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."
Nineteen years later, Valerie is still receiving afdc, but not for her children. Her son Leon is in Seattle. "He's always in a lot of trouble. He calls me once a week. He's the only boy, so he's like, he's got his own little daughter, ALEO naijim...his own little family. He's not married; this is like a third generation of single parents. He is with the mother, helping her with her girl." Her daughter Lanisha still lives with her, but afdc didn't believe it and denied her claim. The children she does receive aid for - Devon, Devon-isha, and Devona, ages five, four, and two - belong to her oldest daughter Dominique, who is up in Las Colinas.
"She [Dominique] already had a warrant for not appearing in court," explains Valerie. "They gave her probation when she went to court, and three weeks later, she tested dirty. She had stopped smoking marijuana, but it was not out of her system. She swears marijuana is a religion; she's just Rasta. She got pregnant with twins, and she told the judge, 'I'm going to do my marijuana,' and he said, 'I'm gonna give you a year then, so I can make sure the babies are born all right.' I'm going to have to pick them up in June if they don't let her into a rehab program."
Before they started living with Valerie, Devon and his sisters were staying with the father of Dominique's unborn twins. Valerie was living in Perris, south of Riverside, with a friend, but when Dominique went to jail, "I would not leave my grandkids with a man I don't know, and he wouldn't let me stay in the house. I decided to go into a motel room. We started off with $70. We paid for two days. I braided hair [$65 and up per head]. My daughter helped me braid hair to make money day by day, living in a Motel 6 in Chula Vista for a whole month. I pawned my sister's camcorder for $75 to get rent and food for two days. One time, we split a hamburger in four pieces in Burger King to feed my kids. I went without, but God filled my stomach. I prayed and I drank water."
The next month, she received an afdc check for $824. "My sister knows a lady - her name is Marlene. She bought this house, and she wanted $1175 a month for it. I didn't have that kind of money. My sister said, 'Hey, why don't I move in with you.' She pays $500 a month, I pay $675." Charrene works at a chiropractic clinic on El Cajon Boulevard. She has three children. "That was hard. The next month, I had to live on the [remainder]. I had to buy the kids socks; they didn't have any socks or shoes - the guy didn't let me get nothing out of the house. They still don't have any beds. We don't have a refrigerator. We have that big freezer; we have to freeze everything, even their milk. This is my sister's furniture."
Two weeks' worth of groceries comes to $193.27. "But I saved $42.61 at Vons. Pears, celery, limes, spinach, avocados, fish sticks, fillet of fish, country baby back spareribs, salami, baloney, Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, orange juice, grape juice, bananas, gizzards and hearts, hominy, and Arrowhead water." Extra food, picked up by a woman (who preferred not to be identified) staying with Valerie, comes from St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ on Imperial. Today, she brings in canned goods, rice, beans, bread, string beans, and applesauce.
"Clothes cost a lot," continues Valerie. "Here's a receipt on a church dress, a coat suit, $134.53, just for me. I had to put it on layaway. The boy wears his shoes out all the time, so every three months, I'm buying tennis shoes, $24 to $50. Girls have a lot more shoes than boys, so we get pass-me-down shoes for the girls."
Valerie and her daughter still braid hair, including their own. A ring of braided coils encircles the back of Valerie's head, while the braids in front hang down and frame her face. Besides the braiding, there is no income. They are struggling, but the house does not feel like a place of hardship. There is a buoyancy about it. "We have dessert every night - the sweets show there's a lot of sweetness in the home. We don't have the money to buy certain things, but she brought in that rice - I will make rice pudding. They give us bagels with raisins and blueberries in them. I make a bomb bagel pudding. You soak the bagels in the milk, then you add the sugar, the vanilla, sometimes the cinnamon, and the eggs, you whip it, and you bake it, and when it comes out, it's a bomb. It's good. You learn all kinds of neat recipes when you emphasize the kids. People give you stuff, and you say, 'I can't waste it,' so you create."
Holidays are far from Dickensian. "I'm the cook. I call myself the queen bee. My sister's a good cook too. Lord, we invite all our brothers and our sisters and their family and their friends, and lots of military guys, because they're so far from home. We just cook up a storm, three days. We have a special lemon pie. Everyone chips in. The military guys, they'll call me and say, 'Mom, what do I need to bring?' I'll give them a list. We enjoy our holidays." Valerie tells about a military man who lent them a car for six months, "because we share ourselves."
Other entertainment includes Disney videos and excursions. "They just had zoo day; we went there. We'll drive to Shelter Island, watch the lights. We'll go to Coronado. We can't afford Knott's Berry Farm, but we did go to Disneyland. I had to save up $25 a month for six months."
Valerie has been speaking of kids - hers, her daughter's, her sister's - throughout the interview. She has also been speaking of God - "We praise Him daily," she says, smiling - a Providential God, who takes care. Suddenly, she brings up abortion. "I don't believe in abortion. I feel like, if God puts something inside of you, and if it wasn't forced, you should have that. Every one of these kids is precious. My daughter was 15 years old; she was at a school for performing arts. She got pregnant with Devon, and I decided to get her an abortion. I brought her down to my sister, because I couldn't do it. Then I went and talked to a lady, I call her Mom, her name's Miss Russell, and she had nine kids, and she got about 62 grandkids out of them nine kids. She told me, 'You go get that girl, you let her have that baby, and you stick by her, like a mother, and you help her.' And my grandson is the only boy, he's the joy of my life. And they might make something of themselves for her. Maybe God will bless her with a good husband.
"It's hard for mothers and fathers who are single, but give [the kids] up for adoption. There's always people who will take care of kids and love them. Children make the world go round. Here I am with no money, but if I met a lady, and she said, 'Hey, I'm pregnant, and I don't have nowhere to go,' I'd welcome her here. This is what kept me surviving, is my kids and my grandkids.
"As a matter of fact, I woke up at 4:35 this morning, and I wrote a dear friend I have in Los Angeles. I told her, 'For once in my life, I'm happier than I have ever been.' I don't know why; my bank account is nothing, I don't have a car to get my kids back and forth to the doctor. But somehow, God has made me content and happy with the decisions I have made in my life. I have my kids, I can see my grandkids. They're healthy, none of them were born deformed, none of them was born on crack. I'm happy with the life God gave me, and I would not trade it for anything in the world."