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Class of '13: East student rises from Mexico violence to proud grad

This is the first of a series of profiles of outstanding 2013 graduates of Anchorage high schools.

Reynalda DeJesus-Martinez will graduate from East Anchorage High School on Tuesday not as a straight A student but as an average student who worked hard for the grades she got in honors classes.

For her father, it feels like a miracle all the same.

"I feel so happy," said Lorenzo DeJesus.

DeJesus-Martinez and her family are Triqui, the indigenous people of a mountainous swath of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico.

The region that DeJesus-Martinez grew up in has been wracked with political violence since before her parents were born.

As a young child she and her family lived with fear and violence. Each trip to a market or festival meant the chance of being ambushed on roads.

When she was 6 years old, her uncle was killed by members of an opposing faction. Her grandfather was killed in political violence when her mother was a small child.

School usually ends early for Triqui people, said her father, DeJesus. It's often too dangerous to get there.

His formal education ended in the sixth grade.

If DeJesus had not left to find work in the United States the story might have been the same for his own daughter.

After working in California, New York and Wisconsin, he moved to Alaska in search of cannery work but stayed in Anchorage when he found a job at Alaska Sausage and Seafood.

In 2004, he earned citizenship.

A few years later his wife and children joined him. Reynalda, the oldest, enrolled at Tudor Elementary.

She had never seen snow or spoken English.

The early months were bewildering. When she didn't understand something she'd smile.

"I was smiling all the time," she said.

Her father made a rule: Only English in the house.

Little by little, English came. She still searches for words she doesn't know, but she gets by.

Now, home is a trim green house in Mountain View with garden beds out front and a bubbling pot on the stove.

DeJesus-Martinez misses her grandparents and the tastes and smells of Oaxaca. But Alaska is home.

"Everywhere has violence," she said. "Every place. But living where there is not people who hate you and are looking specifically for your family to kill, it is really peaceful. It feels good."

Her father does janitorial work at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Her mother takes care of the family's six children.

High school at East has been defined by her studies and an after-school job that has turned into the beginning of a career.

By the time DeJesus-Martinez was 15, she was working after school as a file clerk for Rebecca Maxey, an Anchorage immigration attorney who has represented many of the two dozen or so Triqui families that have resettled in Alaska.

DeJesus-Martinez has a valuable skill set, says Maxey: She can speak Triqui, English and Spanish.

Many Triqui people in Oaxaca don't even speak Spanish, DeJesus-Martinez says.

Proficiency in the three languages allows her to interpret for political asylum cases Maxey handles. Some of those cases involve people on the other side of the regional conflict that drove her family from their home.

Only 30,000 people speak Triqui worldwide, according to the linguistic research clearinghouse Ethnologue.

"That language is so rare that the court system can't even find translators," Maxey said.

At East, DeJesus-Martinez took honors English classes despite not being a native speaker. When she struggled and got only average grades, she refused to take easier classes, Maxey said.

"She wants to challenge herself."

This spring DeJesus-Martinez was recognized as one of the YWCA of Anchorage's Young People of Achievement.

DeJesus-Martinez plans a trip to Mexico to visit family over the summer. Fall, she hopes, will bring the start of classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She still isn't sure how she'll pay for college.

Someday she'd like to work as an immigration attorney like her mentor, Maxey.

But mostly, DeJesus-Martinez says, she just wants to make her parents proud.

"My dad did everything for us. He escaped from the violence. He gave us an education," she said. "My dad is my everything."

Her father has to work Tuesday and will likely miss seeing his daughter graduate. But no ceremony is as sweet as knowing his daughter will be the first in the family to earn a high school diploma, in a new land she's made her own.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.


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