She was taken to Mexico and fought to come back. How this homeless teen made her way to UC Berkeley

She was one of thousands of California teenagers who graduated from high school last week in joyous ceremonies of achievement and pride.

She may have walked with them to accept her diploma, graduating with honors from Fresno High School, but the path she took surely differed. How many of her fellow students were homeless when they received notification that a university as prestigious as UC Berkeley had accepted them?

Nataly Romero was. The acceptance letter in immaculate stationery arrived at her Fresno shelter for youthful runaways.

“I had a dream that they picked the wrong girl,” Romero said of that moment of achievement that was neither joyful nor exultant.

Romero had not dismissed her chances at Berkeley because she felt insecure academically. She had finished high school with a 4.0 GPA and straight A’s in college courses from trigonometry to Spanish.

But Romero felt she could never be at home at a university she coveted because she had never been at home anywhere in her life.

She was from everywhere and nowhere. She carried her suitcase and pillow to high school every day, with all her worldly belongings inside. She had family and yet she didn’t. Virtually every adult who cared for her as a child had failed her in some way. And yet, she has evolved into a young woman, having survived unspeakable hardships by dreaming of an education that was always out of her reach.

That is, until Romero, now 18, struck out on her own in life at 15.

She is an American citizen who was taken to Mexico as a preschooler because the man her mother had married was undocumented and had been deported. She returned to the U.S. alone, as an unaccompanied youth, carrying little more than the clothes on her back, her birth certificate and her dream of deliverance from poverty and abuse through education.

When Romero grasped her Fresno High School diploma on Wednesday, her teachers and counselors choked back tears that were not only of joy – but of amazement.

“As a teacher, you know some of your students experience hardships but when I saw Nataly with her suitcase and pillow, there it was right in my face,” said Jeannine Der Manouel, one of Romero’s high school teachers.

“I think her story is very uncommon.”

Romero had concealed her story for years because dwelling on her present would make her believe she didn’t have a future. And the hope of her future was what kept her alive.

“An education has always been taken away from me,” Romero said. “But I knew it was the only way.”

In one form or another, Romero has been homeless since she was 3. She remembered her father, Jesus, was reading her a bedtime story. A sudden pounding on their apartment door caused him to rise suddenly and say, “I’ll be right back.”

Those were the first of many hopeful words from adults that Romero clung to until they were proved to be false.

Her biological father was undocumented. Federal agents took Jesus Romero away that night.

“I ran down the stairs toward him and kicked the officers,” she said last week, on the day before she graduated.

“My mother grabbed me. I never saw my dad again,” she said. She said he was killed a few weeks later in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Within weeks Romero would be living in foster homes. Her account of her life, as she remembers it, ticks off one emotional hurdle after another: Her maternal grandmother was deemed unfit to care for her because she struggled with substance abuse. Child Protective Services was called when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Romero’s mother had given birth to Nataly when she was only 15 and was unable to care for her when her father was deported.

“My mom had a broken heart, I can see that now,” Romero said. “She was depressed and she forgot about me and my brother so (CPS) took us away.”

For the next three years, Romero lived in six different foster homes. “All I remember is bad,” she said of the constant moving and living with strangers.

School was her only refuge, the only time she felt happy.

She said her grandmother attended Alcoholics Anonymous classes and was able to regain custody of Nataly when she was 6. But a few weeks after Nataly was reunited with her, the most important adult in her life died.

“She had a sickness,” Romero said.

After her grandmother’s death, Romero was effectively homeless. She said she was reunited with her mother, whom she viewed as a stranger, and lived with her and four siblings. When they sometimes had no shelter, they had to sleep in their car parked in front of an apartment complex where an aunt lived. “She would let us use the bathroom,” she said. They later lived in spare rooms and low-income apartments. They were “kicked out” from living quarters more than once.

One day, at age 8, Romero was at school waiting for her mother to pick her up. A police officer arrived for her instead.

Police had raided the house where her mother and new husband were now living. “The police were looking for something in the house and they told my mom and stepdad that they couldn’t leave.” So a squad car was dispatched to pick up Nataly and one of her siblings.

Her stepfather was soon deported, as her biological father had been. She said her mother told her and her siblings that they were “going on vacation,” to Mexico. It was a lie. When Romero’s family crossed the border in Tijuana, it was so her mother could rejoin her husband and live with him in Mexico.

Nataly Romero didn’t speak Spanish then. Her family moved even more frequently than before, getting kicked out of one dwelling after another.

By the age of 10, she was working as a caregiver for elderly people to help her family make money. “I would feed them and change them,” Romero said.

The next years were a blur of misery. “It was hot, suffocating and dirty,” she said.

She remembers it all, but can’t talk about it all. Questions about her stepfather brings tears to her eyes. Some unspeakable things happened that she prefers are left in her past.

By her own account, in an essay that won her a scholarship from the Fresno Unified School District, Romero was an abused child – but not a broken one.

“I am not much on paper, but I believe that each and every word that is written in this statement is what measures my abilities and talents toward a successful future,” she wrote in March. The essay won her $2,500.

“It is really hard for me to go back into my past. Especially because it hasn’t been really good or normal. … But sometimes it’s better to take everything out and this is what I’m about to do,” she wrote.

Her deliverance was made possible at 15 when she essentially ran away from her family after saving the money for a one-way plane ticket to Fresno.

She said her mother and stepfather confronted her at the airport in Mexico City. A huge argument ensued. Romero stared at her mother and through tears said, “I guess it’s my destiny to stay here. … You finally get your wish.”

Her mother, the woman Romero felt she could never count on, relented and arranged for her to fly back to the U.S. “It was the first time she had ever stood up for me.”

Nataly Romero flew from Mexico City to Tijuana alone. She rode a bus alone to Fresno. Then she took a city bus to live with the aunt who had allowed her family to park outside her apartment.

But the aunt was not supportive of her studies.“She wanted to keep me for her own, to take care of her kids” she said. “I got overwhelmed. She wouldn’t let me work.”

Throughout her high school years, Romero would continue bouncing from dwelling to dwelling. She learned later, she said, that relatives were collecting federal assistance while claiming to shelter her when they really weren’t.

She became a straight-A student. By her senior year, she was living in a shelter. Then the letter arrived from Berkeley. She was going to turn it down because she didn’t feel worthy. Another youth at the shelter confronted her.

“I was trying to give this student advice and she said to me, “You’re trying to tell me to follow my steps but you’re letting (this opportunity) go? You’re going to stay here when you can go there?”

Just before the deadline passed, Nataly Romero enrolled at UC Berkeley, and she will receive financial aid to attend. She will major in social work and she hopes to get a masters and a Ph.D. in psychology.

She hopes to be a counselor for young adults. “I intend to be there, to be an adult figure and guide them,” she said.

She looked radiant on the night of graduation. She moved to Berkeley on Thursday. She saved her own life in the hopes of saving others.

How did she do it?

“By loving myself and believing in myself,” she said.

“I’m still breathing,” she said. “I still haven’t lived but I’ve been surviving. I’m alive and I expect to live because I know I’m worth a lot.”

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton