Lighting the way in the Central Valley

Growing up in the town of Kerman, population 15,000, wasn’t easy for Michael Piña, who self-identified as queer. Piña, who uses “she/he” pronouns but prefers “she,” suffered abuse from family, local youth and a Catholic priest who, at a church retreat, “threw holy water at me, trying to get the devil out of me,” she said. “It caused a lot of emotional trauma.”

But in Fresno County, where less than 20 percent of all residents and less than 10 percent of Latinx residents have a bachelor’s degree, academically talented Piña dreamed of becoming an attorney. So, one summer, in high school, Piña said she chose “to talk to no one. I focused on summer school and an internship and began to realize it didn’t matter if I was queer. It was time to start being myself.”

In her senior year at Kerman High School, when officials wouldn’t allow Piña to put the quote, “Yes, I dress nice. I wasn’t in the closet this long for nothing,” under her yearbook photo, Piña got an ACLU attorney to reverse the decision. And in class, she outperformed her peers, became one the 2017 school valedictorians and was admitted to UC Berkeley.

“I saw higher education as an escape from the harsh realities at home,” said Piña, the first in her Mexican American family to attend college. “I visited Berkeley and saw how different it was, how open everyone was, and I said, ‘I want to go to a school like this.’”

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