Essay: 'I made peace with my dad's record — by changing my name'
This essay was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund.
If you are like most people, you take pride in your name or maybe never give it much thought. But for me, thinking about my name as an adolescent with my dad serving time in prison became an obsession that nearly consumed me.
As Julian Frias, with my dad's surname, I began living a lie. As far as anyone knew, my dad was busy or out of town when there were school events or ballgames.
Finally, when I was 15, my mother helped me with the paperwork to make her surname mine, and I became Julian Trejo. I was able to shed my shame over my dad's surname and feel free to be me.
But now, at age 19, my life is different. I earned a college scholarship that took me far from my family's home in Springdale, Arkansas. Even as I contemplate my dad's release from prison this month, I'm beginning my second year at Washington University in St. Louis — a place that's a world apart from the tight-knit community where I was raised. And I must decide how he will fit into my life and learn how I can walk in the world with him in a way that benefits not just the two of us, but our family and our community.
I am sharing my story because I know there are many young people like me with parents in prison. I believe many feel ashamed or embarrassed by this fact and consider the sins of their parents to be their own. I want them to know they are not alone.
Who am I?
I came into this world in June 2004 at a hospital in Los Angeles, with my parents naming me Julian Frias. I suppose that was a bit of a no-brainer. Most parents apply the father's last name to their children (though often now the mother's surname is appended as well).
While most people apply their name to hundreds of forms without much thought, as I grew older I was disturbed thinking about the many ways it defined me.
When you meet someone new, you tell them your name. Your last name automatically associates you with your family and can associate you with race and ethnicity. Your name is literally your identity.
Omar Frias is my dad's name, but he's actually the only person in his family with that surname. I've never met my grandfather from my dad's side, nor has my dad. I didn't know any grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts or cousins known as Frias. All I had was my dad. But there was a time when I didn't even have him.
If you had asked me, Julian Frias, age 14, what I thought of my dad, I would've told you that I hated him, that my dad is a loser and that my dad doesn't love me. And that's because until then my dad wasn't around for most of my life.
My dad was sentenced to 42 months in prison for his role in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in 2012, when I was 8 years old. Then I connected with him again for a year, and he was gone for another four years to serve another prison sentence.
Young Julian Frias kept that a secret from his friends, his teachers and nearly everyone except his family. My hometown of Springdale, Arkansas, is your prototypical American suburban city. At the time, I believed it was the type of place where people lived picture-perfect lives, except for me.
My classmates talked endlessly about attending events or going on trips with their dads. Everyone seemed to have the ideal nuclear family structure, something that I yearned for as a young boy.
I always thought that having an absent parent was in and of itself taboo. Having an incarcerated parent was beyond the norm. I believed that if anyone at school knew, they would shun me, make fun of me and, more than likely, do both.
What I didn't know then, and didn't really know until now, is how many children were just like me. Half of American prisoners are parents to children under 18, noted 17-year-old Joshua Martoma, who recently won an editorial writing contest in the New York Times. Parental incarceration affects a staggering one in 14 American kids, Martoma wrote, calling this a "silent American epidemic" more common than childhood asthma.
In state prisons, 48% of black males, 51% of Hispanic males and 40% of white males report having a minor child. So, you see, I'm a Hispanic statistic. And I so wanted not to be one.
My dad is busy
My dad started serving time when I was in second grade. At that point, I felt sure that he loved me; he had just made a mistake. So I would cover for him. I would say my dad was working all the time. It seemed like everyone's dad was in the Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) program in my school district, the whole point being to provide positive male role models for the students. But my dad couldn't because he was too busy at work. Such a hardworking guy. Dad also failed to show up at "Bring Your Dad To Lunch Day." He was way too busy.
That first lunch day event really hurt. I remember walking into the cafeteria and seeing all my friends sitting with their dads. I got my food and began looking for a place to sit. Eventually I locked eyes with my tio (uncle) who was sitting with my cousin, and he waved me over to sit with them. Once I sat down, I began to cry. Since that first time, I always had my abuelito (grandpa) go to those lunches with me.
When you're in elementary school, it's pretty normal for friends to go over to each other's houses and hang out, but I would never allow anyone to come to my house because the lie about my dad might be exposed.
As the eldest of three brothers with an absent father, I had to step up to help my mother, Cristina. I embraced that responsibility. I would help Jayden, five years younger, and Jonathan, six years younger, get dressed in the mornings, help brush their teeth and serve them cereal. Then at night, I'd change them into pajamas and protect them from all the monsters in the closet, which was dumb because I was still scared of the monsters in the closet.
