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This teen author leads by example

The Texas girl, 16, has been overachieving for a decade, offering an empowerment message for other immigrants.

December 24, 2007|Monica Rhor | Associated Press

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 come 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. It was all part of her unrelenting mission to master English.

But the book tells only a fraction of Yuliana's story, which 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 newspaper clippings, awards and commendations and rattling off her history 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.

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.

"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."

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.

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 Hispanics. We have to show that we can become president, become lawyers," Yuliana said. "We can do whatever we want."

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