Karla Maria Rivera: April 10, 1978 - Jan. 10, 2021

By Alma Villegas

Elijah Perez (left) and Karla Maria Rivera (right) pose for a graduation photo. On August 2019, both mother and son received their high school equivalency diplomas from Five Keys Schools and Programs.

Karla Maria Rivera attended Manual Arts High School in the ‘90s, but she received her diploma only two years ago in the summer of 2019.

“She ended up walking the stage with her son,” remembered Cindy Lopez, one of Rivera’s best friends. Lopez could not attend the graduation ceremony due to space accommodations, but she celebrated with Rivera afterward. “She goes, ‘It’s unbelievable!’ I was very proud of her.”

Earning her high school equivalency diploma at 41 years old and alongside her third-born son, Elijah Perez, marked one of Rivera’s greatest life accomplishments. She soon planned to pursue a college degree and begin her career as a social worker or child development specialist.

“She always wanted to set a good example,” said Nichole Perez, Rivera’s oldest child. “She wanted us to look at her and look at everything that we’ve been through, and take that as motivation to keep pushing forward.”

On Sunday Jan. 10, Rivera died from cardiac arrest— a complication caused by COVID-19— at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. She was 42 years old.

Rivera was born in El Salvador on April 10, 1978. Her mother emigrated from El Salvador when Rivera was an infant, leaving her in the care of acquaintances. Rivera came to the United States with her two older brothers when she was nine years old.

A migrant mother who lived with chronic health conditions and survived domestic violence, Rivera measured her success with the life she built for her five children in Inglewood.

Considering the socioeconomic issues that impact youth in South Los Angeles, Rivera’s proudest achievement was raising her kids to be smart and independent beings, said Rivera’s former high school friend, Manuel Rios. “I don’t think she could have asked for anything else in her life,” he said.

Rios and Rivera met when both were 16 years old, and reunited decades later. He remembered her as a “tough cookie” with the “biggest backbone” who often defended him in class when he struggled with the academic content.

“She would tell the teacher: ‘[H]e didn’t have time to study. Just leave him alone. [I’ll] answer this one for him,’” recalled Rios. “I was like, ‘Karla, you don’t have to do that,’ because obviously I would get in trouble, but she was always coming to my help.”

In 2011, Rivera lost custody of Nichole Perez and her siblings due to domestic violence, but she acted fast. Rivera contacted a lawyer, received therapy, and attended parenting classes, procuring guardianship almost two months later. She was her children’s protector.

“She saw strength in her that she never thought she had,” said Lopez, explaining the positive side that Rivera saw through that difficult moment. According to Lopez, locating the good in people and situations was one of Rivera’s most admirable qualities. Both mothers became inseparable after meeting at a support group for domestic violence survivors almost five years ago. “She was my person. I loved every second I had with her.”

Although Rivera had a talent for comforting her loved ones, she grieved a strained relationship with her mother whom she had not spoken with in recent years. Rivera loved her mother and wanted to reconcile with her later in life, but she remained afraid of her mother’s response, Lopez said.

Nichole Perez will remember her mother as an artistic person who enjoyed painting, writing poetry, gardening, and dancing. “If you caught her dancing in the living room, you were going to have to dance with her, there was no escaping,” she said. “She was a very loving person and all she ever really wanted was to be loved in return.”

Rivera is survived by her five children: Nichole Perez, 24; Matthew Perez, 23; Elijah Perez, 18; Raymond Perez, 15; and Jacob Lopez, 3.

Rivera planned to attend college after receiving her high school equivalency diploma. She considered a career as a social worker after encountering unsympathetic case managers when she briefly lost custody of her children.