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El Paso woman goes from homeless to Harvard

By: Gina Benitez
EL PASO, Texas

A local woman, who's come face to face with adversity many times, instead has turned those hardships into advocacy.

In the process, she made history.

"Statistically, people of color nationally just seem to suffer the weight of poverty more heavily than others," said Cemelli De Aztlan.

De Aztlan knows that firsthand.

By the time she was 15, she'd dropped out of high school, was pregnant and living on the streets.

"I feel here in El Paso, being a border town, we're very used to the flux of our community. So people moving in and out, traveling, migrating are not unusual," De Aztlan said.

At 18, she picked up the pieces and went and finished high school.

She attended Concordia University but after her freshman year she was again ready to drop out until a teacher of hers changed her mind and handed her a book written by a woman who taught at Harvard.

De Aztlan decided she'd that one day, she'd study there and she was right.

She achieved that goal, but once she got to Harvard, an experience at the university is what shifted her thinking completely.

"Your unique experience is worth documenting, worth telling, I want you to be empowered by that experience," De Aztlan said.

Her epiphany occurred at a "Dias De Los Muertos" celebration on campus, things campus. Things got rowdy and a protest started.

De Aztlan said as she searched for a restroom, a Harvard police officer pulled her down two flights of stairs and into a crowd of police and protestors.

It was a moment that changed things for her.

"Discrimination still exists, even though we still have these perceptions of success. And how we find the strength and the courage to battle through those wars I think we'll find that knowledge through our culture," De Aztlan said.

So she pushed for advocacy and equality within the education system. She challenged professors, deans and students and demanded her culture be accounted for.respected.

She received her diploma from Harvard in 2009.
By: Gina Benitez
EL PASO, Texas

"We sort of feel like we're in the shadows, shadows. I think it's time to come out of the shadows. And that we really shadows and feel empowered by who we are culturally and socially as Latina women," De Aztlan said.

De Aztlan is back in El Paso and is currently the religious director at the Universal Unitarian Church in El Paso. One of her most recent accomplishments includes a collaboration with PBS Latino American series and where she uses her story to showcase the unique experiences of Latino Americans today.



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