As time passed, I started to hate my dad a little bit. I felt like it was his fault that I had to live two different lives. There was the Julian at home, then the Julian at school. The two never overlapped.
When I was in sixth grade, my dad's four-year sentence was up, and just like that, I had him back. I remember going with my uncles to pick him up from a halfway house in Little Rock, feeling like the happiest kid in the world. When we were driving back to Springdale, my dad and I were sitting in the backseat, and out of nowhere, he looked me in the eyes and said: "Jay, I'm never going back. I messed up, I'll admit that. But I'm not gonna mess up again. I'm never gonna leave you guys again." I took his promise to heart.
But my dad failed to make it through the first three months of my seventh-grade year. He was arrested on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, a day I will never forget. I remember texting and calling him because he was supposed to be home whenever I got home from school. My stomach churned. I feared the worst. I googled "car crashes in northwest Arkansas" trying to find news reports of any accidents from that day.
I never imagined he had been arrested. There was no way. He had promised me! But by 9 p.m., when the Springdale Police Department came knocking on my door just like they had done five years before, I knew exactly what had happened.
My family is everyone
My mom's family moved quickly to help us. Whenever people talk about family, they usually just refer to the normal nuclear family. You know, mom, dad, siblings, the people who typically live in your house. But I refer to my family as everyone, my mom, brothers, aunt, uncles, grandparents and cousins, because we're all so close. Though growing up without my biological father, I felt like I had four dads: my abuelito and my three tios. I learned from them what it meant not only to be a real man but to be a good person.
My abuelito, Carlos Trejo, who passed away last summer, taught me how to live a life of compassion and empathy. When my abuelito saw a person who was down, he always offered a helping hand. My Tio Alberto Solis showed me how to work hard and provide for a family. He's incredibly intimidating, yet so caring and protective of his family. He's found a perfect balance between being the "macho" man while also expressing love to his family.
My Tio Ricardo Trejo taught me how to enjoy the little things in life. Our favorite activities always revolve around watching sports, sharing laughs and cooking food. My Tio Roberto Trejo showed me the importance of finding joy in a complicated life full of hardship and struggle. His youth in comparison to my other tios makes him the "fun" tio.
Between the ages of 7 and 17, I lived in a dozen different homes. I shared the same bed with my mom and brothers until my sophomore year in high school. Without a college degree or technical skills, my mom struggled with finding a decent-paying job to support us on her own. For a good part of that time, I lived in my grandparents' three-bedroom home, where at one point 14 family members were residing.
Our situation made my mom determined that her boys would make something of themselves. Mom emphasized to me that I must not become a statistic — not just another brown kid with an absent father who went down the wrong path.
My mom preached education and emphasized the importance of school. No one pushed me and believed in me more. I remember when I was preparing for eighth grade, my mom and I created a "plan to get to college." It was a meticulous year-by-year project that had me enrolling in as many advanced classes as possible to ensure I would have the best chance to earn college scholarships.
But more important, my mom always showed up. Every award ceremony, every graduation and every soccer game. Through thick and thin, my mom always did her absolute best to ensure that my brothers and I would never go without. She is my hero.
Wearing a mask
My dad’s second arrest in 2016 changed our relationship forever.
My dad was charged with possession of a controlled substance, attempted coercion and enticement of a minor, and using the interstate to entice a minor into sexual conduct. He had downloaded the app Whisper and had conversations with someone he thought was a 15-year-old girl. It was really an undercover officer. My dad agreed to meet the decoy at a pizza parlor. He drove past the meeting location but was still pulled over and arrested. He later told officers that his depression over his actions led him to start using meth again. He was sentenced in federal court to 57 months in prison.
After my dad's second incarceration, I decided to block him from my mind. It was just easier to forget about him and pretend like he didn't exist. It protected me from a lot of pain and, honestly, it was easier to ignore my problems than to confront them head-on.
Even so, I couldn't change how I acted at school. I had to put on a mask and play a role that fit in with everyone else so nobody would know anything was wrong. When I was in school, I was the kid everyone expected me to be, a straight-A student and an outgoing athlete.
Some days it was overwhelming because I just couldn't keep pretending to be someone I wasn't. There were days when I cried a lot. My favorite place to cry was the shower because I would play music so the sound of the water and music would drown out my sobs and wash away the tears.
My reaction would not have surprised researchers. The National Institutes of Health cites a European study that said children with parents in prison are at a "significantly greater risk of suffering mental health difficulties, including low self-esteem, depression, disturbed sleep patterns and symptoms of post-traumatic stress." A North American study, also cited by NIH, stated that separation from a parent was found "more detrimental to a child's well-being than divorce or the death of a parent."
