallen away Catholics, not to mention, those who’ve never been given the gift of baptism. The good news is that every now and then, one enervated soul confronts this cultural leviathan, and has the valor to choose Christ. Erika Santana did. She is only one of many to have shown this kind of bravery, but Erika’s story provides a unique chance to see that even the smallest of seeds, as Christ taught us, can grow with great power. Pope John Paul II reminded us to “Be not Afraid.” This is the story of one woman who chose, against heavy odds, to live those words. Praise be to God.

familyErika was born in 1982 to Abel and Corina Santana. The Santanas, residents of Tijuana, moved to San Diego permanently with their three children, Abel Jr., Ivan, and Erika around 1986. Erika would spend most of her childhood growing up in the border community of San Ysidro. For much of Erika Santana’s childhood, her family’s approach to the Catholic Church was reverent but somewhat subdued. The often precarious nature of a family that copes daily with alcoholism would make it difficult for Corina to give sufficient time to faith formation within her home. The children attended public school. Church would be attended on most Sundays, holidays of course, some of the sacraments were given and so on. The only daughter in a family of three children, Erika grew up with two older brothers very much preoccupied with navigating the tough and sometimes dangerous streets of Tijuana and later on, San Ysidro. Her father, though an intelligent man, had a severe case of alcoholism and never seemed to find success in any of the many endeavors that he committed himself to. He was challenged to take control of his own life, and unable or unwilling to deeply consider the dangerous examples he was setting for his children.

Throughout her childhood the backbone and strength of the Santana family was Erika’s mother, Corina. With a degree from San Diego State University and a thriving career within the San Diego County Health Department, Corina was the primary bread winner and nearly the sole provider for her flawed but still seaworthy family unit. With a great deal of moral support as well as a large investment of time, Corina’s mother Lilia who lived only a short distance from the Santana home helped in the afternoon hours to care for Abel Jr., Ivan, and Erika in a more loving and managed setting than she could provide for them at home. Much of Corina’s time was taken by her work at the Health Department, and she simply did not have the freedom to stay home with her children. Her husband's drinking and often idle approach to life left her with a heavy burden to carry for her family. Abel had longed to find the success in business that his father had in Mexico, but drinking would prevent him from managing his affairs correctly, and his failures in business would cause him to take refuge in his alcoholism. It was a sad and never ending cycle that Corina tried her best to manage. She could not, however, and within this environment Erika and her two brothers would grow.

Erika wasn’t only the youngest in her immediate family, but the youngest of her extended family on her mother’s side. The side for which she was closest. Her Grandmother, Lilia, would often pick her up from school and take her back to her San Ysidro home where she would do her homework, pass the time, and look up to her older cousins. She was always very impressionable and wanted to be older than she was. What little girl wouldn’t when she is perpetually five years younger than the people that she looks up to the most. Corina and ErikaWith a number of grandchildren to look after on a daily basis, Lilia would often instruct the kids to go outside and play in the large pepper tree filled lot that surrounded her home as well as the home of her sister’s adjacent property. It was a place that had a safeness about it because it was surrounded on its perimeter by homes and fences that created a sense of seclusion. Easily over an acre in size, it was a large lot for the neighborhood, and there was plenty of room to play, or to be generally out of site.

