When a sixth-grade teacher asked students what they dreamed of becoming, most answered fireman and other jobs popular with children. Athenea Luciano answered her dream was to work in the White House.
Twenty-five years later, while working for the Department of Homeland Security, Athenea briefed U.S. 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. He lived in Mexicali. Her mother lived in Brawley with Athenea and her younger brother.
Although the family would regularly visit in Mexicali, the separation continued for 25 years until her father’s death in 2004.
Her mother picked fruits and vegetables in Imperial County. Athenea remembers her mother being “exhausted, wearing worn down shoes and heavily soiled clothes from working the fields.”
The family did not have much income. Athenea, her mother, younger brother and four aunts and uncles lived in a two-bedroom agricultural worker housing unit and made do with the little they could afford.
“Life was hard,” Athenea recalls.
Nevertheless, Athenea’s mother had high hopes for her, always encouraging a positive attitude. “Athenea”, she would say, “economically poor does not equal being poor in spirit.”
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself.”
“Keep going and you can become anything you want.”
After graduating high school in 1994, she entered community college, but could not continue following an auto accident that left her on an oxygen tank, with implanted metal plates, and confined to a wheelchair.
Athenea, who found strength in her mother’s tenacity, ultimately recovered and returned to a career path.
She had long wanted to better understand immigration processes that resulted in her family’s separation. 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.
This is the same law enforcement agency that deported her father.
“I made sure to always treat people with dignity even when making arrests,” Athenea said.
Her positive attitude and work ethic were quickly noticed and she advanced.
In 2004, she successfully led a team that initiated a new border entry program and was promoted to Washington, D.C. She eventually earned a promotion to the department’s intelligence unit, where she received high-level security clearance and briefed top U.S. officials.
Her career trajectory was soaring by 2013 when Athenea represented the U.S in a six-month, four-nation intelligence project helping Peru’s government. For her work she was awarded the Peruvian Customs Medal of Honor.
However, the following year her career trajectory abruptly ended.
While in Texas opening intelligence offices, Athenea worked several feet from chain-link pens used to hold children of undocumented immigrants.
This greatly disturbed her and she resigned.
Athenea married fellow officer Felix Luciano and the couple relocated to San Diego where they began new career paths.
Today, she owns “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 has been a frequent guest speaker and active in helping 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 assistant governor representing 3,000 San Diego Rotarians.
Although Athenea eventually earned a two-year community college degree and paralegal degree, she never attended a four-year college.
“You do not need a four-year college degree to be successful in life,” Athenea said. “Character, tenacity and fearlessness, coupled with sound experience, can teach you how to navigate challenges.”
As for her current dream, she wants to practice law without attending law school. She plans to complete a rarely used and difficult process that will enable her to obtain a law license by 2024.
It is a pretty good bet that Athenea will succeed.
After all, she has proven her mother correct: “You can become anything you want.”
About this series
Jan Goldsmith is an Emeritus member of the U-T’s Community Advisory Board. He is an attorney and former law partner, judge, state legislator, San Diego city attorney and Poway mayor.
Someone San Diego Should Know is a column written by members of the U-T’s Community Advisory Board about local people who are interesting and noteworthy because of their experiences, achievements, creativity or credentials.