American Voices Nina's World

When You Are Too Young to Choose (But Have to Anyway)

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

We first met Nina Montoya when she was a senior at Venice High School where, in English teacher Dennis Danziger’s class, she began to discover her talent for writing.

During the year, Nina began a series of essays about her experiences in foster care, two of which WLA posted here.

The first of the essays described the day when Nina and her then nine-year-old sister were taken away from their home and plunged into the foster care world. (Nina was seven-years old at the time.)

Her next essay was about her struggle to make sense out of her feelings of love for her abusive dad and her abandoning mother:

….In the past I have been physically and mentally abused by my father. He has told me many times that I am stupid, that I should just give up, quit. When I would speak of college he told me that I shouldn’t bother, that they don’t care if you are smart or stupid, the only reason why they want you is to take your money. He has threatened me, put me in many unnecessary dangers, even threatened my friends as well. Inexplicably, I still love him. I always will love him, for he is my father and though he makes not the best decisions, I know in the end he loves me too. That he is proud of me, I have heard him brag to his friends. I just wish that I could hear the compliments myself, that he would tell me to my face that he is proud.

Even my mother who abandoned me I love her. She left me when I was merely a toddler. She even attempted to do drugs while she was pregnant with me, but I still love her. Though I wish not to speak to her, when she does contact me I tolerate it. This is because as much as I hate her, my love is stronger….

In each case, Nina explored the internal landscape of her experience—an experience that is, by the way, shared by 20,000 LA County kids in any given month—with courage, clarity and grace.

Today, we have a third essay. This one continues her foster care narrative and talks about the kind of a choice a kid should not have to make.

The Decision

by Nina Montoya

One of the most intense, passionate and heartbreaking moments in my life happened when I was seven. The court asked my sister and me to decide who we wanted to live with and raise us for the rest of our lives. An extreme question for any child.

We had three choices, my dad, my mom or Jennifer Cooper. Jennifer was one of the sweetest people I knew. I loved Jennifer, who was a mother figure to me. I considered Jennifer, who was the mother of my dad’s previous girl friend, Jackie, to be family.

My dad remained good friends with Jackie after their break up and was still good friends with her family as well. Jennifer owned a large house and my dad paid rent to her to live there. There were six rooms, if I can remember correctly, maybe even more. Two of the three bed rooms upstairs belonged to my dad and my sister and I shared the third bedroom.

During the time we lived in Jennifer’s house, along with Jessica, another of Jennifer’s daughters, we all grew close. Jennifer loved my sister and me deeply and wanted the best for us. In my mind when the judge asked us to pick I knew my decision. I wanted Jennifer even though it meant choosing her over my own blood.

My sister, who was few years older than me, was close to my father. Not that I wasn’t and not that I didn’t love him. I did. But deep down I knew that my father wasn’t comfortable playing the dad role and life would be easier, simpler and more relaxed with Jennifer as my guardian.

So when I asked my sister her decision and she named dad, I was shocked, because I knew she could see the unhappiness that would lay ahead. I told her I decided to live with Jennifer which upset her. My sister, in tears, rushed to my father to tell him the news. As he listened I could tell from the expression on his face and his body language the moment he understood my decision. I had broken his heart .

My heart dropped as I watched the two people that have always been apart of me, my life, sitting on the floor and crying. I couldn’t take the pain and joined in sobbing alongside them.

I begged my father for forgiveness and promised I wouldn’t tear apart our small family and when the court asked who I wanted to live with I said only one word, “dad”.

Nina Montoya graduated from Venice High School in June 2010 and will attend Cal State Northridge this fall.


  • Congratulations to Nina on her graduation! I’m sure many people are hoping that she’ll pursue a career in the communication/journalism field. This world needs more young folks who care about making it a better place. Her road has been difficult, but she shows all signs of having the tools to succeed. I wish her well in all she does. Good job, Nina!

  • Thanks for the comment, Gava Joe. I agree. Nina’s got a valuable voice. (Hi, Nina!)

    As for you other two, maybe I’m dense tonight, but I honestly haven’t the foggiest idea what your comments even mean.

    In any case, why don’t we limit the comments on this thread to Nina’s work. Thanks.

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