Valerie is an African-American woman living on a hill in Valencia Park. She is 37, but she looks younger. She has a round face surrounded by a curtain of heavy braids and large eyes that look off as she speaks. We meet at her home - a five-bedroom, two-bath rental that she and her family share with her sister Charrene and Charrene's three children - to talk about her life: how she got here, how she gets by, and what she makes of it. The wall-to-wall carpet in the large, lightly furnished living room is cream flecked with beige, not quite the same color as the walls. A clock with Martin Luther King Jr.'s image hangs on one wall, a pencil drawing of an Egyptian on another. Though she is an unemployed single mother, Valerie does not worry about welfare reform. "I think it's been a long time coming. If mothers of my generation would have had education...instead of 'Sit back, take care of your kids, we'll give you a little welfare....' I never wanted to just stay up on aid, raise my kids. [Now], I'm very motivated to get out there and get going. I want to be either a cosmetologist, a lab technician, or an x-ray technician, and I really have to study my math and English." Valerie wants her children "to be happy and successful. I want them to try to become something productive. They don't have to be doctors, just as long as they make something out of their lives, leave some milestones for their kids."
Valerie sums up her own life as "real simple," but it did not have a simple beginning. She was born in Lamesa, Texas. Her mother left her father "because he was in and out of jail," and upon one of his releases, he found Valerie's mother on her job at the American Hotel in Big Spring, Texas, and shot her. When he realized what he had done, he shot himself. Valerie was six years old.
"We were orphans," she recalls. "Our grandmother had to take us. [She] was receiving $24 a month Social Security for my dad, because he was in the service. She would fish, she would raise chickens; we would have a lot of fish, salmon croquettes, things like that. Even delicacies - we got bullfrog legs. Rabbits. By the grace of God, our stomachs was always fed, and we kept a roof over our head.
"[Grandma] thought if she moved us out of there, we wouldn't be reminded of the horror story of our dad and what happened. So, she moved us out here, because she had sisters - Miss Ruby James and Juanita Simpson - who would help her and wouldn't keep bringing up the past to her little grandchildren. When we got to California, life was a lot better. The government somehow assisted her in buying a home, being a single parent with no income. The house was at 4042 Hilltop Drive, off of Raven.
"We lived there until I turned about 14, and I started having a lot of psychiatric problems, like teenagers do - running away. I was running around with a bad crowd, so she decided, 'Well, I better move this girl back to the country if I want to save my child from gangbanging and all this.' So, we went back to Texas."
In Texas, Valerie met Leon S., and together they gave birth to three children, Dominique, Leon, and Lanisha, now 21, 20, and 17. "I had to drop out of school, by me getting pregnant. That was in '75, not that long ago, but too long ago. They only had one high school in my town, they didn't have a school for pregnant women. I started supporting my kids. I was operating a single-needle sewing machine. It was hard sometimes. I just had to get up earlier and go to bed a lot later, work a little harder, because there wasn't two parents in the home."
Perhaps because of her age - around 16 - perhaps for some other reason, Leon's mother never accepted Valerie, and they never married. But when Valerie decided to leave Leon, "Then, she was like, 'I think she's a good girl, and you have these beautiful children by her; you should marry her.' I had spent six years with this man, had his kids, and I wasn't good enough then. Now that I was turning into a mature adult, why should I want him now? He was the one who had the problem drinking, not me."
Besides the drinking, "He was very abusive. I thought that was the way a man was supposed to do a woman. I didn't know, because he was my first male that I had ever been with. After I started seeing other couples, loving, not at home and with black eyes, I said, 'Hey, this man's not treating me right. I've given him the best of me. I've had his children. I don't cheat, I don't drink, I don't do drugs.' I just danced. Sewing, cooking, dancing - that's me.
"Dancing contests on weekends was how I made extra money. Me and my brother Matt, we'd team up. When the disco dancing was out, we would hop over to Lamesa, Lubbock, Big Spring. We could make $100, $150 a weekend in dance contests. God gave me a talent to use with my sewing and dancing, to support myself, because He knew that I would not be able to continue my education, that I would have my kids early." Around 1978, she decided to come to San Diego. She thought Leon would find her if she left him without leaving that part of Texas, and her Aunt Ruby and Uncle Jose were living in Skyline, south of Lemon Grove. "They helped me out a lot, but they weren't used to little children, so I moved to the Salvation Army. I braided hair, I made clothes, I sold raffle tickets to help make it through the month. afdc [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] wasn't enough."