Local Catholic shares life journey after polio through faith lens

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When Pascuala Herrera reflects on her life so far, one thing is clear to her: God always had a plan, even if she didn’t understand it at the time.

That’s one of the messages of her memoir, “Not Always a Valley of Tears: A Memoir of a Life Well Lived,” which she self-published with the help of her two daughters this year. The book is available in English and Spanish.

“Sometimes the way things happened, it was like a made-for-TV movie,” said Herrera, 55.

Herrera was born in La Purísima, a small town in Mexico, in 1965. She was the eighth of nine children in her family, which her father supported by working in the United States. When she was nine months old, she was stricken with polio. Doctors in Durango, four hours away by car, could do nothing for her, so they sent her home and told her mother to prepare for her little girl to die.

Her mother, she said, kept praying and never gave up hope, even when Herrera could not move for the next six months. The little girl eventually opened her eyes and turned her head, then moved her fingers, hands and arms. Eventually, she crawled all over her home — and the community.

“I do remember just being happy,” Herrera said, noting that she had to ask her older brothers and sisters to share stories of her early childhood for the book. “Not feeling less-than or different.”

Feeling different for Herrera came when her father was able to bring the whole family to Chicago when she was 7. That started a series of doctor appointments, surgeries and therapy, along with being sent to schools for disabled students, not the same schools her siblings attended.

“All of a sudden, I was being treated differently,” Herrera said. “I was being ‘cured.’ I was being treated as if I was sick, and I didn’t feel sick. Why was I always in hospitals? It was important to my parents. And I understand that.”

While Herrera was eventually able to walk with braces and crutches, she now uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from DePaul University and directed a program at Harper College in Palatine to advocate for and assist students with disabilities and other differences. She met her husband, Isidro Herrera, while protesting for accessibility for disabled people in Las Vegas.

Isidro, who also has a disability, was from Texas.

“How else would we have met?” Herrera said.

After suffering two miscarriages and the death of a son named Cristian hours after his birth, she and her husband adopted a baby girl, Ariel, and, less than a year later, she gave birth to another daughter, Ariana.

“I had two miscarriages and I lost a son,” Herrera said. “That was so painful to me. Why would God allow that? I was really, really sad. I still went to church. I would go, even though I was still angry with him. Two years later, when I adopted Ariel, I realized he had it all figured out. I thanked him, and I still do. I still pray for Cristian, and I thank God and Ariel’s birth mom.”

In the book, Herrera said that her mother, who always had faith in her, told her that she had figured out why God allowed her to get polio. It was because that allowed her to help all the students she did at Harper College.

The title of the book is also an homage to her mother, who would say, “Life is a valley of tears.”

She wrote it at the suggestion of her daughters, who saw their mother at loose ends and still dealing with the grief of her mother’s death after she retired.

“My mom has always told me really interesting stories from when she was growing up,” Ariana Herrera said. “I thought she should write them all down. She can help a lot of people.”

Ariana, 20, is studying biology at Dominican University, but she found time to help Pascuala edit the book, and in the process, she learned a lot about her mother.

She had to go through a lot of difficult experiences and challenges,” Ariana Herrera said. “She was able to become a hard worker and someone a lot of people can look up to.”

Now living in Franklin Park and a parishioner at Holy Virgin Martyrs Parish, Herrera said she learned her faith from her parents, even though they weren’t “very religious.”

“We do go to Mass on the weekends, we do get the sacraments, we do some Mexican traditions, like novenas with the rosary at home,” she said. “They were very much people of faith, my parents, and they taught me what I think was a better way to communicate with God. They taught me to talk directly to God. They taught me it was OK to be angry with him.”

Now Herrera is looking forward to gardening in her yard, which has newly installed raised beds that she can reach from her chair. She is working with a partner to offer online classes for educators about making classes accessible to all students through Educators4Equity, including those marginalized by disability, race or ethnicity.

She is also continuing her advocacy work, and is available to speak to churches and other groups.

“This is a story about how the impossible can become possible, by perseverance and keeping a dream,” Herrera said. “I had to dream to be where I’m at, and I had to rely on God to lead me to where I need to go.”

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