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To Save Him, One Mom Told Her Son, 'Leave, And Do Not Look Back'

Roberto Olivera and his wife, Debra, on a recent visit to StoryCorps in Los Angeles.
Roberto Olivera and his wife, Debra, on a recent visit to StoryCorps in Los Angeles.

Roberto Olivera grew up just outside Los Angeles in the 1950s. His youth was far from idyllic.

"My stepfather was a cruel man to my mother, my sister and I, and everyone in the family," Olivera, 64, told his wife, Debra, on a visit with StoryCorps in LA. "The beatings? Humiliations? I remember them every day."

His mother, Amelia Castro, a tall woman with "radiant, light brown eyes," ensured he got a good education in spite of his stepfather's influence. "She made sure I read; she made sure I wrote," Olivera says — and as he struggled against the man, Olivera says that the classroom became a kind of refuge for him.

Then, one day Olivera's counselor called him into the office to recommend a college prep program over the summer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. When Olivera demurred, citing his stepfather for a potent obstacle, the counselor persisted.

Even the director of the actual college prep program stepped in, asking to speak with Olivera's stepfather.

"It was not a very pleasant conversation," Olivera recalls. His stepfather's answer was a simple one: "No way, he's not going anywhere."

Shortly afterward, Olivera was officially admitted to the university. Asleep that night on a cot in the kitchen, where he normally slept, Olivera was wakened by his mother. It was about midnight.

"In the quiet, I could hear the match and my mom lit a cigarette. She was sitting in the kitchen in her bathrobe."

His mother spoke with the room still shrouded in darkness. She commanded him: "I've packed the suitcase. It's in the garage. Next Saturday, leave, and do not look back. Go."

So he left.

"And, you know, I could never go back," he says. "The hostility was unbelievable. I don't think I saw anyone in the family for maybe two years. But I thought of her constantly. I left her with that cruel man. The guilt with that still bothers me today."

Years later, though, when he graduated with the class of 1977 from the University of Southern California's law school, Olivera's mom was there — and he says you should've seen her smile.

When he came down from the stage, she whispered to him, "The applause for you was louder than for anybody in the room."

Olivera's mother, Amelia Castro, and her husband eventually separated, and she died nearly 20 years ago at age 79.

"And I can look back today, and I know she believed I had a place on the other side," Olivera says. "Where would I be if it wasn't for her?"

Produced forMorning Edition by Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorpsis a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, atStoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.