Youth in Government Alumna Receives Full-Ride Scholarship

News | Heart of the Valley YMCA | July 15, 2020

Malena Leon Hidalgo graduated from Austin High with a 4.03 GPA after having little grasp of English as a freshman.
Malena Leon Hidalgo graduated from Austin High with a 4.03 GPA after having little grasp of English as a freshman.

Reprinted by permission of The Decatur Daily.

By Cassie Kuhn, Staff Writer

Five years ago, a recent Austin High graduate was gripped with fear as she and her family crossed mountains, plantations and waterways, often in the middle of the night, all while trying to avoid the attention of local police.

After dealing with those obstacles and ending up in Decatur, Malena Leon Hidalgo went on to compile a 4.03 GPA at Austin, and she’s now preparing to move to Kentucky to attend Berea College on a full-ride scholarship.

Leon Hidalgo is an example of what students can accomplish with hard work, according to her teachers at Austin High, who described her as driven and studious.

Her journey from Ecuador to the United States lasted 45 days, during which she was captured by police multiple times and imprisoned in a Mexican immigration center. Searching for better opportunities, her family continued on their path to the United States even as they learned of other travelers who had died while trying to reach the U.S.

Despite the difficulties she faced on her trek through eight Latin American countries, Leon Hidalgo said teaching herself English and adapting to American culture all while trying to navigate life as a high school student was the hard part.

Leon Hidalgo is originally from Holguin, Cuba, where her mother was an economist and administrator of local tourist centers. Despite the family’s relatively stable position in Cuba, Leon Hidalgo explained opportunities are limited for Cubans, regardless of financial status. After the passing of Leon Hidalgo’s grandfather, her mother decided to move the family to a different country.

“That country had to be Ecuador, a country that at the time offered free visas for Cubans. My mom always wanted the best for us, and she wanted her children to have many more opportunities than she had,” Leon Hidalgo said. “She is a very intelligent woman, and she is my greatest inspiration in life. I admire her at incredible levels because I know that not many mothers are willing to do what she has done for me and my brother. She gave up everything just so we had better opportunities.”

In Ecuador, Leon Hidalgo’s mother struggled to find a job. “We have to move to a place that didn’t even have a bathroom,” the daughter said. “In Ecuador we really lived through hard times.”

Leon Hidalgo said their original plan was to live in Ecuador for three years to obtain citizenship, at which point her family could return to Cuba with the freedom to leave at will. She said things got complicated, however, resulting in her mother’s decision to travel with Leon Hidalgo and her younger brother, Roger, through Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border, where the family hoped to seek asylum. At the time, Malena was 13 and Roger was 11.
Dangerous journey

Leon Hidalgo traveled through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico before reaching the United States.

She said the most difficult country to travel through was Mexico, in part because her group crossed the Guatemalan border into Mexico around the same time notorious cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán escaped from prison. Leon Hidalgo said as she traveled north, police were heading south in an attempt to intercept Guzmán before he escaped the country, making an already dangerous trip even riskier.

Despite the difficulties Leon Hidalgo faced in Mexico, she said the entire trip was dangerous.

“My family and I were definitely in danger during the whole trip due to the conditions and the way we traveled. I was afraid because I already had two family members who had come first and had been kidnapped for days or other people had killed people in front of (my family members),” Leon Hidalgo said.

In Mexico, Leon Hidalgo’s group was stopped by police multiple times and forced to pay bribes to avoid imprisonment. She said though some police were better than others, most were corrupt. “They were usually aggressive and make threats until we give them money,” she said.

“We actually got caught when we got to Mexico City,” Leon Hidalgo said. That time, they didn’t have enough to pay the requested bribe. “They took us to immigrant prison, and we spent one week there.” After being released, Leon Hidalgo and her family received permits to cross the rest of the country.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, Leon Hidalgo and her family were granted asylum. “When we crossed the border it was like a different planet for us,” Leon Hidalgo said.

After arriving in the U.S., Leon Hidalgo moved from Los Angeles to Decatur to New Jersey and back to Decatur, all in a short amount of time. When she returned to Decatur, she was a second-semester freshman at Austin High. She said she knew little English by the time she returned to Decatur, because her high school in New Jersey was bilingual.

“The first year was definitely really difficult, and you don’t know the language and the culture, so you are just so confused all of the time and the only thing that you know how to say is, 'OK,'” Leon Hidalgo said. “When I moved to Decatur again I had really good grades, they put me in regular classes, and they didn’t put me in the EXCEL Center, so that’s when I really started learning English.”

Leon Hidalgo said she became comfortable speaking English during her senior year. “I just tried to talk, even if some people didn’t want to understand me or didn’t understand me,” she said. “It was just really difficult; I will get home and I will be crying because I was so confused all of the time.”

Mastering English

Her sophomore year, Leon Hidalgo started playing tennis, and her involvement in extracurricular activities grew from there. She was involved in Youth in Government, the Redstone Federal Credit Union program, was a member of six honor societies, and met senators including U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, at the YMCA’s National Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.

“Thanks to these programs, I began to feel more comfortable speaking English, and expressing my ideas despite the cultural and language barrier,” Leon Hidalgo said.

Leon Hidalgo worked just as hard in the classroom as she did outside of it; she said she would sometimes spend five hours on homework that would have been easy if not for the language barrier. “I just wanted to get really, really good grades so I was putting (in) effort.”

Monica Crow, a business education teacher at Austin High, described Leon Hidalgo as a “go-getter.”

“I had her in the ninth grade and she spoke very little English, very broken English. But she made it. I mean she worked very, very hard to understand and to communicate in English as much as she possibly could,” Crow said.

Crow runs the Redstone Federal Credit Union program at Austin High. “She came to me her 11th grade year and wanted to apply, and I was just amazed at her English, and she did this all on her own, just studying,” she said. “She interviewed and became one of our Redstone student tellers and did an amazing job.”

In addition to teaching herself English, Leon Hidalgo also took three years of French at Austin High. Emily West, who teaches French at Austin High, described Leon Hidalgo as ambitious and diligent.

“She always strived for perfection in my class in all that she did. I don’t think she made but a few grades that were not a 100,” West said. “I’m so thankful that she was passionate about learning French and sticking with it through her years at Austin, even while taking Spanish classes too. She is probably one of the sweetest people I know, and I absolutely loved having her in my class.”

Leon Hidalgo said she is considering a double major in neuroscience and marketing at Berea College. She said she wants to take advantage of the opportunity that Berea is giving her.

Leon Hidalgo said she is looking forward to what’s next. “I’m really excited. I want to see what things I’m going to achieve in this next chapter in my life, and I want to try my best to take advantage of all the opportunities,” she said.

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