Stephanie Belace, with mother Erica Palacios, nominated her mom for an award given to women who inspire others. As a young mom, Palacios managed to get herself and her three kids away from a man who abused her.

Courtesy Erica Palacios

Seven times Erica Palacios left her abusive husband — and seven times she went back to him.

The eighth time, though, she took off for good.

Palacios says she made the long, scary journey out of a troubled marriage from deep in the heart of Mexico with her three young children and turned all their lives around. That courageous move happened 23 years ago, and Palacios was honored May 20 in Los Angeles by Step Up Women’s Network as part of its 13th Annual Inspiration Awards. The national nonprofit, which mentors girls, flew out Palacios for the ceremony along with her oldest daughter, Stephanie Belace, who nominated her mother through an online video contest.

When Belace broke the news of the award to her, “I was stunned,” said Palacios, the lead therapist for Vail School District’s occupational and physical therapy department. “She had never told me that I inspired her.”

Belace, the mother of two young girls, saw a Facebook post about the DermStore Inspires video contest the day before the deadline. Once she decided to enter, the words just poured out, she said. It took only about 15 minutes to write her mother’s story.

“Erica is an inspiration because when all seemed lost, she made choices that required bravery, courage and determination,” Belace, 30, said in the video. “If we all approached our lives in this way, imagine the beauty we could create.”

Watching the video, Palacios said, brought back an onslaught of memories.

“I think about that time period every now and then,” she said. “I’m such a different person.”

Now 50, Palacios was 19 years old and had moved to Texas with some friends when she met the man who would change her life. The third of four girls raised in a middle-class family in California, Palacios was ready to get out into the world. She was charmed by the guy eight years her senior who showered her with flowers and compliments. They had a child together and by the time Palacios was pregnant with a son a few years later, they were married in spite of his physical and emotional abuse.

They moved a lot, and each time Palacios would be a little more isolated from family and friends, until they landed in Guanajuato, Mexico, where they knew no one.

“I just remember doing whatever he said,” Palacios recalled. “I was pretty much a shell of a person.”

The abuse escalated — Palacios said she was burned with cigarette lighters and beaten with belts. He didn’t lay a hand on the kids, but they watched as he hurt their mother.

“I remember my son telling me he and Stephanie put on capes and thought they were superheroes, and they were going to save me.”

It wasn’t until a neighbor warned Palacios, by now a mother of three, that she’d end up dead that she hatched an escape plan. Her husband always took one of the children with him when he left the house — insurance to keep Palacios from fleeing as she had before — but the one day he didn’t, she was ready. She grabbed money she’d hidden and birth certificates and took off with the kids, ages 6, 4 and 5 months. She told them they were going to McDonald’s.

“I will never forget turning around and seeing Stephanie’s face,” Palacios said, her voice breaking. “She just had these huge tears in her eyes. She looked pale. She definitely knew.”

They traveled hours by taxi and waited for Palacios’ father to meet them before they crossed the border into the United States. It was only then, waiting at customs, Palacios realized she didn’t have any of the proper paperwork for the kids and that her own visa had expired.

“I started to cry,” she said. “I remember making eye contact with the man. I said, ‘I am in danger, my kids are in danger.’ He just turned and let me go by. That would never happen today.”

Once safely in California, Palacios filed a restraining order against her husband and started divorce proceedings. The family went to therapy and counseling, and, at 27 years old, Palacios enrolled in college.

“My sense of self worth was so low, I was so fearful,” Palacios said. “I was afraid to sign up for classes by myself, my mom had to go with me. I was so emotionally disabled.”

Once she began to succeed in school, Palacios said, her self-esteem grew. And, the occupational therapist met the love of her life, Jose Palacios, himself a father of three. They’ve been married 18 years.

“They just set the best example, show what love looks like,” Belace said. “I got to see the really bad and the really good.”

Palacios said the most surprising thing about the contest was learning that Belace considers her an inspiration.

“I always perceived this whole thing as I was a complete and utter failure, a failure as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister,” Palacios said.

Belace set her straight.

“I said are you kidding me? You won because you overcame. That’s where the difference is.”

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@tucson.com or 573-4194. On Twitter: @kcookski