One day, when Erika was about seven years of age, she was playing in that yard. The yard that gave her a sense of security. She decided to climb up into a wooden playhouse that had been constructed for the children by an uncle some years before. When Erika made it to the top of the ladder, she found something that gave her pause. She saw two neighborhood boys inside the small and darkened fort. They were laughing and sharing banter as they poured over some kind of magazine. It was a magazine unlike anything Erika had ever seen before. Its pictures were repulsive to her, and she intuitively knew that it was wrong for them to have it. But the boys were finding humor, even pleasure in its contents, and somehow Erika was paralyzed to say anything. She just stood there. The boys seemed to be worked into some kind of strange aggression. They both had a look of guilt, but at the same time a submission to the evil and the gratification that they were gaining from the experience. Many young boys might have been startled and ordered Erika to leave the elevated playhouse. But, that didn’t happen. These boys were older than her. They told her to come inside. And Erika, being that impressionable little girl wanting acceptance did just that, she accepted. At this time, they proceeded to instruct her to look at several of the pictures. And she did as she was told. She told them that she didn’t like it, but they insisted that it was fine, and that nobody would find out. They began to try to convince her that she should not be afraid to show herself in the same way the women in the magazine were willing to show themselves. Now, seemingly trapped by their influence she began to lose the small amount of control that she had maintained early in the encounter. At this point they began to touch her, and though she was terrified, she let them. Moment by moment, the situation grew worse. Though terrified, she let it go on, because of the peer pressure she felt. Time seemed to stand still. Her senses were paralyzed, and when it was finally over she had no sense of the time that had passed. They told her, of course, that she could tell no one. And then they left her, alone in the playhouse. Erika felt devastated. Immediately, the gravity of what had taken place began to sink in. One of the boys Erika knew very well. She tried to rationalize why the boy had wanted to do this to her, and how she would need to face him again. Erika knew him well because the boy was her brother, Ivan. She knew that Ivan would never be capable of doing something like this on his own, and that he had trouble controlling his impulses. She knew that Ivan felt pressure to do something he knew in his heart was wrong. She knew that Ivan was normally very shy and weak. But, the more time passed, the less any of that mattered. An abhorrence was growing stronger inside of her. Not only for her brother, but for life. For her own life.

The years went by after that encounter, and Erika quietly carried a deep and painful burden. By the time she turned thirteen, her parents marriage was falling apart under the constant strain of her father’s alcoholism. She would move dutifully through her days quietly persecuted by the experiences of the past and the painfulness of seeing her mother and father drift further and further apart. Constant arguing, constant fighting. She would hear the whispers amongst her adult relatives. Whispers of what a bad person her father was. Not many people seemed to like her father. But, Erika loved her father, and it was hurting her deeply to know that he was being pushed out by others. As her parents marriage fell apart, so did the weak bindings of her family as a whole. And it was hard for the children to know where their own priorities should be. While Corina did her best to hold her family together, the reality of becoming a single mother of three was setting in. And her ability to maintain control of her children became more difficult. Already, running with the wrong people, Ivan began to abuse drugs. He also was a young impressionable teenager, but much weaker than his older brother or even his younger sister. Ivan seemed to know that he was destroying his own life, but did not care. His conduct became increasingly erratic, and he would often disappear for long stretches of time only to return with a glazed over look in eyes, completely uninterested in the tremendous amount of torment that he was causing his mother. Corina knew that she had a major problem with Ivan’s situation, and was determined to fight for her son’s life. A fight that would not end for many years. For Corina, it had always been clear that Ivan was the child that would require most of her attention. But, the deficit of attention from which Ivan suffered and to which Abel Sr. had so profoundly contributed, was a deficit that Corina could not recover for her son. Without question, no mother, could have tried harder than she did on her son’s behalf. She knew that Abel and Erika were capable of bearing a heavier cross, and hoped that she could buy time in which to help Ivan.

But for Erika, watching her mother whom she so dearly loved constantly minister to Ivan and his problems seemed only to add to the painful burden that she carried. Though deep down Erika loved her brother, she resented him for the events of the past. Events that she could not forget, or let go of. She resented him even more now, for the pain he was bringing on himself with his delinquency and his drug abuse, and for taking the love of their mother, love that she felt he was now stealing from her. Ivan and his problems constantly seemed to be the focus of her mothers attention. And Erika perceived that she had been forgotten. She wanted her mother to know that she felt pain to.

