Sandra Us-Perez tugged on the white ribbon that bound the small box, untying the bow on a Christmas present that was now a year old. The 16-year-old flipped it over and looked at the bottom, which bore a last, hand-written note from her mother.
“T. Q. M.” it read, the Spanish abbreviation for, “I love you a lot.” It was signed simply, “Mama.”
There will be no presents from the 16-year-old’s mother this year. Early Christmas morning in 2019, Sandra’s mother, Juana Us-Perez, was attacked in the family’s Olney home and stabbed to death by her enraged boyfriend, police say, while her son tried to fight back.
The wounds inflicted on Juana’s teenage son have healed. The trauma wreaked on him and his four sisters, who still hear the screams, is as painful as a year ago.
So much has changed. Sandra the eldest girl, gave birth to a boy in August. She named him Jeremy, after her mother. The five kids, ages 9 through 16, moved to their aunt Elsa Us-Perez’s house in Bergen County. They started calling Elsa “mom.”
Their aunt Elsa, 31, has tried to make the house as festive as possible this holiday season. The Christmas tree lights up the kitchen, with wrapped presents piled underneath. The kids can look out the windows to the backyard and see twinkling lights.
She’s taken them to Target to pick out presents for each other and planned to let all the children stay up until midnight, way past their bedtimes, to open their presents as soon as it became Christmas Day.
Still, she knows they are all hurting.
The house smelled of tamales and a string of lights glowed in the window.
Juana, 35, had watched her daughters in the nativity play at the Christmas Eve Mass, with Sandra portraying Mary while her three sisters were angels. Then, the family hosted a Christmas Eve party. Sandra remembers her mother being happy all day.
As most guests left, three men stayed. Her mother’s boyfriend, who lived with them, and another man began punching each other. Sandra heard her mother yell for them to stop. She then told Sandra to take her sisters upstairs. As Sandra was falling asleep, she heard her mother scream.
Sandra told her sisters to call the police and rushed downstairs. She saw blood on the white rug. Her mother was opening the front door to run away from her boyfriend. His bloody hands gripped a knife.
She overheard him threaten to kill them all. Sandra thought her mother could get away, and hurried to her injured brother, Franco, now 15, who police say was stabbed while defending his mother. She helped her brother upstairs, into a locked room where her younger sisters were hiding.
“Everything is OK,” Sandra assured her sisters. “Mommy ran away.”
When police arrived on the 5600 block of North Mascher Street shortly before 3:30 a.m., they found Sandra’s mother bleeding heavily from her stomach. Her boyfriend, Josue Quino, was allegedly standing over her.
Inside the home, police said, they found evidence of a “violent struggle,” with broken glass, and overturned and broken furniture. The initial police investigation showed Quino had been “drinking heavily.”
The crime prompted outcry from Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner over the violent, domestic partnerships that see women killed by the men who claim to love them.
Sandra thought back to the fights she would overhear between her mother and the boyfriend. She resolved to never let a man treat her that way.
An angel in the sky
The children won’t be able to visit their mother’s grave this Christmas. She was sent home to be buried in her native country of Guatemala.
At first, the girls didn’t want any photos of their mother in their new house. But on Mother’s Day, they wanted to see her face. They created a shrine, displaying a picture of her and surrounding it with flowers, depictions of Jesus and Bibles. It stayed. From their bunk beds, they can see her looking out at them within a blue frame with white stars.
All the children have been in therapy, working through their grief. Franco did not want to talk about this last year. His sisters said they learned it is healthier to cry than to hold sadness inside.
But they also don’t like crying in front of each other — they know it will make their siblings cry, too.
One recent night, Sandra thought her sister Graciela, 13, seemed happy. But when they were all lying in their bunk beds, Sandra could hear Graciela sniffling.
“Are you OK?” Sandra asked.
“No,” Sandra remembers Graciela saying. “I miss mom.”
Their mother was a devout Catholic who taught them the importance of giving to those less fortunate, even if you didn’t have much. Marcia, 11, thinks how in church she and her siblings were each given a box to donate whatever they could, a mix of $1 bills and coins. When she looked over at her mother’s box, there were sometimes $10 or $20 bills.
Gabriela, 9, remembers hanging out with her mother at the Bala Cynwyd nail salon where she worked. Her mother let her choose any color she wanted and painted flowers on her nails.
“Sometimes, I try to remember that she’s not alive with us, but she is alive in our hearts,” Gabriela said. She looks up at the sky and tells herself her mother is now an angel.
Sandra wishes her mother could meet her now 4-month-old grandson. The moment Sandra saw her baby, she thought: “So that’s the way my mom felt when I was born.”
For Christmas, Sandra wishes her mother could come back, even in a dream, to say she is OK, that she is in heaven and happy.
Her cousins and sisters sing along to “Feliz Navidad” and “Jingle Bells” in the kitchen, but Sandra can’t shake the sadness. She doesn’t want to tell them to stop the music. She wants them to be able to love Christmastime, again.
Their new home is full of family — six other kids, Elsa’s brothers, ages 14, 15 and 16; and her three children, ages 6, 9 and 13. There is always someone around to play hide-and-seek or Twister, to watch a movie, or help with virtual schoolwork.
For Elsa, it’s difficult supporting a family of 14 on just her husband’s construction salary. At first, they all squeezed into a three bedroom, one bathroom apartment. But with the help of friends, the kids’ church, and people who donated to a GoFundMe, Elsa was able to rent the apartment below them as well.
Six pages of chore charts hang on a hallway wall. Each day, children are responsible for cleaning the bathrooms, the dishes, stove, microwave, and shoe rack. Sandra usually helps Elsa cook dinner.
Their new home has been a chance to start different traditions. For Thanksgiving, the kids had a baking competition. For Christmas, they are using Elsa’s ornaments and decorations, none from their old home. They didn’t want reminders of last year.
They were one of the first families in the area to string up lights for the holidays. Elsa said she just wanted to find a way to make the children smile.
Outside, their house is the brightest on the block.