Sarah Stevens prowls the stage. The angled lights from the ceiling illuminate the words on her pinkish-white shirt: My body is a gangster’s paradise.
Both the father of her two daughters and her ex-husband ended up in prison. Now they also end up in Sarah’s comedy routines.
“My kids’ dad is doing 25-to-life in a Texas state prison,” she said at a 2016 gig at the Fountain Theatre in Old Mesilla. “It gets better: He’s doing this time because he shot his neighbor eight times … the guy lived.”
Sarah’s been through a lot in her 40 years. She works three jobs and lives paycheck-to-paycheck. She owes $48,000 for a 2015 appendix surgery because she lost her health insurance a week before the procedure. She smokes. She’s an emotional eater.
Sarah talks about that onstage, saying she gets off-handed compliments, “’Like, ‘You’re really pretty for a fat chick.’” She jokes that her backup plan is becoming a phone-sex operator. She jokes about politics, though she’s actually quite concerned about the nation’s political climate.
Sarah’s daughters are half black. She’s worried about the United States replacing its first half-black president with one she believes is normalizing racism. Sarah has intentionally moved away from her Republican upbringing and is frustrated that one of her daughters identifies as conservative today.
But Sarah can roll with all of that. Now that Donald Trump is president, she says she won’t run short of material for the next four years.
Sarah used to be angry and bitter. She thought of herself as a victim. She struggled through the death of her father when she was 15, rocky relationships with men, and losing her scholarship to New Mexico State University in her early 20s, which forced her to take time off from college.
When Sarah went back to school, she had two babies and needed welfare to survive. She wanted to become a lawyer but it didn’t happen.
“I used to think, ‘I did what I was supposed to do. It’s other people who didn’t come through,’” she said.
Single mothers face complex challenges. More than 80 percent of the nation’s 12 million single parents are mothers, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Single mothers and their children are more likely to live in poverty – women in the United States make about 20 percent less than men for the same work – and the fathers of these children are more likely to be in prison, according to a 2014 study by Princeton’s Sara McLanahan and Harvard’s Christopher Jencks.
And 72 percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers, higher than any other ethnicity, McLanahan and Jencks found. Prisons in the United States are disproportionately filled with black men — like the father of 19-year-old Raven and 16-year-old Quinlan “Quinnie,” Sarah’s daughters.
Raven and Quinnie identify as half black. Sarah cried while watching Barack Obama take the oath to become president in 2008. His election, she said, let her say to her daughters, “Look, he came from a very similar background to you and he grew up to be president of the United States. And so it’s not out of your reach, it’s not unattainable for you.”
Trump’s election, she believes, sent an opposite message: it’s OK to be racist.
Sarah had Republican parents. She attributes her Democrat leanings to the eye-opening experience of being cared for as a child, while her mom was at work, by a black woman and her family, whom she called her “surrogate family.”
Perhaps Sarah’s experiences at a young age – a troubled relationship with her father, being raised in multiple households where people held different ideologies and had different skin colors – helped set Sarah on a path of frustration, anger, rebellion, and feeling like a victim.
Five years ago, at age 35, Sarah decided she wasn’t going to live that way anymore. She was already in therapy but began more boldly exploring her anger toward her father and God, her relationships with men. And two years ago she started turning a lifetime of joke-telling into an outlet by releasing her emotions as a standup comedian.
Her transformation is a work in progress.
“I’ve always tried to turn chicken shit into chicken salad,” Sarah said about past relationships. She says she’s been trying her entire life “to take something broken and make it whole – not myself, somebody else.”
“We could talk like this for hours,” she said. “But you wanna hit the point that caused all this shit? No, we can’t talk about that. That’s the deep hidden thing that I don’t want to deal with.”
Not like her father
Sarah’s father, Dennis Stevens, is part of the story. He “wasn’t a very nice person,” Sarah said. “I don’t think my dad ever knew how to love anybody.”
Her parents divorced when Sarah was a baby. She described their relationship as dysfunctional and her father as “wishy-washy.” She lived with him during weekends, Christmas breaks and summers.
She didn’t realize her father battled his own demons until after he died. So she never asked about them. It wasn’t important when she had the chance. Now she wishes she had.
Dennis had many professions – administrative assistant at the Bernalillo County Assessor’s Office, political consultant for Republican candidates, advertising and marketing professional, executive at banks in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. He even taught calculus at the University of New Mexico, Sarah said.
“He constantly had to be challenged,” Sarah said. “Once he felt like he had mastered something, he’d think he had to go master something different. And every time he did it, I think he was looking for some sort of fulfillment that he never found.”
He looked in politics. Sarah’s father was executive director and chairman of the state Republican Party in the early 1970s. And in 1982, Dennis ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives.
Sarah remembers her dad being “two-faced” in the political realm: talking to people in a kind way but speaking disparagingly about them in private.
