I Am More: Karla

I met Karla at an I Am More reception where she was representing one of my favorite organizations, The NAN Project. As the host was speaking about the importance of bringing the subject of mental health out into the open, I could see out of my peripheral vision this young woman nodding, knowingly. During the reception, Karla, the host, and I had an enlightening conversation about cultural limitations in sharing our stories, and I am very lucky and grateful that they each agreed to participate in the project with new portraits. Karla is up first, and working with her started with eating ice cream on a farm while chickens mingled around our feet, followed soon after by a jump on a trampoline with some of her favorite young friends, and she did not hold back, tossing herself around like a rag doll, to their delight. She and The NAN Project are having a tremendous impact in area schools, promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention, and I’m grateful that they provide all of the emergency number cards for our exhibits. Read on for our first bilingual essay:

Karla and friends, 2022. Pastel on sanded paper, 16×20 inches

My family never talked about mental health. My mother taught us at a young age to: 1. Not trust anyone 2. Deal with issues on your own, and 3. In the end, no one would be there for you.

I am a first generation American. Both of my parents are from El Salvador but I was born in Houston, Texas along with my two sisters. The first nine years of my life we grew up in a one bedroom apartment. It was pretty tight, but only made us want to spend time outside running around the apartment, playing in the pool, climbing up the trees and picking loquats and eating them. Took me years to figure out what they were called, very yummy though. I started attending church at a young age, I always looked forward to the apple juice and crackers. I loved spending time celebrating the holidays and birthdays with other families in my parents’ bible study, and, most of all, learning about Jesus being my superhero.

My parents fought a lot verbally. I could tell they did not love each other, and one day they sat us down to tell my sisters and I they were getting a divorce. It was hard to process, and it was nice to have my church for support. Soon after, my sisters and I moved with my dad to a house with more than one room. My mother remarried a man she had been seeing for a while. Never liked him, and now that I’ve had time to process my past more, I know it’s because he molested me when I was young. I remember my mom telling us once that if someone ever touched us inappropriately she would kill that person. I was scared of even thinking of my mom doing something like that.

School wasn’t easy for me. My mother finished high school but never attended college. My father did not get past 8th grade because he had to work to provide for his family. It was a struggle being a child of an immigrant family, but I had to push through to do my best. It was hard for me to make friends. I was really depressed, I would still attend church but distanced myself a lot. I would lock myself in my room at home and usually wouldn’t come out. I struggled knowing how to communicate how empty I was feeling. I was bullied and picked on by the “popular kids.” Labeled as the quiet one, the weird one… only made me feel more lonely.

I fell into a heavier depression but I never talked about it. Got to the point of suicidal thoughts. My faith was the only thing that kept me from acting on these thoughts. I spent many nights crying and praying to God asking Him, What is my purpose and what does He want me to do?

Every night I prayed for a family to love me, I prayed for love and support, I prayed that this pain would go away. Night and night would pass and no change would happen. I closed myself off to everyone, and always kept my head down. 

The youth leaders would try to get to know me but I pushed them away. A family friend invited me to a Saturday youth group at our church. I did not want to go, but she convinced me. The pastor talked about following Jesus. How it was not about doing things to please Him. Rather having a relationship with Him. How He Himself went through pain and suffering and yet He still died on the cross for us because He loves us. The sermon made me realize that maybe I was called to something more in life. I began helping at church. The youth leaders took me under their wing and were a big support in my life. My father worked day and night to provide for us and my sisters and I were each dealing with our own struggles so we could not be there for one another. Being involved at my church helped me get through high school despite having a toxic home.

At the age of 19, with the help of a youth leader, I left my home, and a loving Christian family from my church, the Williams, took me in. They didn’t know what my situation was, but from day one they have loved me and supported me. Through their support, they helped me grow in my faith and also my education. I came to be the first in my family to receive a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree (both in Social Work). I was able to find a therapist to start facing my past and hurt. I have a community of people who love and support me. I now am proud to be working at The NAN Project (an organization dedicated to raising the conversation about depression and suicide) sharing my own mental health journey and making our services accessible in Spanish to have more conversations about mental health. I still struggle dealing with my depression. Many times I hear my mother’s voice telling me to deal with things on my own, but I have a loving God that heard my prayers and surrounded me with the right people. 

I am a child of God. I am loved. I am more than my past. I am a fighter.

Mi familia nunca hablaba sobre la salud mental. Desde chiquita, mi madre nos enseñó a 1. no confiar en nadie 2. que nosotras mismas tenemos que resolver nuestros problemas y 3. que al final, todos te abandonarán.

Soy la primera generación en mi familia que nació en los Estados Unidos. Mis padres son de El Salvador, pero yo nací en Houston, Texas con mis dos hermanas. Los primeros nueve años de mi vida crecimos en un apartamento de una sola habitación. Estábamos un poco apretados,  pero solo nos hacía querer pasar tiempo afuera corriendo alrededor del complejo de apartamento, jugando en la piscina, y trepando árboles, recogiendo nísperos y comiéndolos. Me tomó años descubrir cómo se llamaban, pero son bien deliciosos. Empecé a ir a la iglesia cuando era pequeña, y siempre me ponía feliz cuando nos daban jugo de manzana con galletas. También me encanta pasar tiempo celebrando las fiestas y los cumpleaños con otras familias en el estudio bíblico de mis padres, y sobre todo, aprendiendo que Jesus es mi superhéroe.

