Colombian singer Charlie Zaa’s daughter Mia Sanchez is one of the lucky ones. She survived the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. One year later, they reflect on how this tragedy changed their lives.
For people like Mia Sanchez, February 14 will never truly be Valentine’s Day. Away from the marches and speeches and the politics and the #NeverAgain social media campaigns, which have been rightfully and importantly broadcast to highlight the devastating event that occurred in Parkland, Florida, a year ago, are the survivors of Parkland who suffer daily and quietly.
Instead of attending a special morning event at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School (classes were canceled), the 17-year-old traveled with her mom and dad, Colombian singer Charlie Zaa, to Los Angeles to attend one of his concerts. He hopes this trip to California and getting away from Parkland on the anniversary will help take his daughter’s mind off the horrific tragedy, which has been nearly all-consuming. Last February, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student, killed 14 students and 3 school staff with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Two of those students were Mia’s friends. “The only thing I think about is what happened, and I guess that means that it still haunts me,” Mia tells CHICA.
Mia and other 15 students were trapped inside a classroom. “I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was fake. I was so scared that he would come inside,” Mia recalls of hearing gunshots in her hallway, where Cruz went on to shoot through other windows and doors, injuring and killing students. “I thought that I was going to die.” But instead, teacher Scott Beigel, 35, stood outside Mia’s class door, telling the shooter there was nobody else inside the room. Heroically risking his own life to divert Cruz and save those teens, he was gunned down. After the incident, Mia posted a tribute to her brave teacher on her Instagram with heart emojis with the message: “Always heroes. #NoMoreGuns.”
Mia’s father, 48, often asks himself why his daughter’s life was spared. “Why didn’t the shooter go into my daughter’s classroom? Only God knows,” he reflects. Although Mia was not touched by bullets, the violence and death impacted her deeply. “Our daughter has had big episodes of anxiety, she has gone into a panic various times. She has struggled with depression and has dreaded going to school.”
Zaa admits they wanted to change her to a different school, but the 10th grader insisted on going back. Class resumed six months after the shooting, on August 15, 2018. Security was enhanced, including more surveillance cameras, automatically locking doors in classrooms, and a new fence, and though it might mitigate certain fears, it mainly serves as a reminder of the trauma. “The first day back, she had a panic attack; she couldn’t breathe and she almost fainted,” Zaa recalls.
However Mia pushed through, thanks to her family’s support and undergoing therapy to face her fears. “She said: ‘Mom, Dad, I have to return. I have to face this Goliath, I can’t back down. I know it will be really hard, but I need to go back,” the singer says, framing the challenge in biblical terms. According to Zaa, his daughter felt she had a mission to speak to her classmates — those who lived through that nightmare with her that day — about God’s protection and presence in their lives. “The best way to walk through any kind of desert is holding God’s hand, holding it tight, and putting Him before anything else,” says Zaa, who is a devout Christian. Mia’s faith has also been strengthened after the tragedy, he says: “She has matured impressively. She is going to church more, reading the Bible more, listening to Christian music.”
Zaa is still shocked by the fact that Cruz was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, “a weapon used in world wars.” He walked his daughter on stage last year at Univision’s awards show Premios Juventud, where amid the audience’s applause, they gave a speech about the importance of gun control and ending violence.
The singer says his wife, Janeth Hoyos, has also been instrumental in helping their daughter heal by listening to her and guiding her through her grief. “We have been married for 22 years, and we have gone through thousands of difficult situations, but never anything as hard as this,” Zaa says of the shooting-related stresses their daughter suffers.
Though she’s gone through something no one should have to experience, not least as a teen, Mia Sánchez has the tools to persevere as well as reflect: two caring, supportive parents. “Besides the obvious problem with gun control in the country, I think everything starts at home. Parents should raise their kids to be respectful and loving,“ she says. “I can see so much hate and bullying in schools here, kids don’t act like kids, and it seems like their parents don’t even care…. High school is very hard, people are very rude sometimes and having someone you can really count on would help to prevent teens from getting to a point they are so desperate that they hurt innocent people.” While a victim and survivor, Mia knows she is still very lucky.