I have not found any studies about children who have gone so far as to change their names. Maybe I am alone in this. But I doubt it.
A fresh start
About two years after my dad's second stint in prison, my mom filed for divorce. And that's how I came to that moment in my living room in 2018 when Mom asked me if I — along with my brothers — wanted to take on her surname.
It felt as though she was giving me a fresh start in life. By then the negativity associated with being a Frias felt like an anchor around my neck. In contrast, I associated the Trejo name with love and perseverance. I would be proud to represent the family through all my accomplishments. I would be ecstatic to share it with my children.
My dad was released from his second stint in prison in October 2020. At that point, I believed I had lived so much of my life without him that I didn't need him anymore, certainly not as a father. I didn't speak to him until June 2021. My dad told me that he wanted to be the kind of father that I wanted him to be. If I never wanted to see him again, he said he could live with that. If I wanted him to simply regard him as an acquaintance, or just a friend, that would be OK, too.
As you might imagine, the name change was a bitter pill for my dad to swallow. It was one of the first things he wanted to address with me. At first, he blamed my mother, believing she was using his sons against him. But then in my senior year, I shared an essay with him that I had written to fulfill an English assignment. It was about taking the path from Frias to Trejo. (Much of what you are reading here is taken from that essay.)
As heartbreaking as it was for him, my dad told me he read the essay again and again and couldn't help but feel shame. It was the first time he realized how much his stints in prison affected me. He understood exactly why I felt the need to become a Trejo and has not questioned my decision since.
Trauma and blessings
My dad went on to be reincarcerated for a probation violation during the fall semester of my freshman year in college. Though I was disappointed, I no longer felt the shame or sadness I felt as a child. It wasn't my first rodeo.
But one day, my dad asked me for a copy of my senior year English paper. He said he wanted to share it with his fellow prisoners who are also dads, as a cautionary tale and a way of looking at the world through the eyes of the children they have left behind. Maybe when this piece is published it will find its way to prisons across America. I pray for that.
I know my dad loves me now, and it probably breaks his heart every day to know that none of his three children bears his name. I couldn't admit it before, but I love my dad too. My dad is far from perfect, but then again who is?
I feel so much sympathy for my father because I understand how easily his path could've been my own. It's something my mom and I used to talk about all the time. My dad is the oldest of his siblings, just like me. He received good grades at school, never got into any trouble and always looked out for his younger siblings, just as I did. By all accounts, he was a good boy, just like I was. But that all changed as he reached adolescence.
Though my dad was incarcerated for large chunks of my life, he never even met his own father. My dad also didn't have a big close group of uncles and a grandfather like I did. All he had was an abusive and alcoholic stepfather.
His stepfather would beat him regularly for mundane offenses and never treated my dad with the same love as his siblings. It was too much for a young boy to handle alone, and he resorted to drugs to escape his dark reality.
My dad has struggled with addiction for most of his life. His poison of choice has always been methamphetamine. My dad grew reliant on meth, and it became a coping mechanism for any hardships he encountered in life.
I thank God that I got the love and support that I needed to stay on the right path. My prayers were answered when I earned a coveted scholarship to Wash U. I was added to the dean's list in my first two semesters of college, as a first-generation college student. In my second semester I earned a fellowship that allows me to become a soccer journalist covering an MLS team in St. Louis.
More important, I found my way back to the church. In June 2022, I received my sacraments and now attend mass regularly at the Catholic Student Center on Wash U's campus.
The small chapel provides an intimate spiritual connection with God. The only word that comes to mind as I pray is gratitude. I'm grateful that God gives me strength to overcome any obstacle life throws my way. But more important, I'm thankful he placed so many amazing people on my journey to get me where I am today. I could have never done any of it alone. God has truly blessed me in more ways than I could've ever imagined as a child.
I can't forget the emotional scars and traumas my dad brought to my life. Oddly though, I'm glad he put me through those experiences because they helped mold me into the person I am today. If I had the chance to change anything, I wouldn't.
I don't think Julian Frias would have had the strength to write the story that I am sharing with you. He would not have dared to tell anyone his dad had served time in prison. But Julian Frias didn't write this. I, Julian Trejo, did. My name has meaning now and it represents my life story. My name gives me courage and strength.
So I ask: What does your name mean to you?
This story was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund and first published in the Riverfront Times. Julian Trejo is a sophomore at Washington University and a fellow with the RCJF. The essay was edited by Richard H. Weiss and Sarah Fenske. The audio essay was produced by Alex Heuer. Original music and sound design by Aaron Doerr. For more on the RCJF, which provided funding for this project and seeks to support local journalism in St. Louis, see rcjf.org. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.