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High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

Those who had known him longest said Antonio had been changed by the war. But when his children or grandchildren asked him about those experiences, he would only say that half the men on his ship had been killed. Then he would begin to weep, and they would get no more out of him as he beat his chest with a fist in a futile attempt to stop crying.

By the time she was a teenager, Velma's siblings were grown and out of the house. She knew early on that her education would end at high school. "I'm not going to pay good money when you'll just go get married," Celia told her, remembering an older daughter who had done that many years before. So it should have surprised no one when Velma, only sixteen, announced that she was pregnant. She was soon married to her boyfriend, Fred Herrera Jr.

With his smoldering eyes and a dazzling white smile set off by dark skin, Fred was considered the best-looking guy in their high school. Other girls wanted him, but Fred said Velma was the only one for him.

Fred and Velma dropped out of school when they married, only to discover that her pregnancy had been a false alarm. But three months later she was pregnant for real. With a baby on the way and few job possibilities, Fred joined the Army. He was in basic training at Fort Bliss when Emily was born on August 7, 1968. A short time later he was on his way to Vietnam. Velma and her infant moved back in with her folks.

One afternoon when Emily was about three years old, she heard her mother calling her. Toddling to the screen door of her grandparents' home, she looked down the porch steps at a man in a uniform standing next to her mother.

"Emily," her mother said, "come meet your father." Fred had just returned home after two tours of duty in Vietnam. He smiled. The little girl turned and ran away.

The relationship between father and daughter would never get much better.
While Fred was stationed in San Antonio, Emily's sister, Christine, was born. Soon after, Fred was transferred to Virginia Beach, Virginia. He took his family with him.

Emily didn't understand why they had to move. She wanted to stay near her grandparents, especially her grandfather, who doted on her. This other man who had come into their lives seemed to like Chris better than he liked her. She didn't know why, but she knew it hurt.

As she grew older, Emily realized that her father wasn't very nice to her mother, either. The screaming and yelling would begin almost as soon as he came home from work. Most of it went on behind closed doors, but Emily could hear him hit her mother and hear her mother crying. Fred Herrera drank a lot, and when he drank, he liked to hit.

Although he didn't beat Emily, her father could still be cruel. A bright child who was reading second-grade books in preschool, Emily studied hard and tried to be good, hoping her father would appreciate her efforts. But nothing she did was ever good enough. And if she failed at something, his derision was unbearable. So Emily taught herself not to fail.

Gradually she grew to hate her father, even as she desperately wanted his approval. Sometimes he called what he did to her teasing. He would call her "little nigger" because her skin was darker than her sister's. Emily began to think she knew why her father preferred Chris.

Once, her parents returned from a trip to Mexico with a pinata for Emily's upcoming birthday. Her mother hung the pinata in Emily's closet, where she could look at it each morning when she hopped out of bed and counted the days until her party.

One morning, though, she looked in the closet and the pinata was not there. She climbed back into bed and went to sleep, hoping that when she awoke the pinata would reappear. But when she got up again, the closet was still empty.

Emily knew better than to ask her father what had happened to the pinata. He might fly into one of his rages, and her mother would pay the price. Fred had recently broken Velma's nose, and there was no telling what else he might do.

Emily's mother later told her that her father had torn up the pinata after they'd fought over his treatment of Emily. Velma recognized her elder daughter's pain. She saw how Emily's eyes brightened on the rare occasion when Fred said something nice to her. It hurt to watch her sweet, generous daughter try so hard, as though she could fix whatever was wrong with her father.

"Do your best," Velma would console her daughter. "Don't worry what he or anybody else thinks if you're doing your best."

Secretly, Velma was planning to leave her husband and take her daughters with her. When Fred left for work, she studied so that she could pass the tests necessary to join the Air Force.

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