my friendship with silvia sanchez and how cancel culture came for me
The above photos is of me and Silvia Sanchez and her “date” at the first prom every held at Central Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles in 1999, shortly before Silvia was sent to prison with a sentence of twenty-five years to life. A Night to Remember
This is the story of my friendship with Silvia Sanchez. It’s part of a book I’ve been writing called Letters from Purgatory, about my experiences starting InsideOUT Writers, a creative writing program for incarcerated youth in Los Angeles, and the hypocritical way nonprofits are used by the elite to further their agendas.
I start with our friendship because it speaks to the current situation of cancel culture. It is alarming to see how dissenting voices are being silenced. My vision for IOW was to give voice to youth who would otherwise never have a chance to have their voices heard. IOW played a valuable role in changing perceptions of incarcerated youth. It started with me teaching one class a week as a volunteer and went to involve many amazing writers and touch the lives of thousands of youth.
At the time I started IOW, I was forty years old. I considered myself far more a liberal than a conservative, although I have always resisted such labels. I never dreamed that by creating such a nonprofit I would incur the wrath of the powerful liberals who went on to take it over and who canceled me. JH Writing Class Gives Troubled Youth…
I met Silvia in 1995. She was in my first group of girls at Central JH. I started with a group of eight girls, all facing life sentences for serious crimes. I wanted to help them because, for reasons I will explain in a later post, I knew what it felt like to be imprisoned and not able to find a way out.
This article is about Silvia and my friendship: Sparks in the Darkness
I couldn’t dare compare myself like that now. There is no nuance. No finding out anyone’s life story. It is all down to appearance and words that are used. At that time, no one was talking about cancel culture. Yes, I was one of those white women who wanted to do some good in the world. I didn’t think about that at all in those days. It was a simple thing. I just wanted to teach and I had my personal reasons, based on my past experiences. We seem to have forgotten that we are all unique and no one should ever be reduced to the color of their skin, or that because of that, they belong to a certain social class or have a certain world view.
It was only later that I learned I should actually be ashamed by my desire to start a writing program, and even though it was successful and went on to help thousands of young people, that I should never have done it in the first place. In fact, history was changed and I was struck out as if I had never existed in the first place. The irony, of course, was that the very people canceling me were from the highest cast of white liberal American society. They were the board members of IOW, some were socialites married to powerful men, while others were the Hollywood elite, or had aspirations to be.
I was canceled at the end of 2005, long before this whole frenzy had taken hold. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized what had happened to me with this beautiful little nonprofit was a perfect example of what is happening today.
It really all came home to me on November 6, 2016, the night Donald Trump became president. After spending more than twenty years in prison, that was the day Silvia was released. I was so excited. So overwhelmed with happiness for her. It was a story I wanted to write about and I approached the Washington Post. The story of our friendship over all those years was inspiring. It crossed racial and cultural boundaries. It should be told.
The editor I approached really liked the story. However, I was told I was not the person to do it. I was a white woman. She suggested I give her the contact information for Silvia and all my notes and she would find a writer for it. I was aghast. Even though Silvia and I had been friends for more than twenty years and I knew her better than any other writer ever could, I could not write about her because I was white.
I asked for advice from a group on Facebook called Binders full of Creative Nonfiction, a “supportive” place for women writers. Supportive if you follow the liberal agenda and use the proper lingo. . I naively said how shocked I had been with this editor and did people think I had done the right thing by saying no to her.
Well, that is something I will never do again. There are certain things you can say, certain words and phrases. It doesn’t matter how you actually live your life. What matters is the words you say. And if you don’t toe the line, your entire life can be destroyed by the words that are then used against you. It hadn’t been enough that the liberal elite of Hollywood had canceled me. Now I had to be told I could not even be a writer, telling my own experiences.
I was viciously attacked for daring to suggest I wanted to write such a story. Actually, by doing so, I was silencing Silvia and making it all about me. I was the classic white savior and selfishly trying to assuage my white guilt. The bullies were just getting warmed up.
Not only was I ruining Silvia’s life, the fact that I had so brazenly started the writing program in the first place meant that I had probably destroyed thousands of lives rather than helped them. I was a dangerous, evil person. In fact, I had probably taken away the opportunity for a person of color to start a writing program by doing it myself.
