Even after 25 years, Jackie Lucero still remembers the fear she felt when her family fled war-torn Guatemala for a better life in the United States.
She and her family made the 1,000-mile trek by land, dashing, hiding and walking on blistered feet to escape the bloody conflict back home. Fleeing under the cover of darkness, the refugees often had to squeeze into tight spaces to elude soldiers.
“We’d have to lay down on the floor,” said Lucero, who was just 7 at the time. “I used to just count the ants coming by on the ground just to keep my mind occupied.”
Along the way, she remembers, her family had to hide in a truck under a load of watermelons as immigration officials searched.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Omigod, I can’t stay quiet. I’m going to sneeze. I’m going to mess it up somehow,’ ” she said.
Life had never been easy for the young girl and her family. Lucero had grown up in a cramped, one-bedroom house, with no refrigerator, no running water and a couple of propped-up fiberglass sheets — over which she could hear rats scurrying at night — for a roof.
But it wasn’t the poverty that made it necessary for Lucero, her mother and two brothers to flee their native land. It was Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups that made life too dangerous.
The trip took two weeks. When they arrived at Immigration Services, they were sick and malnourished — Lucero’s mom, Blanca, weighed 85 pounds. Immigration workers offered the refugees a hearty meal, medicine and clothing.
They were also granted temporary political asylum, which made it possible for them to stay in the United States until they were finally issued green cards in 2001. Lucero has since become a naturalized citizen.
Adjusting to American life was tough, as they struggled with what felt like an impenetrable language barrier. Lucero’s mom took jobs cleaning houses — a job that required very little English — while Lucero and her brothers began school despite being unable to speak the language.
“We were just completely out of our element,” Lucero recalled. “I remember they were teaching math. I would know the answers to some of the questions, and I wanted to communicate it, but I just couldn’t. I always felt dumb.”
Her lack of confidence wasn’t helped by botched school projects. She said she often couldn’t understand the instructions, and her mother couldn’t help because her English was even worse.
Time and again, Lucero shed tears as flummoxed teachers confused her poor English skills for apathy — something that sticks with her all these years later.
“That always makes me be like, ‘OK, I want to help out the Spanish community,’ ” she said. “I want to have my own dental practice, but I also want to help out parents who don’t have the ability to help their kids with homework.”
Though things were better for Lucero and her family in the United States than it was in Guatemala, they still struggled financially.
“We didn’t have anything,” she said. “It came to a point that we would have to find clothes in trash bags, and my mom would boil them, and that would be new clothes for us.”
Eventually her mom got a job at a dental office and asked her boss to give 15-year-old Lucero a job as a dental assistant to keep her out of trouble in a neighborhood overrun by gangs.
Lucero got the job and spent her free time filing patient charts. One day, the office was short an assistant and asked Lucero to fill in.
The one-time dental assistant opportunity became an after-school job and later a summer gig. After graduating high school, Lucero was hired full time.
Through encouragement from her co-workers, Lucero decided to continue her education at a community college. In 2005, she graduated with an associate degree in dental hygiene from Mount Ida College. And once again, those around her saw farther in her future than she may have.
“I had patients who’d be like, ‘When are you going to be a doctor?’ and I had dentists saying, ‘You’re good. When are you going to become a doctor?’ ” Lucero said. “The wheels started turning, and I was like ‘Oh, really? Me? You think so?’ ”
Bolstered by the confidence of her co-workers, Lucero began to believe that she could, in fact, become a dentist. First, she needed to complete her bachelor’s degree, something she accomplished earlier this year.
This fall, Lucero takes the next step in her professional journey, becoming a member of the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) Class of 2017 at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.
“Ostrow was my first choice because I liked that it had a big sense of community involvement,” she said. “I also feel like the USC family takes care of each other. The beautiful weather and gorgeous campus was just frosting on the cake.”
Coming into the program, she feels confident with her clinical skills. After all, she’s been in a dental gown since she was 15. But she admits she’s nervous entering dental school a decade later than most of her classmates.
“It’s tough,” she said. “It reminds me of all the disadvantages that I had before. I’m just like had I known better, had I had that extra help, I could’ve done things better the first time around.”
But she also realizes that her background has made her the person she is today. After graduation, she hopes to open two dental practices: a regular practice and one that caters to low-income children.
She also hasn’t ruled out continuing her education after 2017 to become an oral surgeon who travels to disadvantaged communities, both here and overseas, specializing in cleft palate repair.
Lucero also wants to help others who are trying to climb the same seemingly impossible summit.
“I just want to give a lot of myself,” she said. “I want to be able to give back to those who need it.”
Lucero and the incoming DDS, Dental Hygiene and Advanced Standing Program for International Dentists classes took the first step on their professional journeys to becoming dental professionals at the 2013 White Coat Ceremony on Sept. 9 in Bovard Auditorium.