- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

RIFLE, Colo. (AP) - Veronica Toscano-Santoyo weighs most of her decisions based on this one question: Will it make her mother proud?

It was evident a few weeks ago as she walked across the stage at the Rifle High School graduation ceremony. Faculty members read remarks that each student prepared for when it came time to take the stage.

“Thanks to my family and friends that made high school so memorable, and, Mom, I hope that wherever you’re at, I’m making you proud.”

Veronica sheepishly concedes that she knows her mother was proud that day. Being only the second person in her family to graduate high school and with plans to attend college in the fall — a first for anyone in her family — the event was both a milestone and a step toward a future that her mother had envisioned.

Angelica Toscano, Veronica’s mother, moved to Rifle in 2001 in search of opportunity. She wanted to give Veronica and her younger sister Dulce, now 15, a better life than she had, Veronica’s grandmother Modesta Toscano told the Post Independent, with Veronica translating.

Angelica, who was 19 and had been in the country for two months, went to the Rifle City Market parking lot to call her mother July 3, 2001, when she encountered Steven Michael Stagner, according to stories published in The Citizen Telegram at the time. Stagner shot Angelica and six others — all seven were Hispanic — killing four.

Angelica was flown to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where she died July 6, 2001. The shooting spree was one of the most heinous crimes in Rifle’s collective memory, former Rifle Police Chief Daryl Meisner said. A single homicide was a rarity, typically separated by years. Four in one night was unprecedented.

“I think the whole community had some degree of shock and it was a very traumatic thing. Unfortunately we discovered this ain’t Mayberry anymore,” Meisner said referencing the fictional town in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

While the event left the community in disbelief, Veronica, who was 4 at the time and still living in Mexico with her grandmother, was without a mother.

‘WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS?’

“I don’t want to say I was jealous, but I was kind of jealous of kids I saw with their parents,” she said while reflecting on her childhood. “I thought to myself, ‘What did I do to deserve this? I must have done something to have this happen to me.’ But it was something that was totally out of my control.”

Modesta and her two granddaughters traveled to Rifle on a three-month visa. At the time, Modesta said she did not plan on staying, but after numerous pleas to stay and realizing that the best chance for a better life was here, Modesta made the difficult decision to stay in Rifle.

“She was just leaving everything behind and leaving all the memories that my mom had made (in Mexico) with me and my sister,” Veronica said while translating for Modesta. “And she had nothing to remind her of my mom. It was just like starting new.”

Although she died nearly 15 years ago, Angelica continues to play a pivotal role in Veronica’s life. Entering her sophomore year at Rifle High School, Veronica was unsure about continuing her education. She was not the best student, she said, and most of the people in her life did not even consider college.

“There’s been a lot of times that I just felt like giving up and that college just wasn’t for me,” she said. “I wasn’t the smartest person in my class and I wasn’t the most dedicated to school. I was just an average student and so . it was a big jump to go from high school to college.”

That was before Modesta, who says she never doubted Veronica’s ability to succeed, told her granddaughter about Angelica’s dream of a better life for her daughters. The conversation inspired her.

‘I ALWAYS FELT HER THERE’

“She was always my rock,” Veronica said of her mother. “Although she wasn’t there, I always felt her there and I always felt that she was guiding me. And I know that everything I do now is for her. Before I make a decision I kind of just … I know she’s watching over me, so I just want to make her proud. I don’t want to disappoint her.”

While Angelica serves as Veronica’s inspiration, her physical absence was and still is a challenge.

“You’d be surprised,” Veronica said. “Although she’s such a motivation for me, I can never say that I remember her face or anything of that sort. It’s really hard for me because I went through a lot of therapy when I was younger to try and cope with everything. And so now my whole memory is a blur from back then.”

It was especially difficult in 2012 when Stagner, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, appeared in court asking for supervised outings. The whole family was forced to relive the nightmare as they pleaded for the judge to deny the request, Veronica said. The supervised outings were ultimately approved.

Through it all, the family stayed closely bonded. Currently, Veronica, who turned 18 earlier this month, is working as many hours as she can at the Burger King in Rifle and is saving that money for college. She intends to take classes at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle this fall. While she is still undecided on a major, she would like to teach high school math, but that would require her to transfer to a larger and more expensive school at some point.

For now, she said she is excited to experience something new.

“I think it’s basically just the beginning for me,” she said.” Although it seems like that all my life has been to reach the goal of graduating high school, I think it’s only the beginning of what I can do.”

___

Information from: Post Independent, http://www.postindependent.com/

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