Elisa Barragan heard the screams first.
Neighbors rushed into the yard of the San Jose house that she had rented for 20 years, yelling “fire.” One of them grabbed a hose from next door and sprayed the roof as an electrical fire began to spread and melt the gutters.
Barragan ran. Not out, but farther inside, to the rear bedroom to her 24-year-old son, Isaiah Alcala. Born with half a brain, Isaiah has paralysis of all four limbs and cannot swallow or speak.
“I was not going to leave him,” Barragan said.
She stayed with Isaiah until four men, all of them strangers, plowed through the smoke to the back of the house and carried Isaiah outside. In minutes, the San Jose Fire Department arrived, then a television crew to cover the heroic rescue for the evening news.
It was Mother’s Day, this year.
The family was safe, but the troubles had just begun.
Suddenly homeless, Barragan, 61, had to temporarily leave her son at a residential facility. Her 9-year-old granddaughter, Khloe, who has lived with Barragan for most of her life, went to stay with relatives. Barragan checked into a Motel 6 and began to search for a new apartment in San Jose — the city where she grew up and raised a family but could no longer easily afford.
In August, the family found a place to rent in a neighborhood near downtown San Jose called Little Portugal. There was a catch: Barragan had to post a security deposit, and had only a few weeks to come up with the money. It was a tough task for someone on a fixed income.
Facing possible homelessness again, Barragan turned to Midtown Family Services, where office coordinator Lidia Jimenez helped her gain one-time assistance through The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. The grant from Season of Sharing covered the deposit.
When Isaiah was born, he was the first disabled person that Barragan had ever met. She quit her job as a secretary at a banking company to take care of him and hasn’t worked a steady gig since. The family subsists on her Social Security income and her late ex-husband’s pension.
Isaiah was diagnosed with a range of disabilities, including microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is abnormally small, usually the result of the brain not developing properly, either in the womb or after birth.
Isaiah has never spoken, Barragan said. But he coos for her when she sings to him. Barragan sometimes puts a tambourine where Isaiah’s arm crunches against his chest, letting him pretend to play along with his niece Khloe on guitar. She’s heard her son’s laugh once.
“We try to live a normal life, but the reality is it’s not normal,” she said.
After the fire, when Isaiah was placed into the residential facility, Barragan said some people tried to persuade her to keep him there. They wanted her to be able to join her extended family on trips to Disneyland and to enjoy retirement without limitations, she said.
Separating her blended family permanently was never an option, she said.
The day she went to pick up Isaiah from the facility and bring him to their new home in Little Portugal, Barragan said she felt butterflies in her stomach.
“I felt like I was in love for the first time,” Barragan said.