A story of two strangers searching for strength.
JENNY: I sat on a hard metal folding chair—one inconsequential person in two rows of parents. Some knew each other. You could tell by the groupings. They gravitated towards each other, laughing.
Happiness mixed with the smell of sweet muscle sweat permeated throughout the dojo. The sun streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The warm rays of light seemed to spread an extra layer of cheer. But I felt cold. Dead.
I had once dreamed of becoming someone who could contribute to the good of humanity, to “be the change” I wished to see in the world and all that. Now, I couldn’t even relieve my own suffering. How was I going to help anyone else?
INES: Growing up in Mexico City, my dream was to be a ballerina. My mom was 14 when she got pregnant with my older brother. She left me and my three siblings when I was 5 years old. My dad couldn’t pay for my ballet classes anymore.
My mom showed up again when I was 23. She said she left because my dad beat her. My dad’s family said she left because she fell in love with someone else. After staying with me for a month, my mom got a phone call, said she had to leave and then I never saw her again. Today, I don’t know if she’s dead or alive.
JENNY: That day at the taekwondo school, I’m sure I appeared to be a fully functioning, healthy member of society. I’d force a smile and make small talk with the other parents. “Oh, little Susie did so good in class today! Did you see that jumping side kick?”
It was a joy to watch my kids gain confidence and self-control—something their father lacked. The mundane conversations that night masked my silent suffering. Thrown fists and fits of rage waited for me at home. I longingly looked at the adults and children in their white taekwondo uniforms. They looked happy.
INES: After I got married the first time, my husband didn’t hit me, but he would say, “You’re fat. You’re ugly. I didn’t want to marry you.” I was scared to leave. What would I do if I got divorced? Nobody would love me.
JENNY: I got married at 19, thinking my life was about to start. But the abuse started happening right away, on the honeymoon. I tried to fix things, finding excuses for him, trying to still love the man I thought he was, who he could be when he was in the part of the cycle of abuse where he would try to make up for what he did.
INES: My dad had died, and I got divorced. I didn’t have a reason to stay in Mexico. I wanted to run away. At 27, I came to the United States for the first time to visit my best friend in Los Angeles. She needed a cook. I helped out in her food truck, making hot dogs, cold sandwiches and breakfast burritos. We parked outside an airplane factory and worked 15 hours a day, sometimes napping on a piece of cardboard inside the truck.
JENNY: I persisted, still having the gumption to reach my goals in my early 20s. I graduated from college and worked in early childhood education. I pursued my master’s degree, studying interpersonal neurobiology, which is the study of how relationships affect the brain and therapeutic techniques to heal any damage that's been done.
I'd been overseas on a humanitarian aid trip to Ethiopia. I'd become an adult learning instructor. Yet my home life was crumbling. My drive was replaced by the daily game of not setting him off. I could no longer contact my family.
When I became isolated at home as a stay-at-home mom, he took control over my life. I had to ask for grocery money. I had to ask to talk to people, and if he didn't like them, I couldn't be friends with them. I had to hide his violence and alcohol addiction from my children. I hated my life. My only source of strength was being a mom to my kids.
INES: I had a good job in Mexico. I was an accountant at an oil company. I went back and forth, between jobs and countries every six months, until I was laid off.
I decided to stay in the U.S. and followed my friend out to Chicago, which eventually led me to Sioux City. At 37, I got pregnant. When I told my boyfriend, he went back to Mexico. I was a single mother, raising a son.
JENNY: When my daughter was in first grade, she was being physically bullied. From taking taekwondo, she’d learned to defend herself. Instead of feeling sad and disempowered about what happened, she felt proud because she stood up for herself. She kept herself from getting hurt.
INES: In middle school, my son kept getting into fights. He said he was getting picked on. In high school, he fought back. I’d get called into meetings. They were going to suspend him from school. What had happened to my sweet boy?
He started going to taekwondo without me knowing. When I found out, I didn’t like it. But soon, I started noticing changes. He was more respectful. More confident. Less angry and depressed.
Even though I was scared of looking stupid, I wanted to try taekwondo too. Maybe breaking boards would make me feel better about dealing with my son.
JENNY: I studied those muscle blocks during the kids’ taekwondo classes. I hoped they would provide protection for me too. I watched women spar on the martial arts mats. They knew how to maneuver their bodies to avoid injury.
A leap here. Dodging a punch there. Throwing a solid left hook, making their opponent – a grown man – back up. If they could do it, surely I could, too. I could walk away this time instead of being left, balled up on the kitchen floor. I could put an end to leading this double life.
I signed up for the adult classes and met my new training partner, a short Latino woman, 20 years older than me. It made me nervous to let a stranger get close to me, especially when her hands reached for my throat.
By then, I had left my husband. I felt like a broken human being, deeply wounded inside and out. I needed a place to learn how to be strong for my four kids. They needed me to fight for them now more than ever.
Ines met me with kindness.
INES: I couldn’t wait for Wednesdays and Thursdays when I would see Jenny. She didn’t care about where I came from. She didn’t care that I can’t speak English very well or that I have a silly accent.
JENNY: Ines was one of my bridesmaids when I married a wonderful man on New Year’s Eve. She was by my side after the birth of our son, my fifth child.
INES: She was there when my son graduated from high school. She was there on the day I became a United States citizen. That was today.
JENNY: I turned to taekwondo to find myself…
INES: … then I found a sister along the way.
JENNY: We hit the black punching bags over and over again, releasing all the anger and fear and loathing, suddenly feeling lighter, stronger. We stood together, drenched in sweat, smiling and laughing—understanding for the first time that the only approval we needed, we gave to ourselves.
Jenny Bullington is a writer, world traveler, humanitarian, advocate for women's empowerment and mom of five; and Ines Cervantes is an English Language Learner tutor in the Sioux City Community School District.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, August 4 at Be Yoga Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Little Did I Know.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.
This story was produced as part of an Images & Voices of Hope Restorative Narrative Fellowship, which supports media practitioners who want to tell stories of resilience in communities around the U.S. and abroad. ivoh is a nonprofit committed to strengthening the media's role as an agent of change and world benefit.