As time went by, Corina ultimately remarried. Though her personal life was vastly improved with the happiness that her new marriage brought, things were changing quickly in the lives of her children. Erika had been accepted to attend UCSD, and Abel had moved out on his own. Ivan, for the most part, had not changed though, he had only grown worse. Drug counselors, rehab clinics, even a short interval with born again Christianity. Nothing ever seemed to keep Ivan completely on track, and his mental health seemed to drift further away with each passing year.

As both Erika and Ivan had not the means yet to support themselves, though Erika was well on track, the two of them lived in the family's new home in Lakeside. Erika was commuting to school almost everyday and Ivan seemed to have reached a relatively calm period in his life, or so it appeared to his family. Erika was never pleased that her brother was living in their home, but accepted that he needed help. The relationship that she now had with Ivan was at best restrained. Ivan and ErikaErika had her own way of coping with things and did her best to get along with her brother. She had been in a long term relationship with her high school sweetheart, and strongly believed that her future would be with him. But, that did not materialize, and Erika’s heartbreak over it only seemed to compound her frustrations with life. Erika began to date other men, and relationships seems to come and go. Some with more promise than others, but all with a common thread. Erika seemed to have learned only about the side of men that can be broken and flawed. She felt that if she liked an individual, she could only keep him by giving into what she believed every male wanted. This was the societal norm, she thought. Who was she not to accept it? Erika felt that despite what she had been taught as a child, giving herself sexually to a man before marriage would help her to feel better about herself, improve the image that a particular man had of her, and maybe even be the catalyst for a lifetime relationship. Besides, she wasn’t interested in the teachings of her family these days. She viewed her family as being flawed, and lacking in credibility. Of course, instead of making life better, this only served to undermine her self esteem. With Erika’s fragile condition and Ivan’s even more damaged existence, a powder keg of emotion was building within their home.

One night Erika was returning home late, and decided to take a shower before going to bed. She gathered what she needed and entered the small bathroom that served the three smaller bedrooms one of which she knew that her brother Ivan was sleeping in. Erika would always take notice of where Ivan was within their home. She had spent her life keeping track of his whereabouts. She shut the door behind her, turned on the water, and stepped in the shower. After several minutes she started to feel uneasy for some reason. In an instant, she peered downward and saw her brother watching her from under the shower curtain. Erika began to scream, and her mother and stepfather were immediately alerted that something was wrong. Ivan didn’t try to defend himself or call it a misunderstanding. He didn’t even speak. Staring forward into some sort of emptiness, it almost seemed as if Ivan was being controlled by a power outside of himself. It was like he wasn’t sure who he was. He was immediately put into a car, and taken away by his stepfather. Erika was now practically inconsolable. This was the final straw, and soon after, she made it clear to all of her family and friends that Ivan was never to be in her presence again. Corina arranged for Ivan to begin counseling in Tijuana, the place he told his mother that he preferred to go and live. It was the place that he felt was his true home. Though Ivan was born in San Diego, he had great difficulty fitting in as a child once the family had permanently relocated to San Ysidro. He had always told his mother that he didn’t like it in San Diego. As a child he told his mother that he wanted to be home, in Tijuana. Once in Mexico, he moved into an apartment owned by his grandmother, and Corina began the long process of ministering to Ivan that lasted for several years. Corina would often drive twice a week, or more, from Lakeside to bring him food, to clean his apartment, or to wash his clothes. Ivan started drifting in and out of severe drug and alcohol addiction in Mexico, and other than his mother, he had virtually no interaction with the rest of his family. The doctors that Corina took him to would ultimately diagnose him with schizophrenia. His mind was so unwell from the demons that he fought that he even attacked his own mother in one instance as she brought him his laundry. While Corina was severely injured by her son, she would not give up on him. She would never give up on him.

