“One time, when I was younger, I asked my mom if I wasn’t pretty,” said Consuelo Salas. “My mom asked, ‘What? Why?’ And I said, ‘Because everybody stares at Angelica. Is she prettier than me?’ My mom didn’t know what to say.”
Consuelo was too young to understand at the time that the reason people stared at her sister, Angelica, was not in admiration of her beauty, but rather in curious awe – the way that most people stare at an anomaly. “Pretty” was not the condition they were staring at, it was Down Syndrome.
For the Salas family, their daughter Angelica has been a total blessing. Angelica turned 24 this year and celebrated in their Northeast El Paso home with family and, to our pleasure, the Bean Juice Dispatches.
No parent is ever prepared for the news that their child has Down Syndrome (or Down’s Syndrome, as it is named after British physician John Langdon Down). For many, it is something that is not detectable before birth. “I thought that this was a devastating event in our lives,” said Armando Salas, Angelica’s father. “I thought it wasn’t necessarily a punishment, but a message of some sort. That’s what I couldn’t figure out: Why us? In coming to accepting Angelica and her condition, there was some kind of transformation in my faith.”
“My thought at the beginning was that it was going to be something very different than how Angelica is now,” he continued. “I expected her to be institutionalized.”
“I remember when he said at the hospital that she was going to be institutionalized and I said, ‘Not our daughter,'” recalled Norma Salas, Angelica’s mother.
And that fighting spirit was what would drive the couple through the journey of their lives.
For Armando, there was the necessary transition from initial shock of the news to full-fledged fatherhood. With help from various community organizations like El Paso Mental Health and Mental Retardation, he was able to overcome. “Not only did they train Angelica, they trained us parents as well,” he said. “There was a lot of parental support and education about what this whole condition was and how it can manifest itself and how you can work with your child. They had a separate fathers’ group, which, for me, was really helpful. I was able to process a lot of feelings and stuff like that. It was a very empowering process that we went through.”
Armando had to fight through a lot of confusing emotions in order to fully come into acceptance and advocacy of Angelica. He shared a particularly poignant moment of realization of his progress: “At around the age of four or five-years-old when Angelica had her speech together, when she was able to put sentences together and stuff like that, we were playing around and being affectionate with each other and she stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Dad, when I was a baby, why were you angry with me?’ She was able to tell me that… and I was blown away.”
When Angelica reached the milestone of three-years-old, Norma and Armando had to take on a new role in Angelica’s life. Not only did they have to be parents, but now, for their daughter’s education, they had to be advocates.
“One time she was eating here at home, she was just gobbling it up,” said Norma. “And I thought that that wasn’t normal behavior. I decided to look into that.” This led to a series of undercover investigations that would put this team of journalists to shame.
“They would pick her up at 06:50 here at the house,” she began. “She would arrive at the school at 08:20. The principal was asking me if she was getting enough sleep at night. She would get to school all sleepy. That’s when I decided that there was something going on here. So, one time when the bus arrived, I was going to ride the bus because I wanted to see the route. The busdriver would not allow me to get on the bus. And I said, ‘I am going to get on the bus. This is my child! I will get on this bus.’ So I got on, and the busdriver radioed the dispatch and she refused to move. The dispatch said to take the kids to school. That’s when I found out that they picked up middle school kids, which is against the law. She was being rushed to eat breakfast [at school] to get to class at 8:20. School began at 08:10…”
“So she was dropped off at school, and I was there, they didn’t know I was there. The comment they were making about the students was ‘That’s okay if they get to class late, they’re not going to learn anyway.’ That’s when I went into the cafeteria and said ‘It stops right here. My child is not going to be in this environment, she’s going to be with the regular kids and get a regular education. She will learn and she has the right to learn.’ I had to do this behind the scenes. If not, this would have gone unrecognized.”
Inclusion – the condition of putting special needs kids in the least restrictive setting in relation to their peers – was hard fought as well. Typically, there is the path of “mainstreaming” special needs kids, as Norma explained: “What I noticed with mainstreaming is that, yes, she was allowed to eat lunch, but she had to sit at that table.” Parents of special needs kids attend what are called Admission Review and Dismissal (ARD) meetings where parents, teachers, counselors and other assorted staff come to decide an Individual Education Program for every child. The Salases have had the longest ARD meeting in El Paso history, clocking in at a whopping 12 hours!
Constant fighting for Angelica to be treated as someone with abilities, as opposed to being treated as someone solely “disabled” was hard. But her life has come to prove that even Down Syndrome patients can run with the best of them.
Attending Jefferson High School, she was on their swim team – their actual swim team, not a special education swim team. She won gold medals, even beating their rival Bowie High School. She’s dabbled in hip-hop dance, bowling, Folklorico and even Kendo. “Whatever her interests are, we try to guide her that way,” Armando said. “We don’t try and limit her in any way. Because of that, we’ve been able to do some pretty neat things.” Things like travel around Texas for swim meets and even for the Special Olympics where she performed with the Folklorico group from St. Pius.
Perhaps one of her greatest achievements is attending college at Eastern New Mexico University, garnering a certificate in Animal Care in a special needs program. “I’m just proud of her willingness to want to learn and her outcome,” said Norma. “It was an honor for me to know to be told that she was college material.”
Angelica currently works at Northeast Veterinary Clinic.
When she turns 30, she wants to get her own apartment. “I’m the youngest. I’m the baby of my family,” Angelica said. “They don’t stop calling me ‘baby.’ They still call me that! My dad still calls me ‘little girl.’ He needs to stop saying that. I’m not his little girl anymore, I’m 24, he needs to face it!” The whole family laughed in the humor of the delivery of her sentiment.
“I had a lot of faith in God,” Norma said. “And I say that He sent her not for us to teach her, but for her to teach us. And everyday, we learn something new.”