By Stephanie Hoops Ventura County Star, Calif.
Estela Flores hit a low in 1987. She had forgotten to eat for several days, and as her body withered away it occurred to her that whatever was wrong ran deeper than her bruises.
She went to a doctor who looked at her with genuine concern and asked, "Why are you here?"
Flores choked trying to answer.
"I was so depressed," she said. "I wanted someone to listen to me."
She was married to a violent, alcoholic man prone to unpredictable rage. She never knew when he might smack her across the face.
Sometimes she would be silently riding beside him in the car. Other times she knew it was coming. The irony was that she was a social worker helping families cope with domestic violence and child abuse.
"Why I was there?" she asked herself. At the time of the abuse, she lived in Tijuana, México, and knew she was no longer in love with her husband. Still, she was waiting for him to change, and leaving didn't seem feasible. Her upbringing had instilled the idea that marriage is for life. Yet the ordeal was taking a toll.
The doctor's visit preceded two years of weekly counseling sessions. Eventually she realized her husband wasn't going to morph into someone new -- she had to. Her counselors convinced her that if she stayed, he'd end up in jail and she'd be in the cemetery. Where would her children be then? They were 3, 4 and 7 at the time.
"So I thought: I have to make my plan," Flores said.
That was 25 years ago.
Last month Flores, 56, drew a standing ovation after talking briefly about herself to 265 people while being honored for her work as a local entrepreneur by Women's Economic Ventures, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit that helps launch and sustain area businesses.
Her story is one of a gentlewoman who suffered but came out victorious, launching a flourishing business, Stel Housecleaning of Newbury Park.
Her company recently incorporated, employs eight people and has enjoyed a 900 percent jump in revenue since 2004.
The Women's Economic Ventures community has been gripped by Flores' history. Brenda Allison, chairwoman of the group's board of directors, gets emotional discussing the adversity Flores overcame before taking on the herculean task of going into business for herself.
"What I like about Estela is that she has this quiet, beautiful strength that is unwavering,"Allison said. "She's one of the quietest people I've met, but her silence screams power."
Fog covered the coast on a recent morning as Flores cleaned a beach vacation home in the Pierpont area of Ventura. As she changed the linens on a bed, she opened up about her life in México and the plan she kept secret from her husband to break free in 1989.
After gaining strength from her counseling sessions, she strategized her escape. She gathered birth certificates, passports and all the important documents she and her children would need to cross the border. Her sister would drive from Santa Barbara to Tijuana to retrieve them when the time came. Her employer allowed her to take an unpaid leave of absence in case she had to come back.
All the while her husband knew nothing of her plot, but Flores was still petrified. Every night, the alarming sound of his car pulling up would send her into a panic, and she could feel her heart thumping in her chest. Yet she forged ahead. Flores would wait for her eldest child to finish the third grade in June before going, but in late May there was a crisis: Her husband tried to rape her in front of her children.
"That convinced me," she said. "I got so scared. I got my kids, got them in the car, and because he was out of control I said,
'I'm going to the store,' and never went back that night."
Once they were out of the house her husband had a loud fit, prompting neighbors to call the police and have him arrested.
Flores' daughter, Ana O'Rourke, 29, remembered the next day.
"I remember coming home to the house and everything was destroyed," she said. "I remember packing up and leaving in a hurry."
Flores stopped to see the authorities and press charges so he'd be kept in jail, buying time to pack and wait for her sister. She filled a 3-gallon black garbage bag with their clothes, left her car at a friend's house and threw the furniture and everything else away.
Once they got to Santa Barbara, she and her children initially stayed with her sister in a one-bedroom apartment, which was crowded because her sister had a husband and two children of her own. But within six months, Flores was able to lease her own place. A year later, she started working for herself, cleaning houses in Ventura County.
She later heard from friends in Mexico that her husband was looking for her and wanted to kill her. He made a few attempts to reconcile with her, even as his violent behavior continued. He once found her with her father, whom he beat, sending him to the hospital. She got a restraining order. Her communication with him ended in 1990.
He died two years ago. He had a brain tumor, and in an odd twist of fate, Flores ended up at his funeral because her daughter wanted to say goodbye as he lay dying and asked her to come.
Flores agreed to accompany O'Rourke to Tijuana but not to see him. However he was dead before O'Rourke could see him so the two went to his funeral instead.
"Now he's gone," Flores said. "No more fear. Nothing."
Today Flores lives in Newbury Park and is engaged to a Web developer whom she met salsa dancing.
"He's wonderful," she said. "It took me awhile to see that there are still good men in the world."
Taking a cue from her mother, O'Rourke started her own green cleaning business in Hawaii. She said she hopes other women take inspiration from her mom "just to persevere and to keep trying. You will get there with hard work. It's possible. Seeing her do it, I can tell it's possible."