When Mary Suarez arrived as a freshman to Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School in the fall of 2019, she had a steeper hill to climb than most of her classmates.
She had recently arrived from her native Venezuela during a violent uprising. She had no friends, no parents waiting for her after school, and only “hello” and “good morning” in her English vocabulary.
Four years later, Suarez has graduated at the top of her class as valedictorian with a 4.3 GPA, and is headed to a UC school with a future as a medical doctor in her sights.
How did it happen?
Those who know Mary describe an unassuming fighter with a magnetic personality, determined to make the most of her unlikely journey to Bishop Conaty, a Catholic all-girls high school that’s easy to miss driving down Pico Boulevard near Koreatown.
“Mary has taken advantage of every opportunity,” explained Patty Morales, the school’s guidance counselor. “When she’s tired, she pushes on.”
Opportunities were hard to come by during Mary’s childhood, one marked by the poverty and social unrest that has afflicted Venezuela for decades. She was born in the country’s Táchira region, near the border with Colombia. For most of her childhood, she watched her mother travel back and forth from another part of the country to work as a nurse, making $7 a month, while her grandparents helped raise her.
Mary was about 6 years old the first time her grandmother had to explain why they couldn’t buy milk that day due to food shortages. As the country’s economic crisis deepened, outages of electricity and water, sometimes for days at a time, became more common. She remembers seeing other children rummaging through trash in the streets for food. There were the long days spent in line waiting outside for a small bag of rice, as well as the sunburns and arguments that often came during those waits.
At school, she learned more about the country’s Communist government — and how to show it proper respect — than about more practical subjects such as math and science.
But there was one bright spot for Mary. Coming from a family of musicians, her mother and grandparents passed on their passion at a young age. By age 6, she was singing in church. Her talent with the guitar and its cousin the cuatro, a four-stringed instrument popular in traditional Venezuelan music, earned her a place in the “Alma Llanera” section of the national orchestra starting at the age of 9.
By the age of 14, a wave of anti-government protests were rocking Venezuela following President Nicolas Maduro’s controversial second inauguration in early 2019. Then came a failed coup attempt and the ensuing government crackdown. At the peak of the tensions, Mary remembers army troops getting dangerously close to her grandparents’ home, and tear gas filling their neighborhood.
Mary soon lost interest in going to school. Studying seemed pointless by then, and she would rather work and help support her family, she told her mother.
The summer of that year, Mary and her mother, Ivonne, traveled to Los Angeles to visit Ivonne’s sister. They had been there before, thanks to a renewable tourist visa issued by the since-closed American embassy in Caracas.
It was during that trip that Mary found herself at the funeral of a Venezuelan priest at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in LA’s Pico-Union neighborhood. Someone knew of Mary’s talent for music, and asked her to sing the popular song “Venezuela” from their home country at the Mass.
Her rendition made an impression on the crowd, including several Venezuelan priests. One of them suggested that Mary find a way to stay in the U.S. Given the situation back home, he told Ivonne, how can we let that talent go to waste?
One thing led to another, resulting in a visit to Bishop Conaty before the start of the school year — and a scholarship offer made possible by the Catholic Education Foundation of Los Angeles. Ivonne made the difficult decision to return to Venezuela to help take care of her ailing parents. Mary could stay with her aunt in South LA, a 90-minute bus ride from Bishop Conaty.
Few things were easy that freshman year. Not only did Mary start with no English, but her education back home in other subjects, like math, was incomplete. Every day she would spend hours after school getting help from teachers, then staying up late at her aunt’s house translating every homework assignment from English to Spanish.
But at Bishop Conaty, Mary found a refuge.
“It was hard,” she said. “I remember that sometimes I came here crying from the pressure. And [the teachers] would tell me, ‘We want to help you, you’re going to go very high.’ They were always trying to make me go beyond my comfort zone.”
She made friends with a couple other immigrant students like herself — one from Colombia, the other from Honduras — who helped her adjust. She jumped at every tutoring opportunity that became available. She quickly signed up for a school musical, another incentive to memorize words in English while doing what she loved.
“I’ve realized that when you want to survive, you learn the language as fast as you can,” said Mary.
A few months into her freshman year, the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning interrupted some, but not all of those opportunities. As she pushed ahead, she developed an interest in biology and medicine, while also relishing the chance to study music and learn new instruments, including the mandolin, harp, and bass. In November she became a “music captain” at the school, helping fellow students with music classes.
Ivonne believes her daughter’s discipline has been key. But just as important, she said, is the support she’s found at Bishop Conaty.
“She’s a girl with talents, and she’s been helped to discover those talents,” said Ivonne.
Mary’s improbable story will continue at UC Irvine, where she plans to major in biological science (and perhaps music, too) starting in the fall. During her time at Bishop Conaty, the U.S. granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to some recent immigrants from Venezuela like her.
She dreams of one day becoming a pediatrician, hoping to alleviate the suffering of children.
“They are the future,” Mary said. “Health care has to support kids mentally and emotionally as well, giving them the value of hope.”
But there’s another part of Mary’s story, perhaps more difficult to describe. More than once, she’s thought about the people and places she’d left behind back home and wondered, “Why me?”
“I went through a lot of pain [in Venezuela],” she said. “I saw how people were dying in many ways. But now, I think that everything is for a purpose.”
She still thinks back to those first months in Los Angeles, when the lack of internet access in Venezuela made it difficult to talk to her mother over the phone.
“When I was here alone without my mom, I prayed a lot because I needed someone to talk to. And that person was Jesus. So I became like, more closer to him.”
Pacing the second-floor chapel at Bishop Conaty a few days before graduation, she made a point of stopping before a framed picture of her favorite saint: St. Pope John Paul II, who, like her, experienced plenty of suffering as a child.
“He forgave those who made him suffer. He was a very happy man. I want to be like him.”
Over the past two years, guidance counselor Morales worked closely with Mary, starting as junior class moderator but also in helping her with college applications. She has nothing but praise for Mary’s efforts and accomplishments over the last four years, as her story embodies some of the challenges faced by many Bishop Conaty students. Most of them come from working-class Latino homes in the inner city and for some, the campus is a “safe space” in the literal sense.
“We have girls who get here very early in the morning … and girls who are here sometimes until 6 or 7 at night,” said Morales. “Sometimes, being here is safer than being at home, or in different environments in that world.”
Yes, Morales said, Bishop Conaty is a school. “But more than anything it’s a home. And we remember that every day. Our girls will not go without if we know something’s going on. We will take care of our girls.”
Ivonne now lives near Bishop Conaty with Mary and works as a housekeeper. She doesn’t know how to explain Mary’s success without acknowledging the providential role that the high school has played in her life.
“Only God knows what she’s meant to do in the future,” she said of her daughter. “But meanwhile, I know he’s preparing her for something.”