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Cameron Vasquez « Afflicted with Hope

Cameron Vasquez

CAMERON VASQUEZ

 

 “I belong to a world of loneliness . . . Where loneliness is my best friend and my worst enemy.” (adapted from “I Belong to a World of Loneliness” by Cameron)

 

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 Editor’s Note: I typically jump to conclusions and make accusations about the guiltiness of someone who is accused of murder when I read a clip in a newspaper or see a hyped story on TV.   As I listen to this attractive, quiet, young girl share her personal story of involvement in a murder when she was 12, I find my customary “accusations” becoming fuzzy and muddled. I actually see a second victim sitting across the table from me.

 We are using a pseudonym for this teenage girl for several reasons. First, because she has an active case in the juvenile court system, it is a requirement of the Salvadoran law that she cannot be written about using her real name. Second, she asked us to use the name we are using. Third, my moral conscience dictates we do so in order to protect her.

Today we are interviewing Cameron with her lawyers at the Fespad offices in downtown San Salvador. Fespad is the Foundation for Study and Application of Law. It was founded twenty-five years ago to act as an instrument to protect the vulnerable by helping these people understand the legal policies and laws that pertain to them. In Cameron’s case this organization defends rights of prisoners and their families advocating for humane treatment and training programs within the penal system as well as helps them re-enter the community as productive members of society. Her lawyer explains that this organization also works with the “at risk” population in an effort to keep them out of the prison system.

So That You Don’t Know

Cameron

Sometimes I am not who I seem to be.

Sometimes I keep it all inside of me.

I know that a friend wouldn’t be bad for me

but, How could I tell you what’s on my mind?

So when I cry

I let the tears run down my cheeks

in the darkness where you can’t see me

nor ask why

but when you’re there

I hold my head up high.

a smile on my face

so that you won’t know my pain

nor ask what’s wrong.

 

It’s too late

you can’t help me now.

It’s too late

you can’t help me now.

 

Cameron’s poetry served as her salvation, her therapy, her lifeline between two worlds while she was in prison.

Life was good when my mom was alive during my first four years of life. My dad used to get drunk a lot and destroy things in our San Salvador house when he returned from drinking, but I don’t know if he was abusive to my mom. When I was five, I can remember vividly seeing my mom die. A few minutes before she died, my maternal grandparents promised her they would take care of me, but my dad didn’t want that. Instead, my sister and I were taken in by my dad’s extended family. There were two aunts, uncles, and cousins in my dad’s extended family, some who lived with us. I got along with some better than others. One of my uncles raped me when I was nine years old. I never told anyone and actually repressed the whole horrifying experience until I began writing poetry in prison years later. There I could express myself in writing without having to verbalize it.

They told me at the time that my mom died of typhoid fever and would explain what really happened when I got older, but no one ever has. I don’t believe the typhoid fever story. We moved to La Paz for a short time, but then returned here to the city.

The one positive thing that happened as a result of my mom’s death was my dad stopped drinking.

Things were going well and I attended school. The aunt I did not get along with was involved in a relationship with my cousin’s father. They left the house when I was seven. Her daughter, my older cousin, and I were very close. I considered her a sister. Her dad was physically abusing her, and she would call me every time he beat her, asking me to come stay with her. I had no harsh feelings against her dad, but I saw my cousin repeatedly hurt with bruises and black eyes that he had caused. I don’t know if he was sexually assaulting my cousin. I asked her that question, but she never gave me a direct answer. On several occasions she stole money and left their house but always returned, and he would again beat her when she returned.

On October 20th of my 6th grade year of school (12 years old), my cousin, then 15, called me again asking if I could come to her house the next day. I got up early that morning, put on my school uniform as though I were going to school, and went to her house. She was in the bedroom with her boyfriend for about two hours. When she came out, I asked why she wanted me to come. She announced that she wanted to kill her father. I asked if she was sure she wanted to do that, and she responded that absolutely, she was fed up with the beatings. Every time she reported her situation to the authorities and they would try to validate her information with her mother, her mother denied it, fearing her husband’s retaliation against her.

I asked her how she wanted to kill him, and she said by drowning him. She asked for help. I reminded her that her dad is a tall, strong man and that would be very difficult for us to carry out. Then she mentioned that because he was a business man and was being blackmailed by gang members who were asking for “rent” (extortion money), he had obtained a gun which he was licensed to own for his protection.

