Special Reports

Single mother fights the odds

VISALIA -- On a blustery Thursday afternoon in April, 22-year-old Mayra Díaz stood on a dusty baseball diamond and helped her 6-year-old son, Daniel, warm up for baseball practice.

"Throw it hard like this, mommy," Daniel said, as he tossed the ball to his mother.

He was dressed in his team uniform -- a White Sox T-shirt and white pants that already had splotches of dust around the knees -- and she in jeans, a black T-shirt, and large sunglasses.

Signing Daniel up for the baseball team is just one way that Díaz -- who became pregnant when she was 15 years old -- is striving to ensure that her son has a bright future, filled with educational achievement and free of the gang culture that surrounded her while growing up in a small Tulare County community.

Two of her brothers fell into gangs, and her son's father was once involved as well, she said.

"I hope it doesn't run in the genes or something," she said casually, as she settled onto the grass and watched Daniel continue to practice with his teammates.

Díaz was one of the thousands of Latina teens in the San Joaquín Valley who become teen mothers each year. In Tulare County, which has the highest teen birth rate in the state, 78.3 out of every 1,000 Latina teens became pregnant in 2009, according to the Public Health Institute.

Statistics say that as a teen mom, Díaz is more likely to have less educational attainment and Daniel, as the son of a teen mom, is more likely to become incarcerated. Díaz is positive she can prove the experts wrong.

Though Díaz was a teen mother -- and is today a young, single mom -- she is determined to ensure that her son has every opportunity to succeed.

"Even though people don't have to know, I don't want him to think that he is any different, just because he is being raised by a teen mom," said Díaz, a graduate of Sequoia High School, a continuation school, and College of the Sequoias. She is currently a junior at California State University, Fresno.

"It's a small town, and it's really taken by gangs," Díaz said. "There is not much to do there."

She became pregnant during her freshman year at Golden West High School in Visalia, just after she turned 15 years old.

"Because I am Hispanic, I was scared to tell my parents, and see what was going to happen," Díaz said. "I knew what might end up happening -- I was afraid of getting kicked out. I was just scared."

Amidst the confusion of her situation, she considered getting an abortion. But she decided to have her baby.

"It got me thinking: It's not the whole thing that I don't want to raise my child, it was to let it out that I was pregnant at 15," Díaz said. "My biggest fear was letting it out."

She succeeded in keeping her pregnancy a secret from her mom for at least four months. Her father found out soon after.

"I was coming home from school, and getting off at the bus stop, and going to walk home, and my sister was waiting outside," Díaz recalled. She said her sister told her, "you have to come home with me because dad found out and he's upset and he's going to confront you if you go home."

Her father was upset, she said, "for what I had done -- and that was to get pregnant, while living in their home, at such a young age."

She moved out of her parents' house that afternoon, and lived with her older sister in the outskirts of Visalia for much of her pregnancy.

She had returned to living in her parents house by the night her water broke. It was around midnight or 1 a.m., and her mother -- who had recently returned from her night shift at a packinghouse -- drove Díaz to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia.

Her son, Daniel, was born June 8, 2004.

Díaz's main fear had been letting the world know of her pregnancy. But that proved to be just one of the many challenges that Díaz would encounter and overcome.

After her son's birth, Díaz returned to Golden West for her sophomore year of high school. But by then, her priorities had shifted.

Though she was a teenager, she felt like she had been forced to mature overnight, and become an adult. The urge to study, or hang out with friends on the weekend, was replaced with the responsibility to care for her son.

Díaz picked up a part-time job at McDonald's as soon as she turned 16. Díaz's mother provided her with the basic items, like diapers and milk, but Díaz wanted to be able to provide for her son.

"That kind of kept me off track," she said of her job. "I started to focus more on wanting to work, to be able to buy my son stuff. I wanted to be able to buy him things, and not always have to ask my mom for them."

At the end of her sophomore year, she moved into the house of her son's father's family. But that situation did not last long.

"We would always argue, we would always fight," she said. "It was really bad."

She had the realization: "This is not what I want," she remembers thinking to herself. "I don't see my life being like this forever, or just ending here, or stopping here."

She transferred to an independent high school for her junior year. For her senior year of high school, Díaz enrolled in Sequoia High School, a continuation program, and signed up Daniel, then 2 1/2 years old, for the school's daycare program.

It was at Sequoia that she met a school staff member, who had also been a teen mom, who helped Díaz turn her life around.

"Up until that point, I hadn't necessarily met someone in my situation," Díaz said. "I wanted to see somebody, I wanted to know that when you are a teen mom, you can still do things in life."

"At that point, everyone is telling you you're not going to graduate from high school. I wanted to meet somebody that has gone beyond that, and has been successful."

The teacher encouraged Díaz as she took night classes, college classes, and adult school classes, so she could earn over 100 credits that year, and graduate on time. She encouraged Díaz to share her personal story with other young women.

Díaz spoke at the school's commencement ceremony.

Díaz spent three years studying at College of the Sequoias in Visalia.

During that time, she worked in the school's financial aid office, and received educational support through the Puente Project, which helps Latino college students transfer to four-year universities.

Her son was in the audience on the day she graduated.

"Having my son run up to me and give me a big hug and tell me that he wanted to do that when he grew up was one of the most special moments in my life," Díaz said.

"My son said he wanted to graduate from college and walk in a gown, just like his mom did."

Díaz is currently finishing her first year at Fresno State, where she is majoring in political science. She hopes to attend law school in the future.

As a single mom, she juggles her own academic pursuits with Daniel's school and extracurricular activities. He has baseball practice twice a week and games on the weekends, folkloric dance classes once a week, and catechism during the weekend.

Even at his young age, she talks to him about choosing a positive path in life, and not getting drawn into the gang scene. She instructs him not to wear certain colors, or to tip his hat a certain way.

Everything she does, she said, is part of her larger goal: To ensure her son makes it to college, and pursues a future. Díaz is the first person in her family to go to college; she wants Daniel to think college is normal stepping stone in life.

"I just wait for the moment that I send him away to college, the day that we drive, and I drop him off, and he has his room ready," she said. "That's my biggest thing: That he makes it to college, and that's what I look forward to."

"I want him to grow up and see that it's the thing to do, that this is what you're supposed to do: Go to high school, and from then on, graduate and go to college. That's what we talk about."

As she spoke, she became distracted by the sight of Daniel nearby. Baseball practice had just ended.

"Careful babe," she called to him. "Daniel, put your stuff away."

Daniel threw a bag -- packed with his bat, mitt, and helmet -- over his shoulder, and Díaz picked up the lawn chair she had brought to practice. They headed home.