A lily blooms | Photo by Mara Reynolds
Content warning: sex trafficking, abuse. This story may be difficult for some readers.
By Dennis Taylor
She is known in Chinatown as “the Smile Lady,” a nickname celebrating the sunny exterior she prefers to show whether she feels happy or sad. Others call her “Poet Rosa,” honoring the four books of poetry she has self-published. Her given name, Rosa Elena Espinosa Mendoza, appears on those books.
She also has been called Lily Veronica Lopez Castro, a name she was assigned after she was kidnapped in 1991, when she was 21 years old, by a human-trafficking cartel that forced her into a life of prostitution — more specifically, sex slavery.
“I am called ‘the Smile Lady,’ but I don’t feel happy all the time,” she said. “I feel happy when I am writing my poems. I feel happy when I am going to school. I do not do drugs, I do not drink, I do not smoke, and I am 100 percent a positive lady. But not always happy.”
As she heals from a horrifying past, no doubt, Mendoza feels blessed by the life she lives today. For nearly eight years she was homeless, living on the streets of Salinas, sleeping under the bridge on Market Way, and later in a Chevy Blazer. She ate and showered at Dorothy’s Place, a shelter on Soledad Street, in Salinas’ Chinatown. Dorothy’s is operated by the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra and has served Monterey County’s downtrodden for more than 30 years.
Today she works two jobs — one at a restaurant, washing dishes, the other at a nursery — and she lives with her husband, Shawn Granville, in the low-income apartment she got in July 2017 from the Housing Authority of Monterey County.
She earned her General Education Development diploma from the Salinas Adult School in July 2007, the same year doctors determined she was struggling with a previously-undiagnosed mental disability (she has heard voices and suffered from hallucinations since age 3).
A dream postponed
After her diagnosis, her doctors counseled that she should not attend any more schools for at least five years, postponing her plan to attend community college. In 2012, while homeless, Mendoza enrolled at Hartnell College, finally achieving her goal in 2018: She earned an Associate of Science degree in business science, office technology and information processing. “For almost six years I invested everything in my school, and I achieved my college dream,” she said.
“Lily” is very much in her past, but she is not forgotten. Nor is Mendoza ashamed of “Lily.” The poet chose lily-blue as a prominent color on the cover of her first book, “Living in Infinity and Eternity.”
That collection of poems expresses the emotions she experienced until May 1994, when she slipped away from an East Salinas nightclub in the dead of night — 4 ½ months pregnant with her second son, Carlos — and escaped her nightmare.
Rosa Elena Espinosa Mendoza, now 50, says she was 3 years old when she began hearing voices and seeing visions that frightened her, but went undiagnosed as symptoms of mental illness until she was 36. “My father always said, ‘Never tell anyone that you see and hear things — they will think you are a witch!” she said.
Her mother never loved her, Mendoza says, and began abusing her physically and emotionally by the time she turned 4.
At 13 she left her father’s dairy farm in Mazatepec, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, to escape family conflicts. She crossed the isthmus to Veracruz, where she fed herself with low-paying jobs as a babysitter, shop girl and seamstress. At 16 she moved on to Mexico City, working as a maid and nanny while training as an executive secretary and fiscal accountant specializing in tax fraud, and dreaming of a career as a sociologist or social worker.
By that time, the teenager had become a political activist, railing publicly against the politics of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gotari — opinions that sparked an assault in her home state, where a woman pushed her off a bridge. Mendoza damaged three spinal discs in the fall, was nursed back to health by her father, and in 1988, at age 18, moved to Mexicali.
She said that in 1991, she was kidnapped in Mexicali by human traffickers who brought her into the United States, to Nevada, where she was kept as a sex slave and forced into prostitution.
“I was in a new country where I did not know the language. I had no family, no friends, and now I was a criminal,” said Mendoza, who became known as “Lily” as she was deployed by her “padrotes” (pimps) to bars, casinos, hotels, brothels and private homes.
“I lost my family for human trafficking — I have no family. I am very lonely, but I am not a criminal.”
Rosa Elena Espinosa Mendoza
25 men a day
At one point she was held captive in a house with 100 other women, she said, where she was forced to service up to 25 men a day.
“There are cartels in every state. I belonged to the Nevada cartel, but they got in a fight with California’s cartel. California won,” Mendoza said. “So I was taken from Reno to San Francisco, and I was passed around many times, to Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Castroville, Greenfield, Soledad, Gonzales, and then Salinas.
“They always said to me, ‘If you try to run, we will kill your whole family,’” she said.
In 1994, at 24, Mendoza became pregnant for the second time with her son, Carlos, whose father, Francisco Hernandez, had something in common with his girlfriend. He had been forced to work for a cartel of drug traffickers.
Francisco vowed to protect her if she ran for freedom, a promise that gave her courage. In May of 1994, Mendoza was trawling for clients in an East Salinas nightclub when she slipped outside unnoticed and walked away in the dark of night. She made her way to a safe house, where a family hid and protected her.
Two months later she gave birth to Carlos, who was legally adopted by Francisco the following January. He married Mendoza in October 1998 while serving a jail term for selling drugs for the cartel. “The police sent him to jail, but Francisco did not want to sell drugs,” she said. “The cartel told him what they had said to me: ‘We will kill your family if you try to leave.’”
In 1995, Mendoza cooperated with a human-trafficking investigation conducted by the Salinas Police Department under then-Chief Daniel Ortega. “I reported many people to Dan Ortega — I put them in jail,” she said. “I was very scared, because they said they would kill my family, but I did it.”
During the eight years she spent living on the streets of Salinas, Mendoza continued to compose the poetry she has written since early childhood. Her four books were published with help from local homeless advocate Michael Houston, through the Salinas Poetry and Prose Project.
“Her great dream is to get a four-year degree from a university, and her psychiatrists are very impressed by that,” Houston said. “They say most people who have been raped, beaten, and degraded in so many ways rarely hang onto their dreams — but Rosa does.”
The voices and hallucinations that had haunted Mendoza’s childhood returned and intensified in 2004 and she was hospitalized. In 2006, when she split with Francisco, Child Protective Services ruled that Mendoza could not see her children unsupervised. In 2008, the agency granted full custody to Francisco.
“I lost my family for human trafficking — I have no family,” she said. “I am very lonely, but I am not a criminal.”
She lives today with her new husband, Granville, whom she met in 2010.
A homeless advocate herself, Mendoza opened her apartment during the pandemic to street people in need of shelter, but was forced to quarantine in December after becoming ill with COVID-19.
‘Jesus gave me a chance’
“I felt like I was going to die. I just wanted to sleep, and sometimes I felt my spirit leave my body and fly in outer space,” she said. “And I said, ‘No, Lord, it is not my time — give me a chance to live! And Jesus gave me a chance.”
Mendoza spent much of that period finishing her fourth book, “Sinar Angel de Poemas,” and now plans to share her own story in a three-part autobiography covering her life from age 2 to 14, then 14 to 21, and finally from age 21, when the human trafficking began.
“I create poems every day, but some days they just exist in my mind,” she said. “My poetry is what changes my life, and changes me, because I know that my poems will still exist for the people after I am dead. My poems are my own … they are me.”
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