From Cleaning Lady To Director For NASA, This Latina Immigrant Just Put A Rover On Mars
"Every single thing that I do, I'm representing my country, my culture, my heritage, my people, and I have to give my best every single time."
"I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking, 'Something has to be out there that's better than this,'" says Diana Trujillo, who traveled to the US with no English and just $300 in her pocket.
"I saw everything coming my way as an opportunity. I didn't see it as, 'I can't believe that I'm cleaning a bathroom right now.' It was just more like, 'I'm glad that I have a job and I can buy food and have a house to sleep.' And so, I think that all of those things make me, and even today, helps me see life differently."
When NASA's Perseverance Rover landed on Mars last week, a Latina immigrant was at the helm.
"I was born and raised in Colombia," says Diana Trujillo. "There is a lot of violence going on in my country, so for me, looking up at the sky and looking at the stars was my safe place," continues the trailblazing NASA Flight Director, one of few Latinas in the field and even fewer to hold the title.
It took the Perseverance rover seven months to reach Mars; Diana's journey is 30 years in the making.
Diana was raised in a family that, like many others across Latin America, believed a woman's place was in the home, taking care of her husband. Diana's mother dropped out of medical school when she met Diana's father. When they divorced, Diana and her mother were left with nothing.
"We didn't even have food. We'd boil an egg and we'd cut it in half, and that was our lunch that day. I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking, 'Something has to be out there that's better than this.'"
So, when Diana was 17, she set out to find it.
Diana landed in Miami with just $300 in her pocket. She didn't speak any English.
But, she was tenacious - and she had something to prove.
"As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot. It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say I'm not going to give up on my dream. I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value, that women matter."
She took any job she could get, working nights, housekeeping, cleaning bathrooms, to put herself through community college.
"I saw everything coming my way as an opportunity. I didn't see it as, 'I can't believe I'm doing this job at night,' or 'I can't believe that I'm cleaning. I can't believe that I'm cleaning a bathroom right now.' It was just more like, 'I'm glad that I have a job and I can buy food and have a house to sleep.' And so, I think that all of those things make me, and even today, helps me see life differently."
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Eventually, Diana transferred to the University of Florida, where she majored in aerospace engineering.
She remembers standing in the long line to declare her major noticing that she was one of very few Latinos and even fewer women, and thinking to herself, "You shouldn't be here...why are you here."
And she's been one of few ever since. Latinos represent only 8% of those working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics); Latinas, just 2%.
But, when Diana walks into NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she is a Flight Director for NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover, she knows that she doesn't walk alone.
"I'm walking in there and every single thing that I do, I'm representing my country, my culture, my heritage, my people, and I have to give my best every single time."
And she has gladly shouldered that responsibility, believing that the way to increase the representation of Latinos and mujeres in STEM fields is through role models.
"The more hers there are, the more engineers and scientists that are Latin are out there, the more chances we have for those kids to have la chispa, where they say, 'I want to be that.'"
Which is why, last Thursday, Diana hosted "Juntos perseveramos," "Together we persevere," NASA's first-ever Spanish language broadcast for a planetary landing. It has been viewed over 2.5 million times.
"The abuelas, the moms or dads, the uncles, los primos, like everyone has to see this," she said. "And they have to see a woman in there, too. So, that they can turn around to the younger generation and say she can do it, you can do it."
What's next for Diana? Space, she hopes.
"Something has to be out there that's better than this. Some other species that treats themselves better or values people better."
Diana helped design the rover's robotic arm, which will collect rock samples to be analyzed, samples which may help determine whether there is life on other planets.
"Understanding if we're alone in the universe is the ultimate question," she says.
"I hope that within the one year of surface operations on Mars, we can answer that question."
And a Latina immigrant will have helped make it possible.