Our lady, Fatima

“I think God was helping me realize that my parents might not always be there.”

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Fatima Mendoza’s sister grabbed her hand as their Ford Explorer careened and began to roll over.

Fatima, who was 7 at the time, closed her eyes and felt the hand slip away.

When she opened them, she was lying on the side of the road in Mexico. She’d been ejected from the vehicle’s rear windshield, which had popped out. There wasn’t a scratch on her, and everyone else in her family escaped with scrapes and bruises.

“But in that moment, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. I’m all alone,’ ” she recalls. “I think God was helping me realize that my parents might not always be there. After that, I always had a feeling to cherish every moment with them.”

Fatima, now 18, graduates from Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in June, and sadly, her mother won’t be there.

Maria Mendoza was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2017, and she died about two months later.

“She was very feisty, very stubborn. She knew what she wanted, and she wouldn’t budge,” Fatima says of her mother. “But she always made friends everywhere she went; she always talked to people on the bus.”

Close friendships and mentorships at Rangel have helped Fatima through her grief. 

She traveled with her class to Cuba this past summer to work on an organic farm, pulling weeds, harvesting green beans and cutting palm leaves for thatched roofs. She overcame her fear of high speeds and zip-lined through a Cuban forest, an exhilarating experience.

Fatima already knows exactly what career she wants. She plans to become an animator and already has produced short clips as part of an animation class at Rangel.

“I love how tedious it is,” she says of the artistic discipline. “One expression can change the whole story.”

She has been accepted to the University of Texas at Dallas, California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Otis College of Design in Los Angeles. Scholarship announcements come in mid-April, after this magazine is printed.

At first her dad, Antolín, had pressured his bright youngest child to pursue a career in science or medicine. But Fatima wouldn’t budge, and eventually he relented.

Her sister, Maria, is now 27 and works for a refugee nonprofit in Dallas. Her brother, Antolín, is a 25-year-old engineer at an aerospace company in Grand Prairie, and he’s pledged to help his sister financially through college.

Dad is a cook in Hurst. They all live together in Oak Cliff.

“I love my family. To me they’re the ideal family. They’re not perfect, but they’re perfect to me,” Fatima says. “I’m thankful to God for that.”