CARROLLWOOD — Jacqueline Ventura is just two months away from that special birthday when a girl starts to wear high heels and dance with boys, when her family starts to call her a senorita.
The calendar says she's almost 15. But in her mind, she's back at age 11, in a car chase in her native El Salvador amid a flurry of bullets.
Her mom is in the driver's seat, crying. She didn't comply with the militants' demands, so now they want Jackie.
The little girl knows what the men with guns can do. Her homeland is overrun with gangs that contribute to one of the world's highest murder rates.
She has seen the bodies in the street.
“Mami," she asks her mother, "are we going to die?"
• • •
Jackie has something to say, but she wants no one else to hear. So she whispers it into her social worker's ear.
She wants to live at a hospital, she tells Cindy Mendez. She wants her head healed.
Soon after Jackie's family fled El Salvador, the 12-year-old began exhibiting strange behaviors at home in Carrollwood.
She jumped and clapped and talked to the wall. She scratched her legs nervously and let no one touch her. She thought her school bus drivers were kidnappers. At the supermarket, she saw meat and thought of blood.
Doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder with psychotic features. Her mother put her in a school for emotionally disabled children. The medications made her gain 40 pounds.
Her mother doesn't work because Jackie requires her full attention. Refugee organizations help pay the bills in a home they share with seven relatives.
Jackie fears almost everyone. She refuses to talk about El Salvador.
Any time she hears bachata music, the kind she once loved, she covers her ears. And when she catches her mother looking at photos, she tells her to put them away.
• • •
The little girl in the photos is dancing and smiling. She's reciting a speech at school and clapping over a birthday cake at home. She loves the camera.
"Take my picture," Lastenia Marroquin remembers her daughter saying. "I want to be a model."
Jackie didn't fear strangers back then — not until a woman she didn't know tried to pick her up from school. The kidnapping attempt failed, but that's when the extortion began.
Marroquin was a supporter of the reigning political party, and radicals seeking to overthrow it knew she had access to money. They wanted to buy guns, they told her.
They said Jackie was too pretty to die.
Marroquin moved into another home. She put Jackie in a new school. But after dismissal one afternoon, the mother noticed they were being followed. This time, the kidnappers shot.
The mother cooperated with police in an undercover operation to capture the men making the threats. But after risking her life, a judge let the men go.
The mother and daughter fled. They left everything behind.
• • •
Hair unkempt, clothes mismatched, Jackie is restless. She paces her tiny living room, making demands of her mother.
"Feed me," she says in Spanish. A little while later, she says, "Leave me alone."
She's angry with her mom, she tells her social worker, for making her do things she doesn't want to do.
Like dress herself in the morning.
And attend a school where she doesn't know how to make friends.
And attempt to function in an unsafe world whose language she doesn't understand.
Jackie stops her pacing and stands in front of the fuzzy television, her arms stretched out for her mother. "Hug me," she says.
Jackie knows that her birthday is coming up. The closer it gets, the further she is from age 11, and the more little victories she accumulates.
She's able to sit still for longer now. To trust her therapists.
To think about what it would feel like to be a senorita.
Her social worker asks if she has a wish for her 15th birthday.
A dress, she whispers. A pink one.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.