(Photo above by Debbie Williams)
How Maria Valdez transformed the pain of losing her sons to violence into a resolve for peace.
Life in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s felt like a war zone. Every day, I would hear the echoes of gunshots and police helicopters flying overhead. Every day, I would see mothers grieving over their children.
Tragedy struck my own family in 1983, when my husband and I were driving on the freeway and a semi-truck hit our car, sending us tumbling down a hill. While my husband was OK, I was ejected through the window, breaking every bone in my body. The doctors told me I would be in a wheelchair for life.
I have five children: Jose Antonio “Anthony,” Armando, Elizabeth, Sonia and Mario. During the time of my accident, Anthony and Armando were getting involved in gangs, offering them a false sense of security in our violent neighborhood.
One day, Mario, at 13, met some SGI members in our neighborhood park who invited him to a Buddhist meeting. He gave them our address, but when they came to pick him up, he wasn’t home. I was on the front porch, deep in pain and depression from my accident. These members encouraged me to come with them to the meeting.
Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon for the first time, I felt a joy I had never experienced before. I felt a sense of hope I had never known before. I received the Gohonzon right away and within two years, I fully recovered from my accident, something that no doctor believed was possible.
I prayed that my sons would leave the gang life, and eventually they did. Armando got a good job and hired many people from the community, helping whomever he could. The problem was that the gangs never left them.
In 2007, one of Anthony’s best friends told him that he wanted to speak with him and took him to a place nearby, where seven people ambushed him. They stabbed Anthony, and when he fell to the floor, they ran over him twice with a car. He was still alive, begging them to kill him, and one of the gang members shot him twice in the head.
No mother should have to go through the despair of losing her child. I would sob and ask the Gohonzon while chanting: Why is there so much violence? I remembered Nichiren Daishonin’s words: “If one believes in the Lotus Sutra, poison will change into medicine” (“General Stone Tiger,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 952). Though I was suffering so much, I determined to change the poison of jealousy and hatred that caused Anthony’s death into medicine.
There is no greater joy than understanding the power of your own life.
When Armando found out what had happened to his older brother, he told me, “I can’t continue living without Anthony.” Though he loved his family, he couldn’t overcome his own suffering and started looking for revenge. On June 16, 2009, at 3 a.m., some of Armando’s friends came to our house saying they had found the people who had killed his brother. They took him to a house in the neighborhood, and as soon as he stepped through the door, they shot him. It was a setup. Armando left behind three boys and his girlfriend who was pregnant with a girl he didn’t know about yet. Both my sons were 38 years old.
My heart was broken into a thousand pieces. As a mother, your kids are your greatest treasure. I was sobbing on my front porch from the unbearable pain, when one of my fellow Buddhists visited me. “I can’t live anymore,” I said. “Yes, you can,” she reassured me.
My heart was broken into a thousand pieces. As a mother, your kids are your greatest treasure. I was sobbing on my front porch from the unbearable pain, when one of my fellow Buddhists visited me. “I can’t live anymore,” I said. “Yes, you can,” she reassured me. “Let’s go chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Let’s sit in front of the Gohonzon together.” My SGI family never left my side.
Buddhists friends I had never met before visited me, cried with me and chanted with me. I would ask them many questions. “I know my sons’ bodies are in the cemetery, but where are their souls, their lives?”
I began studying Nichiren’s letter “Winter Always Turns to Spring,” written to a mother whose husband had died and who was struggling to raise her children alone. He told her:
“Those who believe in the Lotus Sutra are as if in winter, but winter always turns to spring . . . He [your husband] is probably watching his wife and children in the heavenly mirrors of the sun and moon every moment of the day and night. Since you and your children are ordinary persons, you cannot see or hear him; neither can the deaf hear thunder nor the blind see the sun. But never doubt that he is protecting you. Moreover, he may be close at hand” (WND-1, 536).
Through hours of chanting and bringing out the courage to continue, I emerged as a lioness of South Central. I began to share Buddhism with all of the mothers in my neighborhood. Many of them were going through the same suffering as me. I knew that if mothers could unite, we could change anything. I would assure them that chanting Nam-myoho-renge- kyo was the greatest joy for a mother. I knew that everyone, especially my family, was watching me to see if this Buddhism works, and I prayed to show them the power of the practice with my life.
Since I began sharing Buddhism, the park where gangs used to meet and sell drugs was replaced with a school. Now when I go outside my house, I hear children playing. My daughters also began practicing Buddhism. We are so united because of our determination to transform our community.
I have a dream that we will open an SGI-USA Buddhist center in South Central, so that all the youth can learn how to overcome their suffering and realize that there is hope, that they can have a good life.
There is nothing greater than practicing Nichiren Buddhism. There is no greater joy than understanding the power of your own life.