Jessica Núñez had just brought the house down.
The 27-year-old from Northeast Philly was auditioning for a spot on one of the biggest Spanish-language singing competitions in the world, a performance that would reach millions — think The Voice in Spanish.
She’d wowed the judges and the crowd on Reina de la Canción — Queen of the Song — with her smooth, soulful voice and commanding performance, and now they wanted to know about her.
Judge Natti Natasha, the Latin pop star who’s from the Núñez family’s hometown in the Dominican Republic, playfully asked Jessica what her parents thought about her singing dreams. She knew how famously protective Dominican parents can be. And here, Jessica took a deep breath.
Her parents were murdered, she said. It happened in the family bodega, in front of her, in West Philadelphia in 2011. She was 19. And she stopped being a little girl. She had to raise her younger brother and sister, she told the judges.
Jessica placed her hand to her heart, and said she knew her parents were proud.
A promise made — and kept
The first time I met Jessica Núñez was in February of 2012, the morning after police caught the men who destroyed her family. On that day at the Roundhouse, she spoke in a soft voice that belied the strength of what she had just done.
Upstairs, she had identified the two men charged with shooting her mother, father, and aunt during a botched robbery. They had burst into the family bodega at 50th and Parrish near closing time, as Jessica and her sister worked the counter. They pushed a gun into Jessica’s side.
Her father, Porfirio, had rushed to her, and then rushed to the back of the store, hoping to draw the gunmen away from his daughters. They followed, and fired. Please wait, he asked the gunmen. They did not.
In less than two minutes, she told the judges, she lost her family — her father, her mother, Carmen, and her aunt, Lina Sanchez. There in the store, Jessica made a promise. She would find the killers.
She cut her hair. She took jobs in bodegas, so if the gunmen came in, she could recognize her family’s killers. The family bodega reopened, but her surviving family members wouldn’t let her behind the counter again. She sat in her mother’s old seat, with her face covered, watching everyone who came in.
“When I look back, I see a girl that was strong,” she told me.
At first she didn’t believe people when they would say that to her. But she knows that about herself now.
The men never came to her bodega again. But when police arrested two suspects in the killings, she recognized them — and testified against them.
That was where I saw her next — in a courtroom in 2016, keeping her promise. She was on the stand for hours, cross-examined by two of the city’s top defense attorneys, including now-District Attorney Larry Krasner. She stared at the suspects, who would be found guilty.
“They thought that the little girl they left alive was not going to be able to get on that stand. I was able to stand there and say everything that they did to my family," she told me. “I did it.”
‘I know they’re here.’
Now, Jessica is fulfilling another, deeper promise to her parents: She’s happy. She’s chasing the dream they wanted for her.
Her love of singing comes from her father, who trained as a psychologist in the Dominican Republic but moved the family to the United States for a better life. Her stage presence is from Porfirio, too, with his balladeer’s voice, and the hours she spent singing and dancing with him. They were the fun people at the party, she said, laughing.
Her grace, her quiet sensitivity, comes from her mother.
For a while, she lost sight of that Jessica, the girl from before. After a grueling, almost monthlong trial, she fell into a depression. She couldn’t leave her bed. Before her parents died, she’d already embarked on a performing career, with Porfirio’s help. But she canceled shows out of fear of retaliation for her testimony.
Slowly, she came back. In June, she was ready to sing again. She knew her parents would not have wanted their children’s lives to be defined by loss. Her younger sister Laura is in college. And her brother Moises is starting a career as a mechanic.
And now Jessica is preparing to sing on a show that could change her life. The show’s previous iteration reached 20 million people all over the world. The prize is a recording contract with Sony Records, and management by Daddy Yankee, one of the biggest Latin artists in the world. She leaves Sunday for Miami to continue filming. She hopes her story of resilience will give other young girls strength. Her stage name, Jayy Duñez, is a combination of her mother’s maiden name, Duran, and her family name.
She prays before she sings, she says. She asks her parents to be with her — not only to give her strength, but to share in her happiness.
“When I hit a stage, I don’t feel fear,” she said. “I’m not doing this just because I love it. I know that they love it too. And I know they’re here."