Like many single mothers of prodigal sons, Evenor Pineda’s Mom struggled against, formidable forces – the streets, the gangs, jail, then prison – but never gave up.
Toya Graham is not exactly a household name, but odds are you’ve seen her. Just about every cable and network news outlet in America carried a video clip of Mrs. Graham chasing her masked and hooded teenage son down a Baltimore street last month. She searched for him, and found him in the middle of an urban protest surrounded by police in riot gear. Not long after she left with her prodigal son in tow, the crowd erupted into a rampaging mob that laid waste to one of the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore.
As the news footage of a desperate mother chasing down her son went viral, Toya Graham quickly became a national icon of sorts, a single mother struggling to raise her son alone against the lure of the streets. My heart went out to this woman. The very scene she unwittingly brought to national attention was one I described in a post entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.”
I hope you will read it and share it in these weeks between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in America. That article has been the most widely read and shared post on These Stone walls, having been republished in hundreds of venues and shared over 3,180 times on Facebook alone. It seemed to touch a national nerve as it told a story that might be the real catalyst behind the looting, raging mobs that-overtook the streets of Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore in recent months. It is a story about much more than race.
Toya Graham is now an icon of the one thing necessary to keep a peaceful and legitimate protest from descending into a lawless mob: a loving, caring, responsible and available parent – preferably two of them in faithful partnership – willing to meet head-on the challenge of parenting. In the now epidemic absence of fathers in neighborhoods like that one in Baltimore – and in prisons all over America – Toya Graham met that challenge heroically, and alone.
A few days later, Mrs. Graham and her son, Michael Singleton, appeared on one of the morning network news shows. He presented as a remarkably articulate and respectful son, traits that no doubt spoke more of his Mom than himself, and he joked that running toward the police in riot gear on that street that day made more sense to him after seeing the look on his mother’s face.
For her part, Mrs. Graham apologized to the nation for a few foul words delivered before cameras in the heat of the moment, but she apologized to no one for the almost comical smack she delivered to the son who towered over her. “As long as I have breath in my body,” she said, “my son will not be down there doing that!” If These Stone Walls had a Mother-of-the-Year award, it would go to Toya Graham.
But she would have to share it with Rosa Levesque. Rosa is the mother of another young man I know, Evenor Pineda, and I have come to admire her very greatly even though we have never actually met. You have previously met Evenor Pineda however. He appeared awhile back in a guest post by Michael Ciresi, “Companions in Faith Along a Road Less Traveled.”
You have also seen Evenor many times as described below. His is a remarkable story of the undying love and urgent hope of a single mother struggling to redeem her prodigal son. It is best to tell it in Evenor’s own words:
EVENOR’ S STORY
I was born on Wednesday, December 30, 1981 to immigrant parents in Nashua, New Hampshire. My father, Cosme, was a political refugee who fought on the losing side of a civil war in Nicaragua. My mother, Rosa, was an orphan adopted into an oppressive and abusive family that immigrated to the United States. My sister, Lina, was born two years and a day after me, and by her second birthday our mother left our father, fleeing in an attempt to protect us from the drug dealing and growing addiction that was consuming his life and our family.
As I grew into adolescence with the wonderful woman struggling to raise us alone, I betrayed her faith, hope, and trust by becoming the next male role model in our family to become an abuser and addict, and I added a new twist – a gang member.
While my mother struggled to pay the bills I did everything to undermine her. Our home became a hangout for the gang. I brought alcohol and drugs into our home and police to our door, because there was no one there to stop me. Under my influence, even my younger sister began to stray into my world, but our mother took a much harder line with her, pulling her back from the brink upon which I lived.
It wasn’t that my mother didn’t take that same hard line with me. She did. But she also knew that outside our home were the streets always luring her rebellious son from beyond her influence. She knew that she risked losing me forever, so my Mom did what she always did. She struggled as best she could.
Between the ages of fifteen and eighteen I would drop out of school, be arrested a dozen times, incarcerated four times in both juvenile detention and then county jails, but my mother never gave up on me. Not even when I gave up on myself.
On my eighteenth birthday, I maxed out of a county jail and was able to land a real job. I held it for five years, but the ties to my gang grew stronger and I simply became better at evading arrest. And my Mom still struggled against them.
By the time I was twenty-two, I had two beautiful children of my own, my son, Tito and my daughter, Nati. Fatherhood was something I had to learn from scratch, having had no personal experience of it in my life. The relationship I was in with their mother collapsed, but my mother was, as always, right there to help me raise my children. She was an incredible grandmother.
I was balancing two different lives, however, one as a young father and family man and the other as a gangster. Those two lives collided on April 17, 2005. My friend Kaleek and I had a falling out over drugs that escalated. We both fell victim to the street culture we had embraced, and that would not release us from its grip. It ultimately took Kaleek’s life, and my freedom.
