Women I have known: Yolanda, Gun Runner.

Posted: October 16, 2011 in Uncategorized
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I met Yolanda when I was working with a group of women who were in jail for various reasons, from embezzlement to welfare fraud all the way up to assault with a deadly weapon. How I came to be here is covered in other posts, but there have been many women I have met in my life that for one reason or another, had a profound effect on me.

Some of them are still in my life. Others have come and gone and some of them weren’t so nice, but they changed my life and helped me to be who I am today. Flawed, smart and strong, but very far from perfect.

Yolanda was in one of my classes and always sat in the back and rarely said anything but listened intently with very little expression. She was very hard to read and get a handle on, but she always smiled and nodded her head when she came in and would often give me a “thumbs up” after class was done.

On this particular night, I had just finished up a workshop (I don’t even remember what it was about) and as I was wrapping things up, I asked the group if they had anything they wanted to say before I called it an evening.

Yolanda raised her hand but didn’t say anything. I looked up and saw her with a slight smile on her face. I was exhausted from working all day and then standing on my feet for the last two hours.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She smiled and jumped up out of her chair. “My name is Yolanda. I’ve been in here for two years and I have something I want to say.”

I heard a few chuckles but I ignored them. I was dying to find out what she wanted to say and I was pleased that someone had started the ball rolling.

“Sure Yolanda, what did you want to say?”

“I don’t want to talk in front of the group, so I was wondering if maybe I could talk to you after class.” She looked to be in her mid-30’s, brown-skinned and petite. Her teeth were crooked and she had long black hair that was pulled back in a pony tail. Her skin was clear and smooth and she had dark and dull eyes. When I looked at her, it was as if she was far away and struggling to connect with the people and things around her. She was looking straight at me but there was a lack of connection between her and I.  She could have been talking to anyone.

“Sure, that would be fine,” I said and continued to try to get the group engaged in some type of communication. It was getting late and I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was go home, sit in a hot bath and polish off a bottle of wine. The more I thought about it, the better it sounded.

I dismissed the class. No one said anything to me as the filed out, headed back to their cells and to a future that looked hopeless and bleak. I tried to imagine what that was like as I could see it on their faces. As they walked by, I looked at each one and smiled at the ones that looked at me. A few smiled back and for a moment, I could see them as children, laughing and playing and wondered what could have happened that these women ended up here. I didn’t see one glimmer of hope in any of them. I saw women who were beaten down, shuffling out of one room to go back to a cell and spend the night looking up at the ceiling, knowing the next day coming would be exactly the same as the one before and the one before that.

Yolanda came up to me and smiled. We sat down and I asked her what she wanted to say.

She told me she was only 23 and had five children, four of them in foster care. The youngest one was just a toddler that was being raised by her grandmother. The other four were spread all over California and she wanted my help in making sure they were taken care of. She wanted the foster parents to adopt four of them because it would be the best thing for them.

“Yolanda, there really isn’t anything I can do about it. I’m just here to talk to all of you and see what I can do to help you while you are here and when you are released.”

She hung her head down and started crying. Her body shook violently with each sob. I didn’t know what to do or say so I just put my arms around her shoulders and held her. She cried and cried for a long time and I let her. She would occasionally mumble about what a horrible person she was, how she had messed up so badly and that she loved her children so much that she knew the best thing was for them to have a better Mom. She broke my heart.

Finally she stopped crying, wiped her face and looked up at me.

“Yolanda, what did you do that got you here?” I asked.

“The family business. We’ve been doing the same thing my whole life. Ain’t no big deal. We run guns in and out of Mexico.  I don’t really know what I did wrong that got me here though. Just a bunch of cops showed up one day, busted down the door and arrested us. Took my kids and I’ve been here since then.” She shrugged her shoulders and she said this to me as if we were discussing a grocery list.

“Well, I see. So you got arrested for illegal activities.” I said.

A blank look came over her face. “Well, that was news to me when I got arrested.”

I felt my mouth drop open. I looked at her really hard. She was serious.

“You didn’t know it was illegal?” I asked.

“No. It’s just what I’ve been doing since I was a kid.”

Yes, it was that simple. Just didn’t know. She had never gone to school. They lived out of RV’s and had very little contact with anyone outside of the business. She was sold to men here and there whenever the family needed a little cash.

She was only doing what she knew to do. She was just like me, doing what she had to do to survive. We talked for as long as we could before she was escorted back to her cell. As she was leaving, she turned around, walked over to me and gave me a bear hug. I was stunned at the warmth that emanated from her over to me and the strength in her arms. She held on for a long time before the guard pulled her away, but even then, she had a beautiful smile on her face.

“Thank you for listening to me. I like your class,” she said as she turned the corner. I will always remember the color of her jumpsuit (bright orange so they can’t easily hide) and the spring in her step.

I drove home that night, sad and happy at the same time. I was sad that she was in such a bad position and had never known any other life and I was happy that I had been so lucky for what I had been given from the moment I was born until now. I was lucky; she was not.

I can honestly say that I never judged another person after that.

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