Ines Cervantes has lived her life outside her comfort zone, and she always does it with a smile and optimism. Though the scariest thing she ever did was go through the process of becoming an American Citizen, stepping onto the taekwondo mats at Johnson ATA was a close second. But both felt natural to her.
Feisty and confident at about 5 foot tall, Ines doesn’t look like someone you would ever need to fight. But it doesn’t mean she hasn’t been fighting obstacles her entire life. At age 55, Ines did something most people never accomplish, she stepped onto the dojo at Johnson’s ATA to take her first step towards defending herself and building her confidence. At age 59, she got her black belt.
It all started with her son, Christian, who was being bullied at school. He signed up for classes behind her back. Ines was mad and went into the academy to talk to Michael Beazley, his instructor. “She wasn’t excited about Christian learning to be violent or learning to fight and didn’t really trust me. I told her to hang out, watch a class and then talk to me again. I told her I don’t teach people how to fight, I teach them to defend themselves.” So Ines stayed and watched.
As she watched, she became engaged. “I felt like I could do that,” said Ines, and she stepped onto the mat. “It wasn’t easy. It’s different when you are outside, sitting. When I started, it was an adventure.”
This was the first real extracurricular activity Ines had experienced since she was 5, and it didn’t come easy. Breaking boards and memorizing forms was hard. “She struggled with many things and learned more and more as she went,” said Beazley. “She had so much heart and put her all into everything. I love how much passion she had for it and she worked so hard at it all.” It paid off. Being in her 50’s didn’t stop her. Ines went to Taekwondo tournaments, and won! It was at a tournament she met a new mentor, Mr. Yardwood, who reminded her that age is just a number and she could accomplish anything, including getting her black belt. She is both state and district champ in her age bracket.
Ines’s life has never been easy. At the age of five, she was going to be a ballerina. But when her mom left, her family no longer had the money to pay for lessons. Growing up, she was the little mama. She had to take care of her siblings, and do most of the cooking. This didn’t leave her the opportunity to do fun activities like dance or sports that most kids got to do.
“I raised my brother and sister. Dad remarried when I was 10. At 12, I cooked for everybody, 8 people.” It was the start of a Cinderella story, complete with a strict and controlling step mom. “But we survived.” And in a positive Ines fashion, her cooking was never a burden, but became a light that helped her get through life. Today she is known for homemade salsa.
Ines did have a close relationship with her father, though she hardly got to see him since he worked all the time. “Sunday was our special day. We went to the Gulf of Mexico.”
At age 25, Ines married her prince. “He changed once we were married. He was not the same person.” Though he never hit her, he was verbally abusive. Finally Ines took a stand and got divorced. Soon after she was laid off from her job.
At 26 Ines came to the United States for the first time to be with her friend, and to escape. She worked in a food truck. They would start at 5:30 in the morning and go until about 10 at night, 5 days a week. “It was hard work. But they paid cash. I used to cry. I wanted to know what I was doing here.” She spent 6 months in the states, and then went back to Mexico.
A few years later her friend reached out again. Immigration reform had passed, and she could come live in the states for 6 months and apply to stay. When her 6 months was up, “they didn’t want to accept me,” explained Ines. “But the Catholic church gave me a letter of amnesty. I was able to get a work permit, but I couldn’t leave the country.” Then in Chicago, she met her second prince and got pregnant. He left her and went back to Mexico. Ines worked hard at a factory to support herself and her new baby. But the hours were long, and she had to leave Christian, her son, with a babysitter. She soon got a job in the elementary school, which was the perfect fit. For extra money, she would clean houses.
For many, this would be enough to give up. But not Ines. “I always make good friends wherever I go.” When she hit bottom, she kept going. “What can you do? I’m very optimistic. We aren’t perfect, but I always try to find the good. I tell you the same thing I tell my son,” Ines paused. “If you are good, things will come to you. I believe in karma.”
Karma led Ines to Sioux City, where she followed her friend. She got a job in the school system. Not long after she met her true love, Tim Black.
At age 58 Ines became a US citizen. Though Mexico will always be home, she felt like it was time. It was scary because she had to study hard. The application fee was high for her income, and she didn’t want to fail.
In some ways, applying to become a citizen was similar to getting her black belt. “What I learned when I got my black belt is that all my hard work pays off. It wasn’t easy, it took me four years of training, learning, sweating. Taekwondo, it’s not only kicking and punching, it takes time, practice, memorize, practice, practice and repeat. How many times I was frustrated when I couldn’t break the green board. Perseverance and time.”
In her journey, Ines has touched a lot of people. She is a role model for both adults and children. She mentioned friends helped her persevere, but her friends are also her family. “I love Ines for so many reasons,” says Beazley. “But I also respect her as an amazing human being with a heart of gold, I’m truly thankful for her and all she did to make me grow as a human being as well.”
Life still has its ups and downs, but Ines is ready to take on the world. “It’s the bad things that make me strong.”
“If you really want something you need to put your mind and heart on it,” says Ines. “Don’t give up. There were moments that I wanted to quit, but the support I had kept me going.” Ines says she is still learning everyday. “So if you want to do something for yourself, do it even though it is hard. Go for it!”
By Debbie LaCroix