This marked the lowest point in my life. It was the point at which I learned who my true friends were – and were not – and it reinforced how much the adage is true – that blood is thicker than water. It was a selfish moment in my life where I thought of no one but myself. I knew I suffered, but I had no idea how much I made my family suffer. By this time, my sister, Lina was serving in Iraq, and at a time when I should have been a support to my family, I instead went to prison I have been in this place for ten years, with eight more left to serve.
My mother had become both grandmother and mother to my children, and the one mainstay of my life who never stopped struggling to save me. So when there came a time when I had to decide who I am, I looked to the one person who might know. My mother taught me by the sheer force of example the meaning of love and sacrifice, the meaning of parenthood.
In 2010, I became a volunteer facilitator for the prison’s Alternatives to Violence Program. I trained for this alongside two men you know: Michael Ciresi and Pornchai Moontri. In 2012, Pornchai Moontri and I graduated together from Granite State High School, an accredited school in the Corrections Special School District. My friend, Alberto “Kokolo” Ramos graduated with us.
One day, my friend, Gordon MacRae showed me an article he wrote about our graduation. It told my friend, Kokolo’s story and was titled, “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.” It was then that I realized that I must never give up on myself. I know you have seen the photograph of us that I am told is now rather famous. That is Pornchai in the middle with Kokolo just behind and to his right.
I am on the left, and clearly in the very best of company. Gordon is not in the picture, but stood next to the photographer. We were all proudly showing him our diplomas.
Today, I serve with my friend “G” on the Inmate Communications Committee (ICC) a representative group of ten prisoners that meets with the prison administration to keep open channels of communication and to try to make this a better and safer environment. Last year I was appointed co-chairman of the ICC after being nominated for that post by G. I want to thank him. At least, I think I do!
I also am a member of Hobby Craft and its woodworking department where I have learned the skill to produce furniture and other items that are now sold to the public. I use the funds I earn to help my mother and my children, and also to further my education. Through this effort, I am able to afford one or two courses per semester at New England College which has a presence in this prison.
I have formally renounced my gang membership. There is no longer any room for that past in my present. I remember something my friend, Pornchai Moontri wrote in an article I read. “One day I woke up with a future when up to then all I had was a past.” Sometimes the truth just smacks you in the head. Today, I find reason to be proud, not only of my mother, but my sister, Staff Sergeant Lina Pineda of the New Hampshire National Guard, and of my children. I am their future, and it is an awesome responsibility from which I must not shrink.
When we graduated from high school in 2012, Gordon MacRae was there to hear Pornchai’s great graduation speech. He wrote about this in an article I read, “The Elections Are Over But there’s One More Speech to Hear.” I gave a speech that day, too. My mother, Rosa, was there, and I wrote it for her. Gordon recently asked me for a copy, and then asked me to reproduce it here.
EVENOR’ S COMMENCEMENT SPEECH
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an opportunity to receive an education or to have parents to encourage their education. I, however, was one of those fortunate enough to have both an opportunity and someone who cared enough to show interest in my education.
Yet I then took for granted what I now recognize was then a luxury and I squandered a wonderful opportunity to seize a controlling stake in my future. It was a future which up until high school was very promising. All I had to do was stay the course.
It was a far cry from other children in the world not as fortunate as I was to have a parent who cared and who valued education, children whose future is bleak, at best. The most shameful part about this is that I knew how good I had it and how bad others did.
I know of such a woman whose childhood was the polar opposite of mine. She was parentless at the age of three, placed in an orphanage with her six sisters all of whom were eventually placed with different families. At nine she found herself in a home where she was denied an education, robbed further of her childhood, forced into a life of servitude: cooking, cleaning, caring for that family’s biological children, and abused both physically and mentally. She was told that she would amount to nothing, would be nothing.
Yet this woman did not allow circumstance to dictate her future, and as fate would have it, when the family she was living with immigrated to the United States, the Land of Opportunity, she did just that. She seized an opportunity and a controlling stake in her future. At the age of just seventeen in a foreign land, she struck out on her own, started her own family, learned English, and with only a third grade education, earned her GED.
Then she earned a college certificate in her field of work, earned her citizenship, earned a home, and earned the American dream. It was a dream this woman, my Mother, struggled to obtain, and I was a product of that American dream. I was born into an opportunity not afforded to my mother, yet she – unlike me – capitalized on her opportunities.
I had to endure great loss and suffering to finally grasp and understand to what lengths my mother had to struggle and sacrifice to solidify her place in this country, and how much it must have pained her to see me throw away the opportunities bestowed upon me.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an opportunity at an education, let alone a second chance. This is why this diploma has taken on a whole new meaning. It is a step toward redeeming myself to my mother and my family. It is a symbol of my commitment to follow in the steps of my mother in pursuing the American Dream.”
I’m sorry to be late this Mother’s Day, Mom, and all the Mother’s Days past. I love you, and I thank you. I am so very proud of you. Your struggle has not been in vain.