Dennis had a son from a previous relationship. Sarah’s half-brother is five years older than her. They didn’t grow up together and met for the first time during Dennis’ 1982 campaign, when they posed for pictures together. Today they talk regularly.
Sarah has intentionally not followed her father’s example.
“My dad’s character makes me want to be the exact opposite of him,” she said. “I don’t want anything to make my life look perfect.”
Born in Las Cruces, she moved to Albuquerque to live with her maternal grandparents and finish high school after getting “into a little bit of trouble” here. She moved back to Las Cruces with a full ride to NMSU, which she lost her second semester because she stopped going to class. Sarah said she didn’t care about life, didn’t value herself, and flippantly made decisions that were bad, regardless of their consequences.
Sarah’s a stayer. She never left Las Cruces again. “I’ve stayed in jobs longer than I should have just because I wanted to be more stable than my dad was,” Sarah said. She worked at My Brother’s Place for 20 years until it was demolished last year.
Her father had periods of great economic status and periods of poverty, while her mother consistently stayed in the middle class.
“We’re under the poverty level now,” Sarah said, “which my brother says is part of the rebellion (against my father).”
So is her rejection of her father’s political ideology. Sarah’s time with her “surrogate family” opened her eyes to inequality, including “the vicious cycle” of welfare, which Sarah believes humiliates and breaks the spirit of those on it, so the poor stay poor. She says she learned sympathy for people who are oppressed.
Sarah jokes about her father, just like she does her former partners. Onstage at the Fountain Theatre in 2016, she said her dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1991. Doctors removed it, but the cancer had spread.
“So my dad’s in the hospital bed and everybody knows that he’s dying,” Sarah goes on. “And for some reason, my dad had changed his party to be a Democrat. I don’t know why, maybe the drugs. So I, being the asshole that I am, said, ‘Hey Dad, just want to let you know: You’re gonna die a Democrat.’”
“He said, ‘Do you see this scar on my head? I’ve already had a lobotomy. So it’s OK.’” Sarah laughed but today doesn’t think her dad was joking. She says he wasn’t a funny person.
Today, she thinks her father would probably be a Libertarian and opposed to Trump. But back then he was so devoted to the GOP that he decorated the house with elephants and had a blanket with elephants knitted for Sarah.
So why change his party? Perhaps it was the result of his unstable personality, never staying at something for long. Even life. He was 44 when he died. Sarah didn’t cry about his death until his funeral. The two never had a conversation where her father said anything like, “It’s OK, I understand, I’m gonna love you forever.”
A gangster’s paradise
The men Sarah’s been with are also part of the story. “He shot the guy eight times and didn’t kill him,” Sarah emphasizes at the 2016 show at the Fountain, wearing the “My body is a gangster’s paradise” T-shirt and speaking about the father of her children.
The stonewall responses from some in the audience are like her daughter Raven’s when she tells jokes about their family. Sarah’s unperturbed.
“She also doesn’t think it’s funny when I talk about my now ex-husband, who shortly after we were married went to federal prison for 10 years,” Sarah says. He’s in prison for possession of 23 grams of cocaine.
Sarah married that man after her daughters’ father went to prison. They’re divorced today.
“It’s not funny, Mom,” Sarah emulates her daughter onstage. “We lived it.”
“Still pretty funny though,” Sarah replies in the imaginary conversation.
Sarah would prefer her children had a father figure, but the absence of their actual father is “probably the best thing that’s ever happened,” she said. Sarah thinks it’s hard on Raven when she jokes about her father.
Raven and Quinnie both say they don’t care about those jokes. “I’m pretty open with my friends about my past, my dad,” Raven said.
But don’t ask her to watch her mom onstage. Neither Raven nor Quinnie have ever seen one of Sarah’s shows – nor, they say, do they want to.
Raven acknowledges other people think her mother is funny, even if she doesn’t. And she says her mother “seems more confident and happy” after a show.
Raven and Quinnie
Raven, like her mother, rejects the political views of her childhood household. She described herself as conservative during an interview with the family at their home.
Still, Raven registered as a Democrat and voted for Hillary Clinton last year.
“But you are so not a Democrat,” Sarah said.
Raven didn’t disagree, but she’s a reluctant participant in such conversations. She tries to avoid discussing politics. She’s busy working jobs at Taco Bell and Whataburger and taking management-training courses at Taco Bell. She attended NMSU to study athletic training last semester, but took this semester off to work and pay down student loans.
She’s not sure what she wants to do with her life, other than marry a rich guy so she doesn’t have to work.
Quinnie, a junior at Las Cruces High School, more willingly engages Sarah in political discussions. “But Raven just avoids the argument because I get so frustrated,” Sarah said.
