CLEARWATER — At first it was fine. Really.
While her mom was in Mexico, Julia Becerra, then 14, rode the bus home to an empty apartment. She did homework for an hour, then walked to meet her brothers, who were 10 and 8, at their stop.
She got them a snack. Helped them with homework. Started dinner, something her family could afford. Pancakes? Ramen? She made sure her brothers showered. When her dad worked extra shifts, she put the boys to bed.
As the oldest, she was happy to help. Besides, it was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks.
But as bureaucracy at the border kept her mom away, weeks turned to months, then more than a year.
Julia tried to take care of her family, become her mom.
And, in the process, lost herself.
Growing up in Clearwater, Julia thought of herself as an American, but was proud of her Mexican roots. Her dad had become a U.S. citizen in 2007.
She knew her mom had crossed into Texas illegally years ago, to be with her dad.
Victor Becerra and Maria Martinez Rivera had been married 16 years and had four children when they decided Maria would return to Mexico to apply for a green card — so she could get a driver’s license, get a job, stop worrying about being deported.
She brought their youngest son, a baby, and hugged the rest of their kids goodbye at the airport.
That was April 2018, when border patrol officers were detaining thousands of immigrants, enforcing new “zero tolerance” policies.
After visiting the U.S. consulate in Mexico, Maria called, sobbing. Officials had denied her application. They wouldn’t let her back into the U.S.
What if I never see my mom again? Julia worried. What if this limbo I’m living in never ends?
Julia didn’t have her mom through the end of middle school, or for her first year at Gibbs High. In the summer of 2019, the Tampa Bay Times wrote a story about the family.
Victor said, then, that he was worried about Julia, that she was taking on too much.
But he had no idea how lost his daughter was.
She didn’t tell her friends, teachers or counselors that her mom was gone. They might judge her family, she feared. Sometimes she pretended her mom was still here, even to herself.
And she couldn’t tell her parents that, sometimes, she wanted to fall into a void where things wouldn’t be so hard. Her parents had enough on their plates. Her dad was exhausted from working overtime building custom trailers, trying to send extra money to Mexico.
And her mom was so far away.
So every evening on FaceTime, when Julia’s mom asked how she was, Julia said, “Fine. Really. We’re all fine.”
At night, after doing dishes and packing lunches, after her brothers and dad were asleep, Julia retreated to her room.
She prayed for her mom to come home soon, her brothers to feel safe, her dad to get some rest.
She never prayed for herself. She didn’t want to burden God, either.
She started thinking more and more about killing herself, planning how and when.
Then she would think about her brothers.
So she suffered silently, slipping further into darkness.
Until she began to draw.
Julia had always doodled: flowers, beach scenes, dresses. She chose the Pinellas County Center for the Arts for high school because she wanted to be a fashion designer.
In her sophomore year, a teacher asked students to make their art more personal. Instead of observing the world, turn inward.
Julia started with stick figures of her family. Mostly her mom. That was, after all, how she saw herself then.
But as the fall wore on, she began playing with shapes and perspectives, exploring her own emotions.
Everything she couldn’t say, pouring out of her pen.
The early sketches were all ink. Thin lines tangling and colliding, building on each other to form angry, fractured faces. Mostly her own.
Expelling her despair onto those pages, she said, was cathartic. “Making it visual feels like a sense of relief,” she said. “I’m able to say something without having to convey it through words.”
The drawings helped her shed some self-doubt.
She never considered an audience. Finally, she was doing something for herself.
Everything was black and white, at first.
She had been trying to quell her demons, push past her depression. But doubt and agony kept taking over.
“We blind ourselves with guilt rather than forgiveness, preventing ourselves from achieving true happiness within us,” Julia wrote.
In her work, she longs to find “a point of self-satisfaction without being egotistical.”
In late 2019, after the Times’ story about Julia’s family, Congressman Charlie Crist intervened with immigration.
Julia’s mom finally got to come home.
And once Julia no longer had to mother her brothers, when she felt she could finally be a teenager, watercolors began flooding her art, hot reds and cool blues filling in the blank backgrounds, washing over the black lines.
The duality of fire and ice, agony and peace, rejection and acceptance, blending into purple where they meet in the middle.
Two halves of herself coming together to make a whole.
“I wanted to be heard,” Julia said. “I wanted to be seen, and I wanted to be taken seriously.”
Painting let her silence scream.
This spring, Julia was a finalist in visual arts for Pinellas County’s premier high school arts competition: Walker’s Rising Stars. Just before graduation, she had her own solo show at Gibbs High, showcasing a dozen of her paintings.
This last one, the happiest, she called “Serene Fulfillment.” Her eyes are closed, lips curled into a slight smile. And her right hand — the one she draws with — is cradling her heart.
Her works now hang in the apartment she still shares with her family. Her mom had twins, so Julia has five younger siblings to help look after.
But her mom keeps reminding her that she needs to take care of herself. “Her art saved her life,” her mom said through tears. “It’s why we are here together still.”
Julia is learning to drive. She wants to sell her paintings so she can buy a car. Yes, the art is personal. But hopefully, she said, her work will speak to others.
At St. Petersburg College this fall, she’s taking classes in art history and studio art. She hopes to become an art therapist.
For more on Julia’s art
To contact Julia Becerra, or to purchase her art, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741 or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.