Para Mi Hijo y Para Mi Vida
Single mother with chronic illness remains upbeat, determined to finish her Clark degree
by Rhonda Morin
She wakes with a pounding headache. She slept fitfully, awakened every few hours by strange dreams and a gnawing in her belly from a hunger she’s been unable to satisfy because whole food hasn’t gone down for two weeks. But she forces this all aside as she attends to her 7-year-old son, getting him ready for his day.
Cecilia Contreras-Mendez’s son, Raul Jr., is a bright and active boy. He’s full of curiosity, loves books and is always on the move as are many growing children. But some days Contreras-Mendez has a hard time keeping up with Raul because of the exhaustion she experiences from her chronic medical conditions.
Five years ago Contreras-Mendez was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and ulcerated colitis—illnesses that affect the gastrointestinal tract. Moreover, Contreras-Mendez, 27, is often in pain because of fibromyalgia and injuries she sustained from three car accidents in the last year.
Most recently the Mexican-American developed severe esophageal inflammation making it impossible to swallow whole food. As a result, she lost 20 pounds and made repeated trips to the emergency room to seek relief.
Despite the hurdles, Contreras-Mendez is ambitious and full of hope; you can hear it in her voice when she rattles off the hardships she’s endured and how she refuses to offer those experiences as excuses.
“I was drama after drama,” she said as she pushes a long strand of curly hair away from her eye, “I don’t want to be a failure. I want to do good by me. I want to live and love in happiness.”
Raul Jr. is her motivation. “He is my everything; having him saved my life.” And a Clark education is this first-generation college student’s path to giving her son a good life.
Violence and poverty
Contreras-Mendez is one of 12 children her mother, Maria Guadalupe Mendez-Cervantez gave birth to or raised (a cousin from Mexico was adopted). Contreras-Mendez was born a month early with a collapsed left lung—something that would lead to asthma later in life. Her twin brother was stillborn.
Her father left the family when Contreras-Mendez was a toddler, leaving her mother to raise the children while working three jobs. Essentially raised by her sister, Contreras-Mendez remembers the hardships of poverty her family endured—such as eating breakfast cereal with orange juice because there was no money for milk.
Violence was also a part of the young girl’s life. She grew up amidst gangs and drugs in Vancouver. At the age of 15, while attending Hudson’s Bay High School and working at a local cinema, she met Raul, a member of the North Siders XIV street gang, and started a relationship with him that soon turned violent. They had a son, Raul Jr., in 2005, when she was 19.
About a year later, her boyfriend spent time in prison on felony drug charges. Upon his release, he told Contreras-Mendez he had changed and promised not to hit her. But the punching and threats soon returned with a vengeance.
One day she was holding the baby when Raul lunged at her, his fists clenched. She threw her baby onto the bed in an effort to save the boy from being hit. The boyfriend did manage to strike Contreras-Mendez, but the baby was safe.
“That’s it,” she thought, “I’m better than this.” She got a restraining order against Raul, but he disregarded the order three times and threatened to harm her.
Raul went to Washington State prison for violating the no-contact order and later federal marshals arrested him for felony drug-related charges. He was sentenced to five years in a Florida prison, where he remains today.
Money is tight
To break out of the cycle of poverty and violence, Contreras-Mendez enrolled at Clark College for the first time in 2008 while Raul Jr. attended the Oliva Family Early Learning Center.
Despite an illness that weakens her and makes it impossible to regularly attend all of Clark’s classes, Contreras-Mendez keeps returning to the college because she’s determined to finish, no matter the hurdles. Contreras-Mendez dreams of studying law and becoming an immigration lawyer. “My passion is helping people.”
She claims she’s about 20 credits shy of getting an associate degree, but is running into problems. Because of her untimely health issues and missed classes, Contreras-Mendez faces at least one incomplete in a science class, which has resulted in her federal financial aid being cut off—her only source of income.
She’s appealed the decision, but the end of the process is quickly approaching and there is little chance of a positive outcome, she said. There is no money to finish the degree without help. Contreras-Mendez also hasn’t qualified for scholarships, despite submitting applications.
Undeterred, Contreras-Mendez says she will keep trying and intends to stay optimistic. “When you’re negative you attract the negative; when you’re positive, you attract positive energy.”
Experience of a lifetime
“I want to give back to my community, especially here in Clark County,” she said with conviction, adding that she will find a way to get her degree and pursue her dream of getting advanced degrees in public administration and public affairs.
In preparation to giving back, she first wants to better understand her heritage and Spanish culture. So Contreras-Mendez traveled outside of the U.S. for the first time in her life—to Valladolid, Spain—as part of a study abroad program with Clark Professor Felipe Montoya last month. She immersed herself in the Spanish culture, spoke only Spanish and navigated her way around the city with other Clark students.
The Associated Students of Clark College paid for room and board, while airfare was made possible with a loan from a woman Contreras-Mendez befriended. Contreras-Mendez sold homemade tamales, cheesecakes and flan (Mexican custard) for the remaining money.
Contreras-Mendez primarily relies on herself and her son when she needs support and comfort during life’s toughest moments. And she refuses to quit.
“I finish everything I start. I’ve left Clark four times, but I keep coming back. This is the least I can do for my son.”