We had learned to use weapons in Chalatenango (northern department) where my dad had family, so I suggested we use the gun to kill him. We found the gun while her dad was at the doctor’s office that morning. After he returned, he found me there and asked why I wasn’t at school. I said my cousin was helping me with homework. He offered to drive me home. While he was outside, we cocked the gun and placed it in a plastic bag concealed with perfume and hand cream. My cousin and I rode in the backseat of his pick-up truck while he stopped for gas. The traffic became very heavy and was advancing slowly bumper to bumper as we were getting close to my house. It was at that moment when my cousin indicated I needed to shoot her dad. I could not do it. She grabbed the gun and shot him in the back of his head. He died on the spot. The truck kept moving, and we crashed into a taxi.

By this time we were close enough to my other cousin’s house that I was able to run to it. I knocked on my cousin’s door. He was wearing shorts and flip flops. I told him we had an accident. He ran to see what happened. Because things had not gone exactly as planned, we had to fabricate a story on the spot. My cousin and I explained that we were stuck in traffic when two guys ran up and shot him and then ran away. Our original plan had been to take the truck keys and return the gun to my cousin’s house, but there was no way to do that now.

The relatives called my parents, my aunt, and the police. As soon as my aunt arrived at the scene of the crime, she immediately knew what happened. My dad turned over the gun. The police first believed our story until they ran their investigation and discovered gunpowder residue on the inside of the truck windows. The police took me to jail at 2 A.M. I stayed there three days and I was processed while the active investigation was taking place before being sent to a girls’ youth center.

Both my cousin and I were arrested. We served time together. My sentence was for five years. My cousin was released before me because of good behavior. At the beginning I was very uncooperative. I was disrespectful of the prison staff, got into verbal fights and refused to go to school.

Prison life is a hard experience. Adjusting to prison life was tough and took some getting used to being inside. The numbers varied with girls coming and going, but there were up to 40 in a room, two rooms at first and later three rooms.

Losing privileges was the toughest part of prison. I would lose privileges such as a phone call to my family or would be isolated from everyone for not following rules, for example. I couldn’t tolerate staff yelling at us, and when I shouted back because I could not put up with it any longer, I lost privileges. One time a staff instructor shoved me. But when there was a meeting with my dad, that instructor lied and accused me of shoving her which was false.

I refused to identify with either of the two gangs in prison. Certainly there were verbal arguments. They could not be avoided in close quarters. I followed the adage, “You are not a golden coin for everyone to like you” which may have saved my life in prison because I tried to relate to everyone.

There were many situations that were painful to witness, and I had no family resources to draw from. I was on my own when I observed fights, mutiny, and saw inmates beating themselves up; I was unable to react.

My family visited often, and we had a good relationship during this time which helped. Yet, it was still painful seeing them for a short time and then watching them leave. It was painful when the only place I could go outside the facility was to court, and then wearing handcuffs. My dad has heart problems and was admitted to the hospital several times because of what I had done.

An American by the name of Olivia Holdsworth visited the center sharing her “Projecto Cuentame” (“Tell me Project”).  (Note: This project began in 2011 when Ms. Holdsworth wanted to give the large number of incarcerated Salvadoran youth opportunities to express and reflect their experiences. She has seen countless numbers of youth in the system as a result of broken families, poverty, and the cycle of violence. Her techniques have become accepted and popular in both the girls’ and boys’ facilities.) Many of us girls responded positively to this poetry and story telling outlet. Whenever Olivia returned, I would try to be the first one to sign up for her sessions. It offered a means to express thoughts and experiences which on paper many of us were unsuccessful expressing verbally.

 

I Belong to a World of Loneliness

Cameron

I belong to a world of loneliness

where there’s no one.

Where everyone has gone

Where someone once was and they’ve left.

Where it’s me and me alone.

Where the only thing I see is a dark end.

Where no one can listen to me

Where loneliness is my best friend and my worst enemy.

Where I’ve reached without realizing.

Where I was once scared of reaching.