As a white woman, you cannot dare suggest you might want to help anyone. And you certainly can’t use the word “save.” In fact, it was inappropriate that I had befriended Silvia in the first place. She had been sixteen when I met her and I had been forty. Surely there was something creepy about that? The suggestion was made I should be investigated as a pedophile.
It went on and on. In this group, the rules are you cannot delete a post. You have to leave it there and they can just keep on attacking you. And if you “push back” (one of those phrases that I find so annoying) that just proves even more that you aren’t willing to “do the work” needed to realize your “white fragility” and “toxicity.”
The result was that I never did write about our friendship. Until now. Many writers have been canceled on Binders Full of Creative Nonfiction, and it is now a place where the mob rules and God help those who don’t know it yet and naively say something out of line. Of course, this is the case everywhere now. People are afraid to speak unless they say the right things. Not only as writers, but people in all walks of life. If you say the wrong thing, you can lose your job, your reputation, your family, on and on.
So, I start here, on the night of November 6, 2016. That night will forever be imprinted on my brain, driving from my home in Woodland Hills to Silvia’s sister’s house in Fontana. Fires blazed on the skyline. Police cars raced in the opposite direction on the freeway, sirens blaring, lights flashing. The country was on the verge of chaos, angered that this orange man bad had been elected, or so it seemed he would be.
I didn’t vote for Trump. I didn’t vote for Clinton. I found myself thinking Trump was the lessor of two evils. In fact, I started thinking that I wanted Trump to win and the thought appalled me. Almost all my friends were liberals. I kept my thoughts to myself.
I had grown up in a conservative Christian family. My father, Dave Hunt, had been an influential Christian author in the 1980s. I had rebelled against all of that. I had written about the evils of conservatism. I wasn’t conservative. So why was I thinking like this? It would take some time for me to realize why and to not be afraid to talk about it. Dave Hunt
As I drove, I wondered what kind of world Silvia was coming back to and how well she would navigate it. As it turns out, like everything in her life, she showed amazing resilience and courage.
Here is a letter Silvia wrote to me shortly before she left Central Juvenile Hall for prison, I believe it was in 1999. Below that are some reflections that I wrote shortly after that, talking about all that Silvia achieved while she was in juvenile hall. I didn’t know what the future held when I wrote this. I didn’t know that so many years later Silvia would be released and would go on to live a fulfilling life, reunited with her family and with a woman she had fallen in love with while in prison. They are together until this day. Here is a documentary that tells Silvia’s story Gangsta Girls
Hello, it’s me, Silvia. I decided to write you this letter to say good-bye. Yes, my time has come. I hardly cry. I haven’t cried for a long time, but today I shed some tears as my friends brought memories of my trial and the last day I got convicted. That was the worst day of my incarceration. I cried like a baby all night long.
I remember my friend Ochoa bringing me a cup of water. I showered right after I came from court and me and Ochoa stood inside the bathroom crying. She was telling me she wanted to do some of my time. Then we had to come out of the bathroom because they had cake and ice cream. It was my 18th birthday but I was too sad to celebrate.
The road is long. It might take me years. I might struggle, fall a couple of times, but I’ll pick myself up. I know I must move on with my life and go to prison. At least then I will know my release date and feel that one day I’ll be home. I’m sad because I’m leaving everybody behind. This has been my home for four years. I grew up here.
Well, Karen, I’m going to let you go for now. Take care and thanks for everything.
Not long after her twentieth birthday, Silvia gave the commencement speech at the Central Juvenile Hall graduation, speaking with eloquence and conviction. When she first entered juvenile hall at sixteen, if anyone would have told her she would do such a thing she would have dismissed them with disdain. Now, I looked at her across the crowd outside the chapel, a tiny twenty year old woman in a cap and gown, talking and smiling with a group of people, and I was so proud and happy for all she had achieved.
I went over and gave her a hug and then she told me the words I had been dreading. “Karen, I’m leaving for prison on Tuesday. I got my clearance, the judge signed my order.”
My first reaction was to say, no, I can fix it, make the judge revoke the order. You haven’t finished your tattoo removal. But I knew that wasn’t what Silvia wanted.
