Jennifer Pantoja— Photography by Karlo Gomez
Jennifer Pantoja grew up in a traditional Mexican house where men and women upheld old-fashioned roles. She developed a lot of her grit growing up trying to break the stereotype of what girls are supposed to do.
“I started playing sports despite my mother’s fear of me getting hurt because I was a girl. They eventually got accustomed to the idea and were extremely supportive in everything I decided to do, including joining one of the toughest branches in the military, the Marine Corps.”
Jennifer says she was also stuck in “an awkward phase” through high school and then “just a tad less awkward phase after.” She credits the teasing she endured through those years for her individuality and confidence. “Learning not to care about what others think or say about you allows you to focus more on who you are as a person rather than trying to appease everyone else with your physical attributes.”
Now that she’s an adult and has broken the barriers of her traditional upbringing, her mom is one of her best friends and biggest supporters.
“It’s funny how when you’re younger you’re so ready to grow up and get away from your parents, but the older I get the more I seek out my mom. She’s been my rock throughout my whole life; there was never anything I needed that she wasn’t willing to give me.”
Jennifer says deployments were the hardest due to the time differences, but she would sometimes call her mom at the early hours of the morning and “she would always answer and listen to me cry for about an hour until I finally calmed down.”
And on her good days, which seem to occur more often than not, she likes to start out by enjoying a black coffee with her boyfriend, who she calls her best friend and her “swolemate”, early in the morning before he leaves to train at 24 Fitness and she heads to work. As seen on her Instagram @jenn_isdaname, they bonded over their love of fitness and grow stronger as their relationship continues.
“He’s the first person I see when I wake up and the last I see when I go to sleep and he just has this imprint in my life. He knows me better than I know myself sometimes, so he always knows what to say, when to hug me, and when to give me a dose of reality.”
Jennifer hasn’t always been so lucky with the men in her life though. A man she was involved with a few years prior to a recent deployment made her life very difficult after her return. “The first week he found out I was home, he went to every duty hut asking where I lived and after knocking on people’s doors as early as 4 am, he found my room. It took two hours of me begging for him to get out, but that wasn’t the last I’d see of him.”
The man continued to stalk and harass Jennifer and she eventually fell into a major depression and began drinking herself to sleep, stopped training, and started smoking and overeating. She says “I no longer valued myself enough to take care of myself.”
The turning point came very suddenly one night when she got extremely intoxicated and stared at herself in the mirror until it felt like she had sobered up and thought to herself “’What the hell are you doing?’ I looked at myself and actually felt sorry for the person I saw. I used to be this strong confident woman, but the woman staring back at me was a complete stranger. I decided I’d stop smoking, stop drinking, and focus on bettering myself again and I’ve never looked back.”
She says that while she’s in a much better place today, she still has days when the depression hits her hard. “I’ve hit rock bottom more times than I’d like. I’ve thought about crashing my motorcycle, I’ve cried myself to sleep countless nights, I’ve given up plenty of times, but I’ve always remembered to get back in the game.”
And through the uncertainty of life, her seemingly eternal optimism keeps her afloat. “If you sit and reflect on the negative or on everything you don’t have, you will have one miserable life. Instead we have to try to remind ourselves to look at everything we’re lucky to have and remember we still have another day to work towards attaining those things. ‘The bad doesn’t last forever.’ That has been my motto throughout life. It helps snap me back to reality when I need it.”