THROUGH EDUCATION, MARLENY DE LEÓN TURNED HER BLEAK BEGINNINGS INTO A BRIGHT FUTURE
Marleny De León was born into poverty and violence in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, in 1985, near the apex of the country’s long civil war. She was burdened with adult responsibilities as a child and spent time homeless as a young adult, but she never gave up on her dreams of a college education.
Today, De León is a Fulbright Scholar studying in Italy through June. She speaks six languages. After graduating from Pima Community College in 2014 with associate degrees in General Studies and Applied Arts, she earned a bachelor’s in Humanities at Northern Arizona University in 2015 and completed a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at Stanford University this past June.
As a Fulbright Scholar, she is conducting ethnographic interviews of Deaf migrants and their families.
“My goal is to better understand their life stories, educational exposure, and current living predicaments, as well as to help establish future best-practice indicators,” she said.
De León’s family came to the U.S. to escape the ravages of Guatemala’s nearly four-decade-long civil war.
“My mother was forced to flee Guatemala seven months after my birth. She almost drowned crossing the Rio Grande, en route to Miami. For three years she worked as a domestic worker before returning for us. At four, I joined my mother and other members of my family in a northward migration as we sought to replace the milieu of conflict and genocide for one full of opportunities and hope,” she said. “We arrived battered, but were among the fortunate ones who reached their destination, ready to work for a chance at the American Dream.”
In Los Angeles, De León took refuge in school and was entranced by the diversity of the city’s population. She loved hearing different languages and easily picked up on linguistic patterns.
“In L.A., I was completely fascinated by my neighbors speaking Armenian, Chinese, Korean and other languages. I used to stare at their lips until I was told it was rude to stare,” she said.
She became the interpreter for her extended family once she mastered English and helped care for younger nephews and nieces. Eventually, the family re-settled in Tucson, where De León continued to excel in school but was unable to afford college after high school graduation. For a brief time following a family rift that has since been mended, she was homeless and alone.
“I spent the blistering summer working, studying in libraries with air conditioning, and sleeping in the desert or occasionally at friends’ homes before I moved 200 miles to Flagstaff where I delved into my studies at Northern Arizona University. Sadly however, shortly after, my savings were depleted and my hopes of receiving federal financial aid were dashed due to my undocumented status at the time,” said De León, who has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Though she had to leave school and enter the workforce, De León would resume her education at age 25 at Pima. Her initial interest was Psychology but, upon taking her first American Sign Language class, she quickly fell in love with ASL and the richness of the Deaf Community. The study of ASL and Deaf culture brought together all of her passions.
“My scars have galvanized me to stand up to social oppression, regardless of the overwhelming opposition, in what others may see as a hopeless or futile situation. From my struggles, I learned to observe my weaknesses, temper my optimism with dogged hard work, and find lessons from all mistakes and failures. And, since I was given the opportunity to better my circumstances with education, it is vital for me to advance as a friend and advocate for marginalized peoples,” De León said.
De León is applying to MBA and law programs to follow her Fulbright experience. And, while De León’s educational journey is taking her around the world, she said her experience at Pima helped reveal her full potential.
“At Pima, I didn’t just get an education, I got a foundation for my future,” she said.