“So I should stop fighting? No more battles?” I said.
She nodded. “I’m ready to go. I mean, it’s not what I want for my life, but I’ve been here long enough.”
Stubbornly, I held on. “But, Silvia, look at your face, your hand. You’ll be in for a long time. I know you’re getting impatient but it’s not going to be better there. And you haven’t finished what you started.”
“Yeah, but they don’t want me here anymore. They want me out. And I’m ready.”
I could see she had closed off the possibility of staying. She wanted to get on with her sentence. She had anticipated it long enough. Sometimes the anticipation of an evil can become worse than the evil itself.
Still, it was maddening. Over a year of treatments and those stubborn tattoos on her face didn’t seem to look much different than they had in the beginning. “It’s because they’re homemade,” the girls had explained to me. “The ink is so concentrated.”
The tattoos on Silvia’s arms had virtually disappeared but the 213 on her fingers was a ghost of its former self, visible still. And then, of course, the unbearable sight that was always there, peeking out from under the orange top, Silvia loves Gerardo, as black as ever, untouched by the laser.
“Won’t it be dangerous to go to prison with that 213 faded so that everyone will know you were trying to get it off?”
She shook her head. “No, it isn’t like that. I’ll be okay.”
So, that morning, under the trees outside the chapel, sipping on bright red fruit punch, Silvia and I said good-bye, with her resigned to her fate and me afraid of letting go. She had been the light in my life, who, without even knowing it, had exposed the dark corners of my heart and made me face the hardest truths about myself.
There were no tears that morning, just a quiet overwhelming sadness. Perhaps, still being young, Silvia thought the story had ended. But that would not be the case. There was never an end. My dearest friend, Private Investigator Casey Cohen had taught me that.
I wish I could say that she lived happily ever after. I wish I could give the appearance that all the loose ends were tied and the future rosy and filled with promise. I wish I could say I slew the dragon and Silvia won her case, was released and lived a full productive life. I wish I could say she met a good man and got married and rode into the sunset.
I wish I could say all those things. But those are chapters yet to be filled. And the odds are against it. Even if Silvia had found her knight and rode off into the sunset, the cold light of day would have followed, just as it had when she sat on the beach, coming down from her high and crying into the rising sun. Pain and pleasure, love and hate, good and bad, we can’t seem to have one without the other. There are always battles to be fought and winning doesn’t necessarily mean killing the enemy.
For now, Silvia languishes in prison. Her appeals have been denied. One day stretches into the next, just as it has done for years already. A life was taken and whether or not justice was served, the fact remains that Silvia did play a small part and so she must pay. Out of this tragedy, Silvia has transformed herself into a person who, if she had remained on the streets, she might never have become. That is the great dichotomy, the twist of fate. Her tattoos were never completely erased. But she tried through the painful process to cleanse her soul. She graduated from high school with top honors and was chosen as valedictorian. Whereas, before she had been silent and submissive, never able to stand up to a man, she now stood before a crowded room, filled with young people who looked up to her, and spoke with courage and conviction.
I pray her words will not be forgotten.
We all hunger for a vision to carry us through, destined as we are to live by faith, not by sight, and to struggle with mysteries beyond our understanding. This means we all share the same, frightening blindness that can cause us to lash out at one another and stumble and fall. Some of us manage to rise above the melee in the most awe-inspiring and courageous ways. Silvia is one such person. Just because she has been locked away and deemed unworthy to live among the rest of us, does not make it right. And just because it is easy to forget her does not mean that we should.
If we do not listen to Silvia and others like her and take their words to heart, then we, as the human race, lose our collective vision.
If only we were willing to admit that we don’t “know” anything, imprisoned as we are within the confines of our own bodies. How much more likely would we then be to show humility and compassion, to reach out and help others when they stumble and fall instead of taking delight in grinding them further into the dirt? How would it be if we opened our minds and learned from unlikely sources; embraced our differences, looked into the eyes and held the hands of those we feared the most?
This “Game of Life,” as the girls in my writing class called it, is not about winning or losing or grasping for a reward in order to prove we are more worthy than someone else. It is about finding our vision and allowing it to lead us forward by faith, from darkness into light, one step at a time.
To be continued….