Jessica Llamoca’s childhood is filled with the tastes and sounds of Peru.
Growing up in a Peruvian American household in the Rowland Heights suburb outside Los Angeles, her culture set her apart from her friends.
She remembers feeling different — weird, even — when the Spanish words that rolled off her tongue weren’t the same ones her other Latino friends used, or when they stared at the traditional Peruvian meals she would unpack at the school lunch table.
But she also remembers the Spanish music that would be playing in her house when she would arrive home and the tallarines verdes topped with queso fresco or the ceviche her father would prepare for her. She remembers the trips to Lima and the altitude sickness on the 10-hour drives up into the Andes Mountains to visit her grandparents’ hometown. She can still taste the fried fish her grandmother would make in the morning and picture playing with her sister and cousins in the streets of Peru.
On the verge of 30, what used to make her self-conscious now makes her proud.
“I did struggle to identify with others, especially Latinos who weren’t Peruvian,” she says. “Growing up, it would make me a little sad to feel like I was weird, but as I got older, it was so much easier to embrace those differences. My culture isn’t weird, it’s who I am.”
Her life couldn’t be more different than those of her parents at her age. By the time they were 30, they had uprooted themselves from everything they had known in Lima to start over in America.
Her mother, Adna, was 23 when Llamoca was born. She worked as a custodian, and her husband, Ceferino, worked as an electrician, each earning money they hoped would put Jessica and her older sister, Janice, through college. Turning 30 isn’t what she thought it would be. As a child, she says, she thought it would mean having a family and a house of her own. Instead, she is living in her childhood home as she saves up to finish her master’s degree and works as a nurse nearby.
She has been in a steady relationship for eight years, but neither of them are in any rush to get married or have children. She’s content.
As a first-generation college student, it wasn’t easy to get here.
When it came to higher education, her parents struggled to make sure they were doing everything right. Once she was in school, every decision she made reminded her of how much her parents had sacrificed to get her there. “I felt really lost sometimes, but my parents worked so hard for me to graduate and get a career,” she says. “I had to push just as hard, putting in extra work to study and make good grades.”
At first, she studied to become a physical therapist, afraid her original dream of becoming a nurse would be too difficult. The workload was difficult to manage, and at times, her sister says, Llamoca would even bring her textbooks to the bar — afraid to miss out on any of the fun, but dedicated to her lifelong goal of pursuing a medical career.
Despite being the younger sibling, Jessica was always the more nurturing one, her sister says. And her interest in medicine only grew when Janice was involved in a serious car crash eight years ago.
The incident left her in the hospital for two months, and Jessica was by her sister’s side every day. Even when Janice was released, Jessica helped her with daily tasks, including drinking and eating, and received training on how to deliver daily shots to Janice’s stomach.
“I always tease her and say that I know I’m the reason she became a nurse,” Janice says. “It brought us much closer, and I think it gave her more insight into what being a nurse would really mean.”
As a nurse, Llamoca operates as the communicator between doctors, patients and family members. For her, interacting with patients is the best part of the job.
“You really have to advocate for your patients. It can be difficult, but when you have someone experiencing 10/10 pain, and you’re giving it your all for hours to get it under control, it feels so good to know you did something to help someone,” she says.
Right now, Llamoca’s biggest challenge is juggling her work schedule with her master’s program. Although she loves being a nurse, her experience at a smaller university brought her close with her professors and sparked a new passion: teaching. She hopes to become a professor and chip away at the lack of Latina representation in the nursing field.
“I’m really proud to be a Latina, and it’s nice to be part of a culture where I can be an example. But I want to help more of us be a part of this field,” she says.
In a few years, Llamoca hopes to be teaching. When she imagines her life at 40, she pictures herself near her family, but in a place of her own, hopefully with a husband and children. She imagines herself as a professor and as someone a bit more confident and independent than she is now.
Her childhood friend of 13 years, Sandy Cabada, says Llamoca is always striving to be better. In high school, when they first met, Cabada says, she remembers thinking they didn’t have much in common — she was focused on partying with friends, while Llamoca was always focused on her schoolwork. “She expects a lot out of herself; she’s a perfectionist,” Cabada says.
Someday soon, Llamoca hopes to return to Peru with her parents. It’s been 10 years since her family last made the trip, and in the meantime, they have collected dozens of passport stamps from countries including Spain and Tanzania.
A particularly special one is Tanzania: a souvenir from a trip to celebrate Janice’s 30th birthday. After her accident, Janice was determined to hike Mount Kilimanjaro by the time she was 30. Afraid of missing a once-in-a-lifetime chance, Jessica tagged along with her, enduring a six-day trek to the mountain’s 19,341-foot summit.
It was grueling, and even though they were exhausted beyond belief, Jessica says she considers it one of her proudest accomplishments to date: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Not everyone makes it to the top, but if I say I’m going to do something, I do it.”