When Love Wins: How Human Trafficking Survivor Elisia Lopez Reunited with Son Nahko Bear

human trafficking

A human trafficking survivor and her firstborn found each other and made peace with their painful past, inspiring the revolutionary music of Nahko Bear.

After a ridiculous number of rings, she picks up.

“Elisia,” I say, exasperated. “Sis! Are you ready to do this interview?

“Hang on, Sis.” I just saw my client on the street and I gotta give him this lighter. Don’t ask.” She puts me on hold. Again.

I do know not to ask. We call each other sister, a title given to a close-knit circle of survivors of human trafficking. Whatever she’s doing, it’s important: she’s helping someone. I know because she regularly provides food, blankets, friendship and clinical counseling from her office at Central City Concern for Portland’s abused and downtrodden.

I also know she has a powerful story. Sold by her mother at 12, she later gave up her firstborn for adoption. Today many find inspiration from her son, Nahko Bear, water protector and front man for Nahko & Medicine for the People. This is her journey.

elisia3yearsoldElisia at three years old with her parents. Courtesy of Elisia Lopez.

Feliza Helena Angcaya (Elisia Lopez) was born in San Diego, the last of 14 children born to Teresa Reed (Apache, Cherokee, Scottish and Irish) and Manuel Mendiola (Guamanian and Puerto Rican). From the age of about five, she understood why strange men came over to sleep with her mother. On her 13th birthday, she was initiated into that hellacious world of intergenerational trauma.

In her own words:

human traffickingElisia at 12, the year she was sold to Alvin for marriage. Courtesy of Elisia Lopez.

I thought Mom was having a birthday party for me at the beach, but it was more like everyone from the bar showed up. She told me to go with her friend Alvin to get more ice. The realization crashed in, and I couldn’t breathe. I was a virgin and knew what Mom had done.

We walked for the longest time along the sand. The next thing I remember is waking up bloody and in terrible pain. I walked back to the party and found everyone passed-out drunk. I woke Mom and told her something had happened. She told me I needed to shower. That was it.

After that, Mom invited Alvin over constantly. I would panic and lock myself in the bathroom. I fought him every time, but he always caught me, and…well, I know now it was rape. That was how I became pregnant with my first son, Nahko.

By the time I was seven months along, we’d moved to Portland. I was 14 and in 9th grade. There were complications, and I gave birth via C-section two months early.

Elisia at 14 with two-week-old Joel (Nahko). Courtesy of Elisia Lopez.

I named him Joel, and even though I struggled to deal with the violence of his father, I loved him. I tried hard to take care of him, but I didn’t have the resources or support. I couldn’t go to school, and the trauma of the sexual abuse was too much.

After nine months, I broke. I saw no other way out but to die, so in my child mind, I decided to hang myself. But just as I had the rope around my neck in the basement, the phone rang. A social worker had found a family to adopt Nahko. I look back on that moment now and see the intervention of my ancestors — how that exact moment shifted the life course both for me and for Nahko.

I told the social worker, “I just want to spend one last night with him.” I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I wanted to give him a good life, to save him from what I knew life would be for him otherwise. And as much as it broke my heart, I knew allowing another family to raise him was the only way.

My life would not get better. I passed through 10 to 15 different foster homes and was abused in some. I was resentful, full of anger. I hung out on the streets and in youth detention centers, and it didn’t take long for a pimp to stake his claim on me.

Like many women and girls trafficked for sex, I did jail time for solicitation/prostitution but, of course, never ratted on my pimp. Back then I knew not to trust anybody. I knew many “upstanding” and “good” people were buying me for sex. I hated my pimp, but he told me he was taking care of me, and I believed him.

At 16 I became pregnant with my daughter Mimi. My pimp was so furious he stalked and beat me with a baseball bat. I was terrified. I begged the cops to protect me, but they couldn’t. He was eventually arrested for unrelated crimes.

I wanted to keep Mimi. I couldn’t bear losing another child.

Mom babysat while I went to “work.” Like she taught me, I walked the track on 82nd and Union in Portland. For years this was my life. I gave birth to Kaleena at 18 and Rique at 20 and always, with Mom’s help, went back out on the street.

So there I was, three babies and my mom, who was now older and disabled. I had to put a roof over their heads, put food on the table. I found a bar to work from and continued the cycle of trauma introduced to me by my mom — I became her.

Again my ancestors stepped in. One night this guy, Jose, saw me walking the track. He’d just moved here and didn’t know where he was or what I was doing. When he asked me out on a “real” date, I was shocked. I didn’t believe he liked me for me until he walked me to my door after the date and shook my hand in parting.

Soon we became friends, then roommates. When he asked me to marry him, I said, “Are you nuts? You wouldn’t want to marry me.”

He said, “I love you and your kids, so why not?”

It took a while. I didn’t want my kids to be hurt again. One day I watched him sitting on the floor playing Chutes & Ladders with my kids and I thought, “Wow. So this is what a normal life is supposed to look like.” Finally I said yes, and in 1995 and I was officially off the streets.

human traffickingElisia and husband Jose. Courtesy of Elisia Lopez.

