Surrounded by the lilac-colored walls of Room 3 at Esperanza Shelter,
Sonya Romero became overwhelmed with emotion as she recalled nights she had spent there more than eight years ago as a resident.
“I just think of all the ups and downs … how everything from that time has led me to where I’m at now,” she said.
Romero, a victim of physical and emotional abuse during two relationships in her 20s, when she was a young mother, first arrived at Esperanza in 2011, hoping to turn her life around. Now, as the nonprofit’s shelter manager in training, her mission is to help others overcome similar trauma, she said.
“It’s being able to share those little wins with people — seeing people who are making changes, big or small, and just bearing witness to that … to just encourage them and help them on their journey,” she said.
Romero, 36, entered her first abusive relationship more than a decade ago. In the next two years, she said, her partner became increasingly violent, oftentimes strangling her and even firing a gun just past her head.
He was emotionally abusive as well, she said, threatening to kill her parents, boasting about sexual relationships with other women and telling her she looked “like a whore.”
At one point, Romero said, the man threw a baby stroller, frightening her young daughter. This was one of many moments when she “realized it was getting bad, beyond anything I could do. So, I fled.
“Knowing what I know about domestic abuse now, I realize how amazing it is I got out of that,” she added.
Soon after the relationship ended, Romero began using alcohol as a coping mechanism.
About a year later, she became involved with another abusive man. Once, she said, she woke up to find him choking her in a room full of people, including the man’s mother.
To drown out the shame, “I drank myself into oblivion,” she said.
Many people question why someone would stay in an emotionally toxic or violent relationship, Romero said, but such situations can be complicated.
“There are feelings of love, too. You have these hopes for the relationship,” she said. “When you’re in that place, it’s hard. There’s mixed emotions in it.”
Romero, born and raised in Santa Fe, said she felt too ashamed to call her family for help, and she would make excuses for the bruises on her arms or legs.
For her, the breaking point was when her partner punched her in the face. Staring in the mirror at her black eye, she said, “I saw the person looking back at me and I knew: That’s not who I want to be. That’s not the life I wanted for myself.”
That night, Romero slept in her car. The next morning, she called Esperanza.
Because Romero was still heavily reliant on alcohol, staff had to ask her to leave after her first month. The shelter has a strict policy against substance use.
“I was probably deemed someone who was not going to make it,” she said.
Instead, the lessons she learned at the shelter pushed her toward a better future.
“This place was really a turning point for me,” Romero said, crediting women on staff who had made her feel encouraged and supported. “It was that feeling that I left here with, that impact on my life — I wanted to give that back.”
In 2012, a year after she left the shelter, Romero returned to Esperanza as a volunteer and was soon hired as a case manager. In August, she was promoted to residential shift supervisor, in which she managed a team of case managers for three 10-hour shifts a week. And in November, Romero was promoted to shelter manager in training.
She is expected to be named manager by spring 2020, said Esperanza Executive Director Anji Estrellas.
The position, Estrellas said, involves overseeing all operations at the shelter, including ensuring the safety of staff and residents, training new hires and supervising case managers. If problems arise, in particular those involving a resident’s behavior, Romero also would be responsible for working with the shelter director to determine how to move forward.
Given that Romero is a “natural leader” and “very trauma informed,” Estrellas said, she is certain Romero will excel in the role.
Jeannette Baca, former shelter manager at Esperanza who helped Romero when she arrived as a resident and later hired her to the staff in 2012, agreed.
“She’s a really strong woman. She’s incredibly motivated to give back and set a positive example, really of transformation,” Baca said. “Her past helps inform the work that she’s committed to doing.”
For residents to have Romero as an example, Baca added, “provides some motivation for clients who might be feeling helpless and maybe isolated. … Working with someone like Sonya, they may have a new view on their situation, maybe some hope and some capacity to also make some changes and come out on the other side.”
Romero said what Baca did for her is what she hopes to do for others: “She saw something in me. … That’s what [my job] is for me — trying to be that to people.”
In addition to her work at Esperanza, Romero is in practicum at the Youth Shelters and Family Services’ Street Outreach Program. She also juggles classes at New Mexico Highlands University, where she is a full-time student studying social work.
She plans to graduate in the spring with a bachelor’s degree and plans to pursue a master’s.
“I’m happy. I want personal advancement, I want professional advancement,” Romero said, adding she’s been sober for eight years and now knows what it’s like to be in a healthy relationship.
Her past, she said, feels as though “it was somebody else’s life.”
“I go in [Room 3] sometimes, and it’s hard to even think the person staying in that room was me. I’m so different now. I’ve gotten so much stronger,” she said. “I’m positive about life, and I have hope. The woman I was when I stayed there — I didn’t have any of that.
“I can reframe the trauma and abuse into something that’s positive and has led me to be successful and really doing something that I love and that I’m passionate about and that I’m good at,” she added. “Being here on the other side of things is an amazing feeling of accomplishment.”