Erika, always an exceptional student, graduated from UCSD in 2004 and began a career following in her mother’s footsteps. She worked within the county system of government in San Diego, and looked to be someone that could easily navigate through the complicated politics that often plague a workplace environment. However, over time the workload seemed to constantly grow, and the appreciation for the constant sacrifices she was making simply wasn’t there. In fact, month by month it was becoming clearer that the people above her were abusing the charitable disposition that Erika was known to have. With endless late nights at work and constant preparation for upcoming events, there never seemed to be an end. People were walking on her, and she knew it in her heart. But, some part of her gave into idea that this was supposed to be her path. Surely, her mother had to have suffered through similar struggles, she thought. As time went by Erika felt more and more overwhelmed by the toxic environment that she worked in. She realized that many of the people around her would do anything to move ahead. Gossip seemed to be all around her, and she found that she too was beginning to get caught up in it. She reasoned that if her superiors or coworkers had created this environment, then she would have to become adept at functioning within it. So Erika began to change from the person she was to the person she needed to be, and little by little the small amount of contentment she held onto began to disappear. She didn’t like her job, and now she wasn’t sure if she liked herself. Happiness was fleeting. None of her relationships with men ever worked, and her career was driving her toward a nervous breakdown. She knew that she needed her life to change, but didn’t seem to have anyone she could confide in. As her frustrations in life grew, so did her discontentment with her mother. Corina was now routinely taking large donations of bread and other groceries to the mental care facility that Ivan now lived in. She would say that many people donate to the poor in Mexico, but that people did not want their charity to go to the places that house drug addicts because of the perception that, unlike children or the handicapped, those people were responsible for their own poor judgement. In addition to Ivan’s needs, Corina now recognized and ministered to the needs of others as well. Now semi retired, caring for Ivan in his family imposed exile was a full time job. Hour after hour of driving, picking up donations, navigating the streets of Tijuana, and fighting border traffic had become a way of life for Corina. But, Erika had a difficult time understanding why. Why did her mother love him so much? Why wasn’t her mother more available to her? After all, she would think, “I’m the victim here. He’s down there because of what he did to me.” Erika simply could not see why her mother loved Ivan so much. She wanted to understand why. Why Corina would not share in Erika’s anger towards her brother. But she did not understand, and her despair grew even deeper. Several years had passed now, and Erika had not seen her brother. But, that didn’t matter. She didn’t want to. She felt that her pain was greater than his, and his crimes against her were unforgivable. Erika felt alone. A chasm had formed between Erika and the happiness she longed for. She was angry at life, and was tired of feeling that way. She decided something had to change, and her mind began to wonder. She was plagued by constant bouts of extreme depression and paranoia. She wanted an escape. Erika had learned to hate drugs and alcohol. She had learned to hate the people that used them. The escape that she wanted was different. She began to think about taking her own life. She thought that suicide would provide a solution for the pain she felt. Finally, her family began to suggest to her that she receive therapy, and by the grace of God, she agreed to it. Although she was first against it, she agreed to take medication for her depression. Inch by inch, Erika began to see some improvement in her mental health, and although she knew it would be hard, she decided to try and break away from it all. She made the decision to quit her job, and free herself from the toxic environment that she had become a virtual slave to.

