It was pitch black that night in Bogota, Colombia, but Moises Tera felt no fear.
A typical elementary school-aged child would have felt it, but Tera’s upbringing was anything but typical.
He and two friends sprinted from their orphanage and into the unknown without any inhibitions. All they knew was that they wanted to get far, far away.
“It was like 12 o’clock at night,” Tera recalled. “We just dug a hole in the ground and slept there for the night. The next morning, the police came and took us back to the same place.”
Over the years, this became, as Tera would describe it, “a routine.” He despised the orphanages, where he would spend the majority of his childhood from age 3 to 11, and endured many nights on the run. In his young mind, the dangerous streets of Colombia beat the alternative.
“I just lived on the street,” he said. “Sometimes we would just go and beg at the stores — ask them for food, or beg people on the street for money. I was pretty young, so I didn’t really care. It’s a third-world country, so everybody there was poor. I lived in the poorest place. … It was just normal over there.”
That could have been the norm for the rest of his life.
Sleeping outside, begging for food, and even stealing meat to cook on street lamps became some of his basic means of survival.
When he would inevitably get caught and returned to the orphanage, the punishment was usually severe. Sometimes he would have to carry heavy tree trunks for hours, or stand naked through the night as a way to degrade him in front of his peers.
The constant turmoil only deepened Tera’s emotional wounds but, some 2,500 miles away, there was a glimmer of hope for a brighter future.
Hope & fate
Hope Tera of New Rochelle usually taught Sunday school at the Unitarian Universalist Church in White Plains.
But on one particular Sunday, in the spring of 2006, she had no class and decided to attend services.
“It was fate,” she said, her smile beaming. “They had a guest speaker come in that spoke about a program called Kidsave. It’s a non-profit that brings older orphans from other countries to the U.S. for a summer to spend with an American family. Their goal is that you’ll get attached with the child over the summer and then pursue their adoption. I’m a single mom — I have a son, Ian — and Ian was about 8 years old at the time. I said to Ian, ‘Would you like to host a boy over the summer?’ He said, ‘Absolutely,’ so, really, my intent was just to host a boy for the summer.”
The boy was Moises.
Even though he spoke no English and Hope spoke very little Spanish, they had “an amazing summer” together, and Hope decided to pursue the adoption. But the process was arduous and took nearly two years.
Finally, on March 15, 2008 — a date they now celebrate as “Family Day” — Moises arrived back in the United States for good.
“I was just really excited to come here,” Moises said. “I was amazed by everything that I saw — every little toy, everything that I saw in my brother’s room. I took three-hour showers, baths — it was just amazing.”
Moises picked up the language quicker than expected but, because he had very limited education in Colombia, he was placed in the third grade at age 11. And because he had never been in a true family setting, the first few years were rough.
The tale of Moises’ troubled past would help explain why it was such a difficult transition.
Moises doesn’t remember much about his birth parents, but his final memory of them will forever be ingrained in his mind.
At the age of 2, they lost custody of him due to their issues with substance abuse, but he was returned to them a year later.
“It brings back bad memories,” he said, struggling with the recollection and pausing to gather his thoughts. “When I got back to them, my dad and my mom were fighting with this other guy, our neighbor. The neighbor hit my mom and gave her a black eye, and my dad went out and started fighting him on the street. He told me to break a bottle and told me to stab the guy. And that’s what happened. We stayed in a little jail cell for the night.”
The next day, Moises was taken away from his parents permanently. And, over the next eight years, he would move from one orphanage to another, with bouts of homelessness mixed in whenever he could escape.
With a whole new world to explore in the United States, Moises was rarely willing to take no for an answer, and his relationship with his new mother became volatile.
“I would be lying if I said that we didn’t go through hell,” Hope said. “I had a (person-in-need-of-supervision) petition against him. We went right to the brink. We were in court, and the district attorney asked me if I wanted to terminate parental rights. And, for a split second, I actually thought about it. But, if you think about Mo’s background, I was very naïve. I thought, ‘I’m going to welcome this kid into our family and everything will be fine,’ and he really didn’t know (how to handle it). I tended to take everything very personally so, when he was stealing cash from me and using my credit cards, I was devastated.”
Therapy helped heal the divide, but a new passion in Moises’ life changed everything: wrestling.
His mom credits New Rochelle High School varsity coach Eddie Ortiz
“He started in seventh grade, and that helped, but it was really coach Ortiz,” she said. “God bless him. I love that guy to pieces. Mo really thrives with structure and discipline, and the physical aspect of it just worked wonders. Coach Ortiz made it very clear from the beginning that he and I were working as a team, and that I had his full support.”
Suddenly, Moises had a purpose — and plenty of talent to boot. As traumatic as those years of lifting tree trunks and running from Colombian police had been, it built the type of athlete that had immense ability on the mat.
“When he first came into the room, one of the first things that I noticed was his physical conditioning,” Ortiz said. “He was able to just go without getting tired. I said, ‘OK, this kid has got some potential.’”
In Ortiz, Moises found a father figure that he had been sorely missing.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know (the coaches) that well, and now I treat them as my dads — especially Coach Ortiz,” he said. “He’s always been there for me in the tough times when I’m fighting with my mom or arguing. I always come and ask him for help, or with anything in school. He always tells me the right things to do, so I just treat him like my dad.”
It took some time, but Ortiz, in concert with Hope and Ian, got Moises to start focusing more — on and off the mat. He stopped getting in trouble and started having success.
“I’m so proud of him because it’s kind of come full circle,” Ortiz said. “When you have that type of background and have been through adversity, you develop that grit.”
Moises is in the midst of his best season yet, ranked No. 2 at 120 pounds in the Lohud Weight Class Rankings. Earlier this month, he won a title at the ultra-competitive Murphy-Guccione Shoreline Classic, New Rochelle’s home tournament.
He’s also become an inspiration to his teammates.
“Moises has gone through a lot in his life, and it just proves that he has a strong character,” said senior Jake Shore, one of Moises’ best friends on the team. “What I respect the most about him is his ability to see everything that has happened in a positive way. He looks back at his situation, and where he is now, and, rather than stay fixated on the past, he makes himself better in the present.”
Asked about his finest wrestling moment, Moises points to a loss when he was in eighth grade.
“I was against Ryan Duffy (from Westlake), and I wanted to win really badly,” he said. “I got to the finals and I was really happy, but I lost to him by one point. I started crying, but I came back and gave him a big hug and congratulated him. I saw my mom was crying because she felt so proud of that. That was the proudest moment of my whole wrestling career so far.”
He knows that such a display of sportsmanship wouldn’t have been in his nature not too long ago. And he isn’t the only person in his family who has been transformed for the better.
“Every time that Mo would start to veer off course a little bit, wrestling would pull him back,” his mother said. “The kids on the team, the structure, the values that it instills — he’s just really flourished with it. It’s changed him as a person — and me.”
Even though Moises is technically a junior because he started school late, at age 18 this is his final year of eligibility for wrestling. He has realistic hopes of winning a Section 1 title this season, and then receiving his high school diploma next year — accomplishments he could never have fathomed eight years ago.
Eventually, he said, he’d like to be an electrician or a firefighter. “Or maybe,” he added with a shy smile, “if I can get my grades up, some college for wrestling.”
No matter where he ends up, he knows it’ll be a long way from where he came.
“I feel great, like the world is my oyster,” he said. “I can do anything that I want now. If I stayed in Colombia, I could have been a drug dealer, or even worse things. Now, I’m just in heaven. I feel awesome.”