 

It wasn’t until I was sixteen and began writing in this program that I even remembered the blocked-out experience of being raped by my uncle as a nine-year old. I began to trust Olivia and shared that story with her. Our first book of poetry is called Duras Lecciones (Hard Lessons), and we now have a second follow-up publication, Duras Lecciones 2 (Hard Lessons 2). (Cameron proudly presents a copy of this second book to us.) We did not share those private thoughts with one another as incarcerated youth, but after the books were printed, we came to know them. Readers are enlightened about the situations, thoughts, and fears of these young kids and can learn from reading these poems. Recently two radio shows highlighted this program to listeners. (These books as well as the ones written in the boys’ facilities are currently being translated into English).

As a kid in the system, I wasn’t aware I had any rights within the juvenile detention center. I have found out since that I did, and many of those human rights had been violated. Many roadblocks are put up to discourage interactions between the youth and the attorney. For example, a youth cannot request to see the attorney; it happens only on the attorney’s initiative. Health care of any kind other than an acetaminophen is very uncommon. Once I was bleeding from my ear and the staff refused to do anything. (Her lawyer explains that law does not pertain to those within a Salvadoran penal system; they form their own rules. It is literally up to the inmates to decide who lives and who dies. He does couch that comment by telling us since the gang truce in March of 2012, things have improved.) We were deprived basic necessities in the center. My family would bring me soap, shampoo, detergent, and other basic things but many girls had no family visitors so those of us who received personal items shared them with the other girls.

I served less than my full sentence after I began to cooperate. I will return to school after the vacation break now that I have been released. I continue to write and find it meaningful in my life.   I have no contact with my cousin any longer. Perhaps some day we can reconcile and pick up the pieces to re-establish a relationship but not at this point. I would like to visit some of the girls in prison, but it requires obtaining a special permit for me to do so. My family did everything for me when I got out of prison in an effort for me to feel better. I spend more time with my friends now than I do with my family. Everything is different now that I am out.   I’m left alone in the house during the days but spend time with my dad in the evenings.

I am not certain what I will do after my schooling is over. One of my dreams is to continue to write but not be a journalist. Poetry is what I most enjoy. It would be nice to find a way to go to law school. In terms of looking at my country, I become frustrated with political promises that go unfulfilled. How can the president drive a big fancy car while kids are out on the streets washing car windows trying to make a living?

My role models are Olivia Holdsworth and Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela dared to do things no one else dared to do, continuing his fight even when he was in prison.

The rape was my worst life experience and my writing has been my best life experience to date. In my darkest hour it is my family, my dad and sister, who sustain me. I consider my relationship with God to be personal and intimate. I wouldn’t say I pray so much as I talk to God in conversation.

On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being low and 10 being high, I rate my past life as a 5; my present life as a 5, and my future as an 8. I am optimistic things are going to improve.

 

Awhile Ago

Cameron

Awhile ago the sun hid away

Awhile ago I stopped loving

Awhile ago I stopped crying

Awhile ago I stopped feeling

Awhile ago I stopped believing love existed.

Awhile ago I lost my mother

Awhile ago I lost my father

Awhile ago I lost my sister

Awhile ago I traded my heart for a stone

Awhile ago I stopped being the fool I once was.

***

That’s why I am who I am.

The photo. The painting.

The reflection of all those who one day

tore my soul apart and lied to me.

Cry, cry

That’s all I did.

Today I walk with my head held high.

Everything in this life is trial and error,

trial and error

and I’ve already made my mistakes.

 

Editor’s Note: The Projecto Cuentame (“Tell Me” Project) is an idea conceived to allow incarcerated youth to express themselves. Their poignant voices serve as a way to allow them to share their thoughts and feelings while teaching us as a society how we have failed them. Persons serving in El Centro de Reinsercion Fememino Detention Facility (“Rosa Virginia”) for women in Ilopango contributed to Duras Lecciones (Hard Lessons) and Duras Lecciones 2 (Hard Lessons 2). Those serving in El Centrode Inter Cionsocid (“El Espino”) in Ahuachapan for men contributed to “Beneath the Mask of a Gangster”, Poems and Reflections by Incarcerated Youth in El Salvador.” This was financially supported by both Fespad and CRISPAZ.

Committing themselves to this project by serving as co-facilitators include Jennifer Elizabeth Knapp, Theodora Simon, Maria Catherine Hoisington, and Olivia Holdsworth.

Contributions

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    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

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