While she thought that a career change would help to bring the relief that she needed in her life, Erika was finding it hard to figure out what that career was going to be. Relief wasn’t coming as easily as she had hoped, and her skeptical thoughts about life and its value were not letting go of her. One day, at a family event, she had a conversation with a family member. Her cousin, Corina (who was named after Erika’s mother), was an individual that Erika had greatly looked up to as a little girl. She was sharp witted and beautiful and Erika wanted to be like her older cousin for as long as she could remember. As a younger woman her cousin had herself lead a largely secular life, but chose to reinvest in her faith and in the Catholic Church once she had married. She began to talk to Erika about Jesus Christ. She told her that if she wanted to feel true happiness in life, only Christ could give that to her. Erika pondered the idea for moment and simply stated, “Well, I don’t even really know where I stand on that anymore.” It had been years since Erika had been truly confronted with this question, and sensing that this was a very critical moment, her cousin Corina pleaded with her. She carefully explained that Christ gave his suffering for her, and she must turn around and face him. Erika, for years, had listened to the chorus of social discourse that discounts religion, particularly Christianity. Erika thought a great deal about what her cousin had said to her. Surely, all the experts out there couldn’t be wrong. Faith in God was an outdated notion, she thought. Nowhere in her educational process did her teachers or professors advocate for this. She wondered how people could put all their eggs in one basket. It seemed outdated and unenlightened. But, she realized that her cousin possessed something that she hadn’t possessed in her entire adolescent or adult life. Her cousin was happy. She had contentment. That seemed appealing to Erika, and her curiosity began to grow. Perhaps, breaking away from her work environment and giving therapy a chance are what emboldened Erika, but either way she was starting to realize that she was capable of making tough choices in her life. Erika began to consider doing something that she had not done since she was a child. She decided she would try going back to church. When everything else seemed to bring her misery, “What could it hurt?,” she thought. She began attending mass with her cousin Corina’s family at Santa Sophia Church in Spring Valley. It almost seemed a little like riding a bike. She remembered some of the prayers and when to kneel, when to sit, and when to stand. After a while Erika practically became a regular on Sundays. While she knew that mass was somehow therapeutic for her she was still searching. What was her relationship with Christ supposed to feel like? Was she going about this the right way? After a year or so Erika decided to try out for an ecumenical choir that happened to be headed by a parishioner at St. Brigid’s in Pacific Beach. She was quickly enlisted and began to feel a sense of satisfaction at being a part of the gospel style music that the group focused on. Gospel music was fun to sing, and the lyrics helped Erika to more closely examine her relationship with Christ. Erika was starting to realize, and to accept, that God is real, and that she was welcome at his table once more. She started to realize that God’s love and forgiveness could take away her fear of living, and that she had the capacity to forgive others. She made new friends at St. Brigid’s where the practices were held and ultimately decided to start attending mass there. Before long she joined the young adults group, and her schedule seemed to be teeming with faith based events. She was now striving to live a chaste life, and she was allowing God’s graces to guide her in her interactions with the new people she met. Erika was now a full fledged church goer, and the gospel group she was a part of seemed to help bring her even closer to God. Soon, Erika decided it was time to follow through on something that was forgotten in the chaos of her childhood. Erika received the sacrament of confirmation. Her life had improved prodigiously. Erika was finally starting to put some of the past behind her. She had turned away from sorrow. She had made the decision to ignore the false need for validation. Validation from those in her career and social life that had chosen to turn away from God. She had chosen Christ.

Erika had chosen to follow Christ, and she knew what that meant. That meant forgiveness. That meant loving people, even those that have hurt you, as though they were Christ himself. Erika decided that she would go to her brother Ivan and forgive him for what he had done, but more importantly to tell him how sorry she was for driving a wedge so deeply between him and his family. For refusing to forgive him for so long, and adding to his despair. One day a phone call came from Erika’s mother, Corina. She said that Ivan was in the hospital for pneumonia, and his condition was stable. Erika and IvanErika decided that now was the time to make peace with her brother. Erika sat with Ivan in his room and the two siblings granted each other forgiveness for the pain that they had caused one another. It was a beautiful moment.

Doctors had earlier told his mother, Corina, that it was a simple respiratory lung infection, and that he would soon improve. But, after several days in the hospital, Ivan’s condition only seemed to get worse. Ivan’s mind and body were weak from years of drug abuse and neglect. He simply didn’t have the physical ability or the mental will to recover from an illness this severe anymore. Ivan died at the age of 31, and Corina’s long fight for her son’s life was now over.

