When a sixth-grade teacher asked students what they dreamed of becoming, most answered firefighters and other jobs popular with kids. Athenea Luciano replied that her dream was to work in the White House.
Twenty-five years later, while working for the Department of Homeland Security, Athenea briefed US senators on intelligence matters and visited the White House in her official capacity.
Athenea, now 46, was born and raised in Brawley. Her father was deported to Mexico when she was 3 years old. He lived in Mexicali. Her mother lived in Brawley with Athenea and her younger brother.
Although the family traveled regularly to Mexicali, the separation continued for 25 years until her father’s death in 2004.
His mother picked fruits and vegetables in Imperial County. Athenea recalls her mother being “exhausted, wearing worn shoes and very dirty clothes from working in the fields”.
The family did not have much income. Athenea, her mother, younger brother, and four aunts and uncles lived in a two-bedroom flat for farm workers and made do with what little they could afford.
“Life was hard,” recalls Athenea.
Nonetheless, Athenea’s mother had high hopes for her, always encouraging a positive attitude. “Athenea”, she said, “poor economically is not equal to being poor in spirit”.
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself.”
“Keep going and you can become anything you want.”
After graduating from high school in 1994, she entered community college, but was unable to continue following a car accident that left her on an oxygen tank, with metal plates implanted and confined to a wheelchair.
Athenea, who drew strength from her mother’s tenacity, eventually recovered and resumed a career path.
She had long wanted to better understand the immigration processes that led to the separation of her family. So in 2001, after passing an entrance exam and six months of training, she became a uniformed officer with the Department of Homeland Security assigned to the San Ysidro border crossing.
It’s the same law enforcement agency that deported his father.
“I made sure to always treat people with dignity, even during arrests,” Athenea said.
Her positive attitude and work ethic were quickly noticed and she grew.
In 2004, she successfully led a team that launched a new border entry program and was promoted to Washington, DC. She eventually earned a promotion to the department’s intelligence unit, where she received a high-level security clearance and briefed senior US officials.
His career trajectory took off in 2013 when Athenea represented the United States in a six-month, four-nation intelligence project to assist the Peruvian government. For her work, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by Peruvian Customs.
However, the following year, his career trajectory came to an abrupt end.
While in Texas opening intelligence offices, Athenea worked several yards of chain-link enclosures used to detain the children of undocumented immigrants.
This upset her a lot and she quit.
Athenea married fellow officer Felix Luciano and the couple moved to San Diego where they began new careers.
Today, she is the owner of “Immigration Solutions USA”, which helps people with immigration and citizenship processes. Awarded “Businesswoman of the Year” by the San Diego Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she was a frequent guest speaker and actively helped the immigrant community.
She joined Rotary, a service organization with programs that help disadvantaged communities similar to where she grew up. She became president and co-president of two Rotary clubs, as well as an assistant governor representing 3,000 San Diego Rotarians.
Although Athenea eventually graduated from a two-year community college and a paralegal degree, she never attended a four-year college.
“You don’t need a four-year college degree to be successful in life,” Athenea said. “Character, tenacity and fearlessness, combined with solid experience, can teach you how to meet challenges.”
As for her current dream, she wants to practice law without going to law school. She plans to complete a rarely used and difficult process that will allow her to obtain a law degree by 2024.
It’s a safe bet that Athenea will succeed.
After all, she agreed with her mother: “You can become anything you want.”
About this series
Jan Goldsmith is a member emeritus of UT’s Community Advisory Board. He is an attorney and former legal partner, judge, state legislator, San Diego city attorney, and mayor of Poway.
Someone San Diego Should Know is a column by members of UT’s Community Advisory Board about local people who are interesting and notable because of their experiences, accomplishments, creativity, or referrals.