Raven, Sarah believes, views the world as overly black-and-white. In a one-on-one interview, Sarah said Raven only got so far before quitting therapy, just like her mother did for many years. “She’s not ready to deal with that ‘thing’ yet,” Sarah said.
Raven, on the other hand, said her mother forced her into therapy she didn’t need.
Quinnie, like her mother, identifies as a Democrat. She says she would vote straight party if she were old enough.
Which sometimes puts the sisters at odds. When a clinic providing abortion services opened in 2014 in Las Cruces, Raven asked Sarah for permission to protest with other people who oppose abortion being legal.
Then Quinnie asked if she could demonstrate across the street with people who support keeping abortion legal.
Despite their disagreement, both said they wouldn’t have an abortion.
Quinnie agrees with her mother on many issues — the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, feminism and aiding immigrants, for example. Raven has no opinion on Black Lives Matter but calls herself anti-feminist and opposes aiding immigrants.
The three women are united, however, in their dislike for Trump and what they perceive as his racist and anti-woman rhetoric.
Presidents and race
In 2008, on the night of Obama’s inauguration, Raven, then 11, and Quinnie, then 8, sat with Sarah in their living room watching CNN. Sarah and Quinnie cried at what Sarah called “a momentous occasion.”
Raven squirmed on the couch. “When’s he gonna be done?” she asked.
Fast forward to Jan. 23, 2017. The family sat in their living room watching Trump’s inauguration, which they recorded three days earlier when it happened. Sarah said she wasn’t able to watch it live on Jan. 20 and also was “not going to give him the attention he so desperately wants.”
Sarah’s scared about access to abortion and other reproductive rights, as well as the rights of LGBT people, during Trump’s presidency. “I don’t think (Trump’s) concerned with any kind of social issues,” Sarah said.
Trump’s flaws, Quinnie said, include homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and racism. Sarah takes a dark view, believing Trump won because most Americans share those views.
“I just wish, as a country, we could admit, ‘Yeah, we’re racist,’” Sarah said.
New Mexico, though, is different, Raven and Quinnie say. Both girls say they’ve heard “the N-word” spoken in New Mexico, but believe most people use it as slang rather than in a derogatory way. Still, Quinnie wants to attend college out of state after high school.
Sarah said she has not experienced racism related to her half-black children. But she has experienced issues related to dating black men.
“When I was in high school, friends of mine that I had gone to school with forever — predominantly Hispanic — hated the fact that I dated black guys,” Sarah said. “… They wouldn’t talk to me.”
Onstage with the lights hitting her
Sarah described herself as naturally sensitive, having cried for the Wicked Witch of the East when she died in “The Wizard of Oz” and again when Jimmy Carter lost his presidential re-election bid. She was four at the time.
Sarah said she doesn’t deal well with emotions. “Supersensitive” people either become angry and mean or funny, she said. She’s done both to put up walls and hide from “the deep hidden thing that I don’t want to deal with.”
Sarah’s ex-husband proposed sometime between 2003 and 2005 (she couldn’t quite remember the year) by asking, “Wanna do this?” She replied, “Sure.”
He’d already been arrested at the time and was out on bond. They married at Las Cruces City Hall wearing jeans and hoodies. Then he went to prison and Sarah went home to her daughters.
Eventually, Sarah decided she didn’t want to be married anymore — didn’t want to be in a prison of her own — and divorced him. It was one of many decisions that have helped turn her life around.
The first time Sarah performed standup comedy was at a competitive open-mic night in 2015 at Emilia’s on the plaza in Mesilla. Friends convinced her to do it. She came in second in that competition. She won the next.
Sarah doesn’t think her life is that funny; it’s her perspective that sets her apart. She’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has previously taken antidepressants and mood stabilizers.
Medications interfered with Sarah’s creativity and enjoyment of life, so she stopped taking them. She tries to embrace the difficult periods of depression and looks forward to the manic episodes.
Once her children are living on their own, Sarah wants to devote more time to comedy. She doesn’t do it for money, she said, but for a release – to vent her frustrations with herself, her regular jobs, other people, society.
Sarah expects to feel lots of frustration these next four years. And as she keeps working to change herself from that angry, self-pitying person of the past, Sarah knows where to channel that frustration: onstage with the lights hitting her.
This story was co-published with the Las Cruces Sun-News and is the second in a series. Primary funding for this project came from the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance, a project of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Sarah Silva, the executive director of N.M. Communidades en Acción y de Fé, is a W.K. Kellogg fellow (and, by way of disclosure, Silva is dating NMPolitics.net editor and publisher Heath Haussamen, who edited this project). Silva focused her fellowship resources on partnering with news organizations to tell stories of multi-ethnic families as a way to bridge our understanding of one another. NMPolitics.net and the Las Cruces Sun-News also provided financial support for this project, and the news organizations retained all editorial control.