Finding Drive

An aspiring journalist avoids a car accident only to hit a roadblock on her route to success.

WRITTEN by Cynthia Pleitez

Photos by Yunuen Bonaparte

"I  can  do  this.  I  can  do  this."

I repeated this phrase in my head as my hands clenched the steering wheel so tightly that each groove melted into my skin. My heart accelerated, my temperature rose and cold drops of sweat dripped down my forehead.

 

My hands trembled uncontrollably as theyungripped the very thing that they could not muster the strength to maneuver. I sobbed hysterically ina shopping center parking lot. I was two blocks from Cal State Fullerton and driving 20 miles home had become an odyssey.

 

In that moment nothing else existed besides the breath that entered and exited my lungs.

Driving 20 miles home had become an odyssey.

I was 21 years old and my junior year of college was going to be my personal “best year ever.” I found an online outlet for unapologetically vanguard views. I expressed those views in articles like “I am not a Mexican” and “Ay Dios Mío I Don’t Want to Get Married” in an attempt to bring new perspectives to traditional Latino culture. The controversy was worth the effort when Facebook messages from strangers across the country flooded my inbox, thanking me for finally writing what they had been too embarrassed or afraid to say. Although I had not yet taken a journalism class, my research hours as an American Studies major danced with my creative spirits and cultural experiences in my articles.

 

I came across Emanuel Pleitez, a politician whose organizational leadership skills and nonprofit involvement I admired. I shared my undergraduate research papers on racial theory, women’s roles in America and romantic poetry with him. I was offered a position as a new media fellow for the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s Latinos on the Fast Track (LOFT), a  social network designed to connect young leaders with professional positions. I spent an entire summer blogging. I was ready to take over the world.

 

The Latino media scene was emerging, but in many ways it followed the same stereotypes that existed for years. I wanted to ad-vocate for more enlightening and culturally relevant content that would appeal to Latino audiences. I studied American history thoroughly, but retained the cultural perspective of a proud, first-generation American. My parents were born in El Salvador and it was this cultural heritage that brought me closer to my American identity.

 

I came across Being Latino Online Magazine, a new media venture, and I knew I was the one they needed to bring a fresh perspective. I shared my research papers and poetry with its editors. It was all I had, but it was enough. I was in. I’ll never forget that first email from them—“Due to your lack of experience, we will allow you to contribute during a probationary period.”

 

My probationary period ended shortly after my first article generated thousands of hits on Facebook and was shared on Fox News Latino. When it was time for my political mentor, Emanuel, to nominate a young innovator for the White House Champions of Change Award, he nominated me—and I was chosen. The same girl who, just six months earlier, had nothing but poems and research papers was being invited to a roundtable discussion with other “champions” at the White I was facing oncoming traffic and my car had come to a complete stop.House. I was becoming the person I’d always wanted to be while contributing to the Latino media scene and no one would stop me. Except myself.

 

Class that day started at 11 a.m., so traffic on the freeway was light. I dressed in black and grabbed all the necessities: cash, cell phone, keys, backpack and a soft, dark-spotted banana.

 

At 10:20 a.m. I tossed my backpack in my 1996 Honda Accord and placed the banana on the passenger seat. I turned on the radio and drove off. Traffic was light until the point where the 10 and 57 freeways meet, as cars fought for space as they merged from one lane to the next.

 

My fingertips reached for the car stereo to find the Power 106 station and, when I glanced back up, a car was merging into my spot in the lane.

 

I swerved to the right and dodged the vehicle.

 

I avoided the possible accident, but at 70 mph that swerve caused my car to spin 180 degrees.

 

Screeching tires and blaring horns drowned out all other sounds.

 

I was facing oncoming traffic and my car was at a complete stop.

 

Cars flew by.

 

I watched the driver who almost hit me as a sudden, breathless shock swept across her thin face. Another driver’s jaw dropped in the lane next to her.

 

Immediate fear consumed me as I processed multiple movements.

 

The time I spent facing oncoming traffic felt like an eternity. I realized that my car was at a complete stop and I pressed the gas pedal.

 

Nothing.

 

 I turned the engine off and on and pressed the gas pedal again.

 

Still nothing.

 

At this point, my desperation quickly turned into acceptance.

 

Well, this is how I’m going to die. She’s going to hit me, then other cars will hit me, and I’m going to die. The ambulance will go through my phone, call my brother and tell him what happened. I’m going to die.

 

I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t scared. I was ready for death. Then I came to my senses.

 

I can’t die like this!

I turned the key again and pressed the gas one last time. Still nothing. I looked down and realized that my car was in neutral.

 

I shifted the gear to drive and slammed my foot on the gas pedal. My car quickly accelerated as I desperately maneuvered through a U-turn.

 

I’m still not sure how I made it to campus. All I remember after making that U-turn was that my hands felt weak and loose like freshly cooked spaghetti. I don’t remember what classes I was enrolled in, let alone where I was driving that day.

 

Somehow I gathered the courage to drive to an empty parking lot after school. Crying in that lot was one of the loneliest and most desperate points of my life.

 

I can’t remember how I drove home or what was on my mind. I’m not sure what became of that dark-spotted banana, either.

 

Everything changed after that day. I stopped attending classes because I was too scared to drive and too embarrassed to admit what happened. Eventually, even weight gain became a method to disassociate with my past self.

 

I never went to a counselor or spoke to anyone about it. The trauma was enough to make me avoid driving to school, which caused me to fail all of my classes. II stopped attending classes because I was too scared to drive and too embarrassed to admit what happened. was put on academic probation and then disenrolled from the university. Due to a random clerical error, I never went to the White House because I didn’t receive my follow-up phone call. More bad luck.

 

After petitioning to the university, I was readmitted to Cal State Fullerton. I would take

a class here and there and pretend I wasn’t afraid of driving. Even though I was progressing with my academic efforts, I still wanted to escape my identity as a writer and everything that reminded me of who I did not become.

 

It wasn’t until I began to accept that I had a problem that I was able to overcome the struggle. Like a baby crawling before walking, I started taking small steps by driving to local places. I pushed my fears to the forefront of my life and dealt with them.

 

I tried to find new accomplishments to compensate for the fact that I didn’t go to the White House. I joined grassroots campaigns, published features in philanthropic magazines and secured television coverage for The American Heart Association as an intern, but I never returned to the character of that 21-year-old media mogul student.

 

Until now.

 

In 2013, I took on an AmeriCorps fellowship for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. I coordinated my own teen literacy program to serve over 1,000 students, tackling a responsibilitythat  required me to drive 44 miles to and from my house each day. It was during this time I became determined to finish what I started. I enrolled in full-time courses in fall 2014.

 

I am now four years older than I was when I flunked out of my classes. I will travel to Valencia, Spain this summer with a team of award-winning journalists to prove that who I wanted to become still exists. I am the public relations assistant for the Orange County and Inland Empire Small Business Development Center, using my writing skills to produce marketing and public relations materials for statewide efforts.

 

I’m not nervous. I’m not scared. I’m ready for life. I’m back in the driver’s seat of my career and I drive like my life depends on it, because it does.