Three years ago, Jimmy Valdez, 27, began what he calls a cycle of “hitting sober to relapsing, to hitting sober to relapsing.” But this month, he celebrates one year and four months of sobriety.
And at this year’s Easter Vigil at St. Monica Church in Santa Monica, Valdez celebrated another milestone with fellow members of his RCIA class: full membership into the Catholic Church.
Growing up in South Los Angeles, Valdez came from a difficult upbringing. “I grew up around gangs and drugs and violence. My dad had kids with four different women so I grew up thinking all these things were pretty much normal,” Valdez says. “Alcohol and cocaine were my choice of drugs. I was making all the wrong moves growing up.”
Valdez first began drinking at age 10 while his parents were going through a divorce. His father was in the drug trade, and neither parent had time for him. “I was experimenting [with alcohol]. We used to get drunk at the park. Then at around the age of 14, my dad let me drink with him.”
It wasn’t until a traumatic experience that he turned to cocaine. Valdez was visiting Mexico when he found the murdered remains of his godfather, Jesus Ricardo Plata Sandoval. Valdez was 16 years old.
“Seeing him dead and seeing his body were graphics that would play over and over in my head at night and they wouldn’t allow me to sleep,” Valdez says. “So I got introduced into cocaine, and I started drinking heavily so I could actually get some sleep that night.”
His godfather was 23 when he died.
“There were different rumors — people had different stories. All I know is that they killed my godfather.”
Soon smoking, drinking and consuming cocaine became a habit until Valdez was arrested for attempted murder at the age of 17. He entered a California juvenile detention center for three years.
Still, Valdez insists that God was looking out for him. Although originally charged with attempted murder, the indictment was changed to assault with a firearm when it was proved that the gun had jammed. “God gave me another chance from the beginning,” he says.
Valdez remembers after his release from the juvenile detention center — which was followed by more addiction and more stints in jail — seeing a church and thinking, “You need that in your life.” But he often ignored the inspiration and kept walking.
Finally, he enrolled in Sunday classes after a girlfriend suggested he would need to receive Confirmation in order to get married. But his conversion wasn’t complete. “Sometimes I would show up still drunk from the night before,” he says of his class attendance. “Until I finally just gave up.”
His ability to stay sober and focus on his faith began when he stopped trusting in his own efforts and surrendered himself to God, Valdez says.
“God is the person I asked to help me with this because I couldn’t do it myself anymore,” he explains. “I tried counting my drinks; I tried going out [only] every so often. And I just had to surrender. And when I did, I got on my knees and I said, ‘I don’t want this in my life anymore.’”
Valdez was offered a job as a barista at Holy Grounds, a coffee shop at St. Monica Church. He began attending RCIA classes and AA meetings. “I needed to get in line spiritually, physically, emotionally,” he says.
He continues to struggle, but he knows he has turned his life around. “God and the Church played a role in my sobriety. I’m building my foundation in the right place,” he says, adding, “Here at St. Monica’s, it’s like I’m back home for some reason.”
Valdez, who was baptized at the age of 6, finally entered into full communion with the Church with the celebration of his first Communion and confirmation, along with 16 other RCIA classmates at St. Monica’s Easter Vigil. Another 22 catechumens also received baptism.
Sister Catherine Ryan, RSC, the pastoral associate at St. Monica Church, was the one who enrolled him in the RCIA program. “He realized that he should be completing his sacraments because he was getting more attached to the Church,” she says. “He was back and forth with Church his whole life. But he began to take it more seriously because he knew he needed the path to strengthen him so he could do well.”
She adds, “He recognizes the things that he didn’t do well in the early part of his life. He has a very good sense of his path and how he has to heal the past for the present. And he knows he needs God’s help for that.”
Sister Catherine has high hopes for Valdez. “He’s very personable and he gets along very well with everyone in our community,” she says. “He has very good potential, so I hope he’ll do well.”
Valdez is getting ready to launch a clothing line for men and women, Los Mayores, a brand that he hopes will boost Latino pride with their labels that embrace the countries of Mexico and Colombia, in the same way people wear shirts with the words New York and Los Angeles.
Time has helped him cope with the tragic death of his godfather, he says. “It was just time and getting closer to God.” The event, however, will always remain with him. “From time to time I get little moments when I think, ‘God, I wish he were here.’ I think that’s pretty much the case for everyone. Ultimately, it’s always going to be there.”
His new perspective has also helped him deal with his past.
“Back then I would say, ‘I didn’t grow up with a mom’ or ‘I was incarcerated,’ and I would complain to myself,” he recalls. “And now I say, ‘I’m OK with that. It’s fine. I’m here.’”