Marriage gave me the support I needed to walk a different path. My ancestors knew that.

In 1998 we had Jose Jr.

Doors began to open. I got my GED and a job at the Department of Human Services. I was doing my best to find self-worth. Another door appeared, and I was accepted into a two-year mental health human service program.

It was in those years that I began to understand my own story, my mother’s mental illness and our family’s intergenerational abuse. I’d struggled for years with paralyzing anxiety, fear and depression. But now I felt like someone had put me under a hot lamp that caused the years of terrible memories to come bubbling to the surface. When I graduated, I thought, “I’m done with education.”

But my therapist encouraged me to go further and gave me strength to believe in myself. I enrolled in Concordia University’s social work program. There, I became exposed to theories like systems of oppression, social learning and psychosocial development as well as social work practice models around cognitive behavioral therapy and crisis intervention.

After receiving my bachelor’s in social work, to the surprise of my family and myself, I realized I wasn’t done. I graduated with my master’s in social work from Portland State University in 2015. Education was truth to me. It opened my mind and my heart. It gave me the language I needed to unpack my dysfunctional past and the tools to heal and break my traumatic familial patterns.

human traffickingNahko performing with his band. Photo by Evoke Emotion Photography.

In 2006 Elisia’s firstborn, Nahko, came back into her life via the website adoption.com. He shared some of that journey with me:

My first memory of my mom was getting a present from her when I was about five. I didn’t know I was adopted then. I thought maybe I had a “mom” who was like an auntie or something. Nobody really mentioned her to me again until I was about 17. I always understood that she just couldn’t take care of me. When I was 18, old enough to consent, I was given letters my mom had written me from when I was nine months to five years old. They were sweet and endearing. They said things like “I hope you’re not mad at me” and “Come find me one day.” It moved me. I wanted to see her, but I was nervous and wondered if she was still struggling or hurting from her past. I mean, I knew something like abuse had happened to her but didn’t really know what trafficking was then.

I knew my grandmother was not mentally stable. Still, I have a lot of empathy for her struggle in that era. It was rough to be a native woman then…still is. She was denied her heritage and given cyclical abuse to pass down to her children instead. It’s what she got, too, and that is sad. She suffered. And me, as a child of something that was, well, not consensual and guided by the hands of my grandmother… I have to accept it. It was wrong, but also I wouldn’t be here right now if it didn’t happen either. There is spirit in that. My grandmother’s life was a battle, and she passed away never understanding peace. I hope she found it in the afterlife.

I showed up at Mom’s house Christmas 2007 and stayed a month. I focused on spending time with my mom and building relationships with my brothers and sisters. I don’t harbor any resentment toward my mom — I never have. It was destiny. When I was younger, I didn’t understand the abuse from my grandmother. My anger centered on my dad. I had come up with all these crazy, malicious ways that I was going to find him, be some kind of karma to him. Instead my mom helped me process closure around him, and I ended up forgiving him. She gave me that enormous gift.

There’s so much strength in my mom’s story. There’s so much of an example of being able to come from where she did and turn her life around and forgive. She is inspiring and definitely has inspired me and my music. She is one of the strongest women I know. Her resilience, her positivity, is a beacon to many people — people search for a light in her face. It gives them hope. We are mother and son again, and we like each other. To me, she is MOM.

human traffickingCourtesy of Elisia Lopez.

I look at Elisia’s face as this video chat interview draws to a close. She’s starting to look weary from traveling through so many years of pain, and I ask for her closing thoughts:

Back when I was 12, there was no preventative or after-care treatment for survivors of human trafficking. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and it does my heart good to be a survivor leader helping to make that change today. My greatest strengths are the closeness I have with my survivor sisters and, honestly, my husband. They always told me, “I believe in you. I think you can do this. You are worthy.” My proudest moment was walking across the stage to receive my master’s. I was able to say, “Fuck everyone who said I wasn’t worth it. I did this. Not my body — me.”

human traffickingCourtesy of Elisia Lopez.

Today I am so much different. I believe in the philosophy of love, which is quite a miracle if you think about it. I practice forgiveness — of others and of myself — and have humbly asked my children to forgive me, just as I’ve worked to forgive my own mother. I can see today that it wasn’t my mom who raised me; it was her mental illness that ran the house. I believe my ancestors guided me to this realization. I needed to understand her as a human being, so I could have compassion, forgive and love her, as she was never able to show me. I always say, “Don’t judge it until you can understand it.”

Nahko lovingly calls his mother a BAB (Bad Ass Bitch), and she can be — on the outside. He tells me how impressed he is as he watches her embrace his band and the many fans and social justice activists drawn to his powerful music. But what I also see is the heart of a young girl, a woman, a sister, a mother who is on a long journey to heal from the betrayal of her own sacred mother and reconcile the scattered pieces of her life into humanity again. Love wins. end

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