Ivan’s funeral was held in San Diego, and many of the family that had not seen him in years came to pay their respects, and to comfort Corina. In some way, many of his loved ones were thankful that his mental sufferings were finally over. That God had somehow mercifully put Ivan’s demons to rest. Everyone remembered the quiet sweet young boy who always seemed to be the shyest person in the room even into his adult life. Now remarried and living in Tijuana, Ivan’s father Abel didn’t attend his son’s funeral, and in death just as in life, Corina would be Ivan’s sole provider. Erika, although deeply heartbroken over her brothers death, was better equipped now to cope with the anguish that she and her family would go through. She had prayer now. She had Jesus Christ. She also had a growing sense of courage. The kind of courage one would need to sing in front of a crowd. At Ivan’s wake and rosary the night before his funeral, with a room full of family and friends looking on, Erika bravely made the long walk up to the lectern and began to sing. As her voice beautifully cascaded across the room, people sitting in the pews and standing in aisles watched in outright disbelief knowing the difficult past that she and her brother shared. Erika gave glory to God in front of a group of largely fallen away Catholics, and challenged everyone of them, through music, to take a second look at their faith in God. Erika started to grow much closer to Corina, and she let go of her frustrations towards her weary mother, not because her brother was gone, but because her faith in God helped her to see how much Corina needed her now. Because of her faith and her understanding of Christ’s suffering, Erika could now see why her mother gave so much to her son.

Erika’s courage continued to grow. After taking a position with a local university, Erika, again, found herself feeling unhappy with her work environment. She felt that the moral fabric within her new place of employment wasn’t compatible with the life that she wanted to live. Only this time she wouldn’t allow it to drive her away from God. This time, unlike in her previous life, she allowed the Holy Spirit to guide her.

Several months after her brother’s passing, Erika was invited to attend a Cursillo weekend. Like many active catholics, she had heard of the Cursillo movement, but was not familiar with details. Erika felt that a retreat would be a welcome diversion to the recent events in her life, and agreed to attend. She could not have known, going in, how it would change her life, but it is accurate to say that few people have gained quite as much from Cursillo as Erika did. In the Cursillo movement she had found a community, a family of people, with absolutely no hang-ups over their faith in Jesus Christ. This was the environment that she was longing for. Erika would take to the Cursillo movement with boundless energy. Grouping, ultreyas, team school, weekends, and naturally singing, Erika was all in. Cursillo was a natural step for Erika to take, and it helped her to build, even stronger, her spiritual sense of courage. The sense of courage that was already growing, but that could not be hindered now by another person’s doubt in God. Erika had now become a warrior for Christ.

When we consider where the true front lines are in the spiritual battle that our culture faces today, many of us think first about the battle for the unborn, the battle for human life. But as most of us know, fighting that battle requires tremendous courage. Courage that not all Catholics are willing to show. COLFSAt one of the young adult meetings for which Erika is a regular, she was volunteering for a “baby bottle drive” to raise money for the Culture of Life Family Services (COLFS) organization. Later on, one of her close friends told her that she had heard COLFS was looking for someone to take an administrative position in their office. That friend suggested that Erika would be perfect. For Erika, this was a golden opportunity. She had known that she would keep an even keel in her current university position for as long as she needed to. But, now was a chance to really be a part of something that was making a difference. A difference for life! She didn’t think twice. Erika, once again, decided to leave a well paying job and continue down her personal path toward her Lord and her Savior.

Today, part of Erika’s work at Culture of Life Family Services is to speak at local parishes at the conclusion of Saturday and Sunday masses. She and a partner make their way from parish to parish speaking to large crowds of people. Erika is now an advocate for life in a very public arena, and her lack of fear is remarkable. While interviewing her recently, she told me that, “ The part of my job that I enjoy the most is seeing a mother come to visit our office with a child that our organization has helped to save.”

With the help of the Holy Spirit, Erika saved another life. Her own. Erika Santana faced down the culture of fear and she continues to face down the culture of evil, and by helping to build a culture of courage, she is helping to build the Culture of Life.


Pope John Paul would be proud.


©2012 San Diego English Speaking Cursillo

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