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By sharing her soul, Cynthia Altamirano helps survivors heal.

on November 27, 2018

Eyes slightly gazing over the steering wheel, 11-year-old Cynthia Altamirano drove around her family farm in southern Illinois.

She started the day around 3:30 a.m. checking on the well-being of the animals. 

It was not a for-profit farm. It was a farm to help her poor household survive.

By the time the sun was rising, Altamirano had been up for several hours, but it was time for her to rush back home and start getting ready for her school day.

Now 61 years old, Altamirano lives in Vallejo with her adult son and works at Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall where she is a substitute teacher. Many of her students are survivors of sexual abuse, human trafficking and trauma.

“Part of what I do in my job at juvenile hall is I’m dealing with children who have experienced traumatic loss in their lives. Part of what I do is I bare my soul,” she said.

“So, if I’m asking them to write poetry about something in their lives, I tell them: ‘Okay, I lost my son to a heroin overdose when he was 24 years old, and I was working here.’”

She also tells them she was raped.

Altamirano was 14 years old in 1971 and living in a small farming town in southern Illinois. One night, she and her girlfriend snuck out of their homes, so her friend could see her boyfriend. That night proved to be a life-changing experience for Altamirano. That night, she was raped.

“We were supposed to go to the home of a friend and nobody was at home. So, you know we didn’t have cellphones, so we couldn’t call our friend. But the house was unlocked, and we knew everybody, so we just went in,” Altamirano recalled. 

As Altamirano and her girlfriend were waiting for the friend to come home, Altamirano’s girlfriend took off into the back of the house with her boyfriend. Altamirano was left watching television with the boyfriend’s best friend when he attacked her. 

As he tried to grab her, she tried to run out of the house.

“I remember being terrified that someone was going to find out that this had happened and that I had snuck out with my girlfriend, so she could spend time with her boyfriend,” she said.

After the rape, Altamirano was scared to talk to her parents. She was afraid of the social pressures put on girls to remain pure. While her mother worked in a shoe factory, Altamirano’s grandparents mostly raised her. Strict Pentecostal Christians, they believed women should not have sex until marriage.

“I couldn’t cut my hair; I wore skirts all the time,” she said with a smile on her face and laughing quietly. “It was hard to work a farm in a skirt.”

Altamirano lived with this terrible secret and in fear of her attacker for two years before she spoke to her parents about the rape. She recollects her father being furious for all the wrong reasons. He blamed her for putting herself in the situation. He took her to the doctor to get on birth control, because he believed she would now have the desire to have sex with other boys.

“At that moment I knew no one is coming to defend me,” Altamirano said. This experience altered how she would walk through life for the next 20 years.  

When Altamirano was 32, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable, disabling disease of the central nervous system.

“Cynthia was determined that she would walk again. So, she went from being totally bedridden, to a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane, and today she’s walking on her own,” said her mother, Paula Daniels.

“Cynthia’s determination to continue to be around for her boys and raising her children makes me proud of her as a mother,” Daniels said.

While attending Saint Mary’s College of California at the age of 40, Altamirano finally found her voice. She began to examine her traumatic past through the lens of theology and feminism. It gave her the courage to speak up and realize she was stronger than she thought, and that she was not at fault.

In 2007, Altamirano graduated magna cum laude and received the first ever gender studies degree from Saint Mary’s.

While at St. Mary’s, Altamirano participated in the feminist play “The Vagina Monologues.” She was older than the traditional students, but the experience was still transformative.

“Cynthia was a mother, but the issues were timeless that impacted people of all ages,” said Sharon Sabotta, who directed the play.

As a result of her experience at Saint Mary’s, Altamirano encourages all her students at juvenile hall to attend college, so they can have access to information and self-confidence.

In 2008, her son Jacob died of a heroin overdose and she needed support once again.

He had been diagnosed as a child with osteochondroma, a benign tumor of the bones, and had undergone several surgeries to remove the tumors; however, at the age of 20, his condition had worsened, and the tumor had grown back.

By then, Jacob was working as a manager at a car dealership. His condition made it difficult for him to stand for long periods of time.

“So, he had to change his career and, eventually, he couldn’t work any longer. And the doctors were giving him Oxycontin for the pain,” she said. “And then Jacob lost his insurance coverage, being on disability and out for so long from work.”

Being disabled and off from work for so long left him without the necessary insurance to pay for his pills anymore.

“He ended up with an addiction to smoking heroin,” Altamirano said, her voice quivering with emotion.

As her son’s osteochondroma kept getting worse, doctors suggested amputating his right leg.

“He didn’t want to live anymore,” Altamirano said. “Within a week he was gone. He’d overdosed, and he was 24 years old. And it was, it was devastating. Devastating to me, to my family.”

For the past 10 years, she has put her grief to work by helping teenagers who have been trafficked and sexually exploited. It’s more than a job to her. It’s about helping teenagers recognize their self-worth, dignity and resilience.

“What we have learned, when people are trying to go from a place of crisis to a place of healing, it is not just that they need food or shelter, but also they really need to feel connected,” said Susun Kim, executive director of the Family Justice Center in Contra Costa County. “And how you get connected is really by giving back to the community.”

In 2016, Altamirano became a leadership fellow at the justice center. She enrolled in a program that empowers survivors like herself by helping them come up with a project to improve their communities.

Altamirano’s project was to address the disparity in the school supplies carried by rich and poor kids in her community. She filled up backpacks with school supplies for kids and teenagers at the start of the school year.

When Altamirano was working at the justice center, she was also able to give back to Sabotta, the woman who had directed her in college in “The Vagina Monologues.”

“I required a restraining order,” Sabotta said. “Cynthia helped me in a domestic violence situation that was impacting me and my children. Cynthia became a support person for me later in life.”

Today, Altamirano is a deeply faithful member of her Protestant church and workplace community, where she spreads messages of healing and resilience.

 “My faith kept me going,” she said.

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