Mis padres peleaban mucho verbalmente. Yo me di cuenta que no se amaban, y un día nos sentaron para contarnos a mis hermanas y a mí que se iban a divoricar. Fue difícil de procesar, pero me ayudó tener el apoyo de mi iglesia. Poco después, mis hermanas y yo nos fuimos a vivir con mi papá a una casa con más de una habitación. Mi madre se volvió a casar con un hombre con el que había estado saliendo durante un tiempo. Nunca me gustó, y ahora que he tenido tiempo de procesar mi pasado, sé que es porque él abusó de mí cuando era joven. Recuerdo que mi mamá nos dijo una vez que si alguien llegara a tocarnos de manera inapropiada, ella mataría a esa persona. Yo tenía miedo pensar que mi mamá haría algo así.

La escuela no fue fácil para mi. Mi mamá terminó la escuela secundaria pero nunca fue a la universidad. Mi papá no pasó del octavo grado porque tenía que trabajar para mantener a su familia. Era difícil ser hija de una familia inmigrante, pero tuve que esforzarme para dar lo mejor de mi. Fue difícil hacer amigos, estaba muy deprimida, seguía atendiendo a la iglesia pero me distanciaba mucho. Me encerraba en mi cuarto y normalmente no salía. Luché para saber cómo comunicar lo vacío que me sentía. Fui intimidada y maltratada por los “niños populares”. Me llamaban la más callada, la más rara… solo me hacía sentir más sola.

Caí en una depresión más fuerte pero nunca hablaba de eso. Llegue hasta el punto de tener

pensamientos suicidas. En ese momento, mi fe fue lo único que me impidió actuar sobre estos

pensamientos. Pasé muchas noches llorando y orando, preguntándole a Dios: ¿Cuál es mi

propósito y qué quiere Él que yo haga?

Cada noche oraba por una familia que me amara, oraba por amor y apoyo, oraba para que este dolor desapareciera. Pasarían noche tras noche sin ver ningún cambio. Me aparte de todos, y siempre mantenía la cabeza abajo.

Los líderes de jóvenes trataban de formar amistad conmigo, pero yo los rechazaba. Una amiga me invitó a un grupo de jóvenes los sábados en nuestra iglesia. Yo no quería ir, pero ella me convenció. El pastor habló acerca de seguir a Jesús y que no se trataba de hacer cosas para agradarle. Más bien de tener una relación con Él. Cómo Él mismo pasó por el dolor y el sufrimiento y aun así murió en la cruz por nosotros porque nos ama. El mensaje que predico me hizo realizar que tal vez estaba llamada a algo más en esta vida. Empecé a ayudar en la iglesia. Los líderes de jóvenes me tomaron bajo sus alas y fueron un gran apoyo en mi vida. Mi padre trabajaba día y noche para mantenernos, y mis hermanas y yo lidiabamos con nuestras propias luchas, así que no podíamos apoyarnos las unas a las otras. El estar involucrada en mi iglesia me ayudó a pasar la escuela secundaria a pesar de vivir en un hogar tóxico.

A los 19 años, con la ayuda de mi líder, me fui de mi casa y una familia cristiana, la familia Williams, de mi iglesia me dejaron vivir con ellos. La familia Williams no sabía que era mi situación pero desde el primer día me han amado y apoyado. A través de su apoyo, me ayudaron a crecer en mi fe y también en mi educación. Llegué a ser la primera en mi familia en recibir una licenciatura y una maestría (ambas en Trabajo Social). Pude encontrar una teraupeta para comenzar a enfrentar mi pasado y dolor. Tengo una comunidad amorosa de personas que me aman y me apoyan. Ahora estoy orgullosa en The NAN Project (una organización dedicado a plantear la conversación sobre la depresión y el suicidio)  compartiendo mi camino de salud mental y haciendo que nuestros servicios sean accesibles en español para tener más conversaciones sobre la salud mental. Todavía lucho para lidiar con mi depresión. Muchas veces escucho la voz de mi madre diciéndome que me las arregle yo sola, pero tengo un Dios amoroso que escuchó mis oraciones y me rodeó de las personas adecuadas.

Soy una hija de Dios. Soy amada. Soy más que mi pasado. Soy una luchadora.

Thank you to Fernanda Lopez of La House in Lawrence MA for suggesting the importance of displaying bilingual essays, and to Karla’s generous friends who invited us into their home for photos.

I Am More is made possible by donations. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to allow us to frame and exhibit Karla’s portrait at new locations in 2023 go to fiscal sponsor Ocean Alliance’s donation page and choose I Am More from the list of programs. Thanks so much for your support!!

7 thoughts on “I Am More: Karla

  1. I look forward to these updates when they arrive, this one about Karla no less compelling & beautiful. And a very beautiful joyful drawing to accompany the story.
    Keep these coming. Very very very inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karla, you are amazing! Thank you for sharing your story, and the cross-cultural work you are doing with the NAN Project.

    Amy, this portrait is beautiful – you have found a way to show connection and joy.

    Liked by 1 person

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