RECKLESS ABANDONMENT

SHE WAS ROBBED OF HER HEARING AT BIRTH. SHE WAS ROBBED OF A HOME LIFE BY AN INDEFFERENT MOTHER. SHE WA ROBBED OF HER VIRGINITY AT AGE 12, BECOMING A MOTHER AT AGE 14. AND DESPITE CLEAR EVIDENCE OF ABUSE, IT TOOK THE SYSTEM YEARS TO COME TO HER AID.

The fruits of such parental labors may be plentiful, such as the recent example of Heather Whitestone, the hearing-impaired Miss America whose story touched even those who scoff at beauty pageants.

But some parents give up when they learn their child is deaf, providing little more than sustenance and an occasional hug.

The milieu in which Benita Venegas grew up was far worse than that. Until recently, the strides she'd make were overwhelmed by the dangers she routinely had to face.

As a little girl, Benita says, she noted how people moved their lips as they communicated. The concept of sound hit her one day like a thunderbolt, and she realized she was different.

"It didn't kill me not to hear," Benita says. "What got me is when people would stare at me and make fun of me. Give me a break."

Benita's mother was a hotel maid whose relationship with the father of her two oldest children--Maria and Benita--ended when Benita was young. For a time, Amelia Fernandez and her daughters were forced to live out of cars and in friends' backyards. Some nights, Benita would cry herself to sleep on an empty stomach.

Food and lodging weren't Benita's only concerns. She says family friends sexually molested her as a child. Sadly, this experience is commonplace for deaf children. Studies show that deaf children are abused more often than hearing children, and the abusers are almost exclusively family members or friends.

(New Times tried unsuccessfully to contact Amelia Fernandez, who now resides near Sacramento with her two youngest children and oldest daughter, Maria.)

In the mid-1980s, Benita's mother hooked up with Tony Cebreros, and they had two daughters of their own together.

But Cebreros did not fill the paternal role Benita needed badly. He drank often and excessively, court records show, though his substance of choice was cocaine.

In September 1988, Amelia Fernandez ordered Cebreros out of their Phoenix home after a drunken brawl. Police reports show he grabbed Benita's sister, Maria, by the hair and threatened to kill the family with a kitchen knife.

Although Cebreros later pleaded guilty to a domestic-violence charge, Fernandez told a judge she intended to let him return home.

Less than a year later, Phoenix police arrested Cebreros on possession-of-cocaine charges. He pleaded guilty and, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service records, was deported to his native Mexico in March 1990.

But Cebreros' departure didn't ease the tensions at home. When she was about 10, Benita says, she struck back at her mother for the first time.

"She would just hit me a lot for nothing," Benita recalls. "One day, I pushed her back into a wall and ran into the street. I didn't know what to do."

Benita was a wild child, but the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf became a refuge from turbulence. She had entered PDSD when she was about 3. She formally learned American Sign Language, mixing it with signs she'd devised on her own.

Her sister Maria--a hearing person--also took ASL lessons for a time to communicate better with Benita. But their mother learned only so-called "dog signs"--sit, eat, come.

Despite her mercurial nature, Benita has always been outgoing and likable. Several of her PDSD teachers took a special interest in the girl.

But away from school, Benita remained at the mercy of those around her.
In late 1990, she moved with her mother and sisters to the Manhassett Apartments, on North 32nd Street near East Indian School. The low-rent apartments house about 90 people, including many Mexican ‚migr‚s.

Rafael Machuca, then 19, already was living there. The dark-haired deaf girl with the pretty face and shy smile caught his eye.

She was 12 at the time.

Benita Venegas quickly became infatuated with Rafael. She was thrilled that a nice-looking guy, a man, was interested in her instead of a hearing girl.

She taught Rafael a few signs, including the one for "I love you." She nicknamed him "Fy," a sound she could make.

Her mom warned her not to have sex with Rafael, Benita says, but did nothing to head off the relationship. To the contrary, she allowed Benita to go with Rafael on unsupervised "dates."

Benita had her first menstrual period shortly before her 13th birthday, which is in February. Soon after that, she and Rafael had sexual intercourse for the first time.

It wasn't a forcible rape, although it clearly was against the law. Rafael had groomed his target well, and Benita hardly resisted.

"I was just like a doggy, do what he wanted," Benita says. "We were on a playground and he pulled down my pants. I was wearing my favorite jeans. He'd been drinking. He did it to me like married people do, but I was a virgin and it hurt. I kept screaming, but nobody heard."

Later that day, she says, Rafael took her into a vacant building nearby. In sign language, she calls it "the bird house," because of how it looked to her. They again had intercourse.

"This time there was blood everywhere," she says. "I didn't tell my mother or anyone what happened. I kept it to myself."

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