Immigrant student writes of obstacles

HOUSTON – On her first day of fourth grade, Yuliana Gallegos stood in front of her classmates, looking out on a roomful of students who stared back at her as if she had landed from Mars.

Only a few weeks earlier, Yuliana had brimmed with excitement about moving from Mexico to Houston, where she and her family would start a new life in a new country. Only a few hours earlier, she had been bubbling with eagerness about meeting her new classmates.

Suddenly, all her enthusiasm deflated. She could not understand a word her teacher said. She just wanted to be invisible.

Today, less than seven years later, Gallegos is the author of a book – in English and Spanish – about her experiences as a newly arrived immigrant.

The slim, 55-page volume, called “Mi sueno de America/My American Dream,” published by Houston-based Arte Publico, tells the story of the obstacles Yuliana had to overcome in her first year in the United States and offers lessons for other young people who may feel like outsiders.

“At first, it’s going to be difficult. Nothing in the world is easy. There will be many rocks in your path, but if you fall, keep going,” says Yuliana, now 16, recapping the message of her book – and the philosophy of her life.

“After I learned English, I knew I could do anything I wanted to. That was my barrier and I got past it.”

Yuliana remembers spending five hours a night plodding through her homework, stacks of English dictionaries by her side. Her walls, doors and mirrors were posted with new vocabulary words. All part of an unrelenting mission to master English.

“It wasn’t enough to learn English. I had to prove that I could be equal to or maybe even better than my classmates,” Yuliana recounts in her book. “I had to do even more to be better than them.”

But the book only tells a fraction of Yuliana’s story, which already overflows with accomplishments and achievements. On a recent evening, she sat cross-legged on the living room floor of her family’s Houston home, flipping through a scrapbook filled with laminated newspaper clippings, awards and commendations and rattling off her successes in flawless, rapid-fire English.

Here, a piece from a Mexican newspaper about Yuliana’s first published book – an inspirational text for children. She wrote it when she was just 7 years old. There, another article describing a motivational speech she gave to inmates at a jail in Apodaca, Mexico. She was 8.

A proclamation noting her appointment that same year as the “official orator” for the governor of Nuevo Leon, Mexico. A “student of the week” award she earned six months after arriving in the United States.

Oh yes, Yuliana adds, there was that stint where she dispensed advice to young people in one-minute segments aired on the local Telemundo station in Houston. She was 10.

It was during another television appearance, when Yuliana was reciting some of her work, that Nicolas Kanellos, director of Arte Publico, first met the emerging author – and immediately spotted her nascent talent.

Kanellos offered Yuliana a summer internship at the publishing house, where the young girl worked as a go-fer and received coaching and editing guidance. “Mi sueno de America/My American Dream,” was born shortly afterward. Yuliana, who was 12 at the time, finished the first draft within four months.

“We saw how committed she was to writing. It was very evident that she was truly engaged in the writing craft,” Kanellos said. “Yuliana’s book gives insights into what immigrant kids face, and can help people appreciate their diverse experiences and trauma.”

In one passage, she writes:

“Life here in the United States is not what I expected. When I got to Houston, I thought that everything was going to be different, that I would quickly make friends, and that my skin color and language would not be a problem. I never imagined that I would meet people who reject me outright and not even say hello to me.

“Despite this, I was able to show all of them that they shouldn’t judge anyone and that we have to get rid of prejudices, hates and divisions based on color. Sometimes, the best of friends are the ones you least expect.”

These days, the girl who once wished to be invisible is a kinetic, charismatic bundle of energy who spends her days earning stellar grades at Houston’s Bellaire High School, her weekends giving motivational speeches or appearing at book fairs, and her late nights writing in her journal or working on new manuscripts. Inspiration often strikes after midnight, she says.

She has finished writing nine more manuscripts, with two already in the publishing process. And she is looking ahead to a future as productive as her childhood has been. Her goals include: undergraduate work at the University of Houston, earning a graduate degree at Princeton University, becoming a child psychologist and a television anchorwoman.

“A lot of people stereotype Hispanic people. We have to stop those stereotypes and show that we can become president. We can become lawyers,” said Yuliana. “We can do whatever we want.”