FRAMINGHAM, Mass. (AP) – With roots originating in Guatemala, Jennifer De Leon began flourishing in Framingham and, with lots of help along the way, has nurtured others as a teacher and writer in Boston, California and around the world.
The second of three sisters raised by "strict, protective and loving" immigrant parents, she was a freshman at Framingham High School in 1994, playing volleyball and listening to Latino pop singer Selena when an offer out of nowhere changed her life.
Margo Deane, a community activist who directed the Framingham Coalition, invited De Leon to join as a mentor to encourage Latino students to pursue education and training opportunities and avoid alcohol, drugs and other temptations.
A good student who wasn't afraid to challenge teenage social norms, De Leon joined as a sophomore Latinos En Accion, a school group that provided role models to keep students involved in positive activities.
"Margo became my mentor. Working with the Coalition and LEN exposed me to so many positive role models and new ideas," said De Leon, now a published author who is a writing instructor in Boston.
Twenty years later, De Leon just published an anthology she edited, "Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education," essays by women who overcame obstacles to achieve their goals.
Challenging readers to look beyond the obvious, De Leon chose her title from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer's double-edged — and controversial — quote that "a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Using her mother, Dora De Leon, as an example of a person of humble origins who believed learning "provided a set of master keys that unlocked multiple doors," she has gathered together 21 stories of Latino women who have used higher education to improve their own and their family's lives and achieve their goals in the face of considerable obstacles, including ethnic prejudice.
In most cases, these are contemporary American success stories of women, buoyed by self-sacrificing parents who often labored at difficult, modestly-paying jobs to improve their children's lives and set indelible examples that still inspire them.
Beyond her mother, De Leon credited a long series of mentors who assisted her at key moments throughout her life.
As a teenager, she sought opportunities that broadened her horizons while expanding a sense of her own possibilities.
Assisted by Judy Levine, director of Framingham-based Summer Camp & Trip Resources, then 16-year-old De Leon took part in a community service program in Zimbabwe where she lived with an African family for six weeks and helped build a medical clinic.
"That was a life-changing experience," she recalled. "I learned the importance finding a balance between getting good grades and getting involved in activities that expanded my horizons."
With help from Ellen Becker, Esta Montano, Nadine Kenney Johnstone and Jacqueline Diaz, De Leon and several Latino friends got help filling out college applications and applying for financial aid and scholarships.
De Leon chose Connecticut College in New London because she wanted to major in international relations.
Before she graduated, she'd studied in a dozen countries and interned at Ms. magazine where she earned $946 — $1 a word — for an article on transcending stereotypes of Latino women.
Since graduating from college, De Leon has combined her dual passions for teaching and writing in the U.S. and abroad.
From 2002 to 2004, she lived in San Jose, Calif., where she taught third- and fourth-graders for the Teach for American Program, later earning a master's degree in teaching from the University of San Francisco's Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice.
Over the intervening years De Leon taught at-risk students at a Boston alternative school and, "switching gears," helped prepare students at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School get into college.
Acting on Henry David Thoreau's injunction to "Live the life (you) imagined," she entered an MFA program in fiction writing at University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Setting off on a "journey of self-discovery," she bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala where she began a novel about her parents, "In the Country of Memory," which she has since finished and is looking for a publisher.
De Leon has published articles in Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, Best Women's Travel Writing and won several awards.
In 2012 she married novelist and short story writer Adam Stumacher and they have a young son, Mateo.
In the front piece of "Wise Latinas," De Leon quotes novelist Leslie Marmon Silko: "I will tell you something about these stories. ... You don't have anything if you don't have the stories."
With help from her parents and other wise guides along the way, De Leon is determined to write those stories.