So how did I go from Susie the jock to Glamour Girl? First, let me start at the beginning and tell you a little bit about where I came from.
I grew up in Methuen, Massachusetts, which is about thirty miles north of Boston. I lived with my mom and two sisters in a part of town that you could say was “on the wrong side of the tracks.” It wasn't a hard-core ghetto, but there were certainly gangs, violence, and plenty of drug dealing happening right on my street. When I got into middle and highschool, several of my friends went down the wrong path, joining gangs, drinking and doing drugs. A few even got pregnant by the time we got to sophomore year!
My homelife was also pretty intense. My father was either totally abusive toward us or totally absent from our lives. He was never interested in playing with us or helping us with homework or doing the normal things Dads do. He stayed out at the local sports bar playing dominos until two a.m., stumbling home drunk with lipstick on his collar from women who weren't my mother. Obviously, he was cheating. When he was home, he “disciplined” us, hitting my sisters and me with his belt, which often left welts on our thighs where it struck. We were all afraid of him and what he might do next.
Once I was playing hide-and-go-seek with the neighborhood kids—a bunch of girls and boys. My dad freaked out and yelled for me to come into the house. Once I was inside, he gripped me by the shoulders—hard—and said, “Las ninas no juegan con ninos!… Little girls don't play with boys!” I remember looking at him in confusion, thinking, "In school we all play together. How is this different?" But I couldn't tell him that—I was too afraid of how he'd react. I was sent to my room for the rest of the day for being “bad.” Thinking back about that now, I get really angry because I was just being a normal kid and wasn't being “bad.” at all.
Another time, I remember waking up to the sound of my parents yelling. I was hoping maybe I was having a nightmare, but—nope—it was all too real. I slowly opened the bedroom door a crack and peered into the living room. My mom was red in the face, crying, and asking Dad where he'd been all night. My father grabbed my mom's throat and shook her to the ground, trying to get her to be quiet. It was awful. All she wanted was for her husband to stop cheating on her and come home at a decent hour to be with his family. Dad stomped out of our apartment that night, leaving my mom crying in a heap on the living room floor. I ran out of my bedroom to see if I could help her. She had me call the police to report my dad because her English was poor. So there I was, a five-year-old girl on the phone with the Methuen police station trying to explain what my dad had done.
Even though my childhood was less than ideal, all the stuff that happened to me made me a really strong person. I knew I wanted more from life than what I saw around me. And even though my dad wasn't around, I felt lucky that my mom and grandmother were. They were my pillars—my biggest fans, always supporting everything I wanted to do. They also taught me self-discipline, how to set boundaries, and the importance of trying to accomplish things, even though they might seem impossible. It was through their example that I created four keys that have helped me get through good times and tough times by relying on myself.
My grandmother taught me how to stay true to my principles in the face of peer, media, or even family pressures. She grew up very poor in Puerto Rico and had to learn to trust her own instincts. She trained me to trust mine. My mother taught me how to create strong bonds with friends and family so I'd always have a support system of people to turn to, no matter how difficult my situation might be. After my father left, my mom brought my grandmother to live with us, and we were surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, whom my sisters and I could go to at any time.
My mother's resilience in the face of my father abandoning our family showed me that even if certain parts of my life weren't perfect, I had the power to control my destiny. She took two—and sometimes three—jobs to support us. Because of her, I knew anything I wanted to accomplish, whether it was taking charge of my own health or setting goals and achieving success, was possible.
I always thought that someday I'd write a book, but I wasn't sure exactly what I would write about. I knew I wanted to tell my story and encourage other young women to take control of their lives and follow their dreams, just like I did. But it wasn't until 2003, when I won Miss USA, that I looked back over my life and thought, “Wow! How did I do this? How did I get here?” I had accomplished every giant goal that I ever set in my life—yet I knew there was still much more for me to accomplish. I realized how amazing my achievements were and started to consider what led me to this success.
Part of my job as Miss USA required going to public-speaking engagements, so I often spoke at high schools, conventions, and other events. Often I'd speak to troubled kids from my own neighborhood. That was always very rewarding because I could totally relate to what they were going through—I knew because I'd been there. Usually they had no idea that I had once been one of them, because I'd be onstage wearing the Miss USA sash and tiara. The kids were always shocked when I told them that I had graduated from the same schools they went to and lived in the same neighborhoods as they did. Most of them were Latinos, like me, so they beamed with pride when I told them that I was only the third Latina EVER to win Miss USA. I wanted them to know that if I could achieve my goals, they could do it, too. I loved sharing my story with them, hopefully inspiring them to try to achieve anything their hearts desired.