Mariachi De La Isla Member Letty Guval-DeLuna Realizes Dream to Finish Degree at Island University

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A dream deferred, but not forgotten.

More than 30 years after first starting college, Letty Guval-DeLuna will finally be the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. She will earn that degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, on Dec. 10, as both a nontraditional Islander student and a member of the university ensemble Mariachi De La Isla. Her journey is one filled with sacrifice, song, and a conversion of spirit.

“Exactly 30 years ago, I started college but took a break to pursue a full-time career in Tejano music. In 2019, I decided to do what I thought impossible and finish what I left behind,” DeLuna said. “By the grace and help of God, and the help of my husband and four children, I have earned my Spanish degree with a Certificate to Translate from this amazing school. I am the proudest Islander ever.”

Born in California, DeLuna was part of a Mexican American migrant family. Based in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, the family traveled across the United States to work in the beet fields of Caldwell, Idaho.

“My parents didn’t even go to high school, much less college,” she said. “My father always said that he didn’t want me working in the fields when I got older; he wanted me to get an education.”

While crops were the family business, music was the family passion. DeLuna, who comes from a long line of musicians, began singing in Spanish when she was about three years old.

“I always used the field tools as my microphone,” she joked.

When she was a teenager, the family moved from Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley. DeLuna’s high school extracurricular activities included choir and the school’s mariachi group along with singing at numerous family events.

After high school graduation in 1992, she was accepted to Pan American University, now known as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, as a bilingual education major. While at Pan Am, DeLuna also found much success singing with the university’s mariachi group and a local mariachi group. While singing a wedding gig, DeLuna was scouted to record an album.

“The summer after my first year of college, my family was still working the fields, so when we went back up north, I hand-delivered all my tapes to these Spanish radio stations,” she said. “I was so excited to hear my music play in Idaho! Shortly after I got back home, I was signed to an official music contract and that’s how my career started.”

While thrilled about the launch of her Tex-Mex music career, DeLuna made the difficult decision to drop out of college.

“When I left college, my dad — my biggest supporter — was disappointed,” she said. “On one hand, he was so happy my music career was having success, but on the other hand, he was disappointed that I was going to miss my goal of earning a degree.”

letty-and-bill.jpgDeLuna then spent the next five years touring the nation, opening for bands that were filling giant arenas. In 1995 during the Clinton Administration, she became the first Tejano singer to receive an invitation to sing at the White House for Hispanic Heritage month.

Despite experiencing modest success in her music career, in 1999, she sought a new direction and moved to San Antonio, Texas. It was there that she experienced what one could only call a conversion of spirit and became a Christian.

As she settled into life’s routines, she found herself busy as a pastor’s wife, mother of four children, and singer in her church’s choir.

DeLuna also dabbled in gig work translating documents for local businesses but was hitting roadblocks in finding full-time employment as a translator without a degree.

“I got this amazing job offer to translate for a big business,” she said. “I said to them, ‘You know I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, right?’ and they told me it was fine, and the job was mine. But in the very end, they couldn’t give it to me. It was a big blow, a kick in the gut, not to get it. I felt so vulnerable.”

Instead of dwelling in rejection, DeLuna turned those emotions into action and in 2019, applied to attend Del Mar College where she earned an Associate of Arts in Foreign Language in fall 2020. The graduation was bittersweet because her father had passed away earlier that spring.

In spring 2021, DeLuna transferred to TAMU-CC where she was overjoyed to learn she qualified for numerous scholarships and aid, including the Joan Aleshire Ufkes Endowed Scholarship in Spanish.

“If it wasn’t for the scholarships, I don’t think I could have made it. I am eternally grateful for them,” she said. “Being on campus was life-changing. My second semester, I had a health class with Dr. Lon Seiger and the first thing he said was, ‘To take care of others, you need to take care of yourself.’ So, I began working out and eating healthier, and I lost 25 pounds in six months.”

After hearing about Mariachi De La Isla, DeLuna emailed Dr. Rai Morales, TAMU-CC Associate Professor of Trombone and Director for Mariachi De La Isla, to find out more information. She hesitated to join only because she didn’t play an instrument, which was a requirement.

“When I first reached out to Dr. Morales, I didn’t even tell him I was a professional. But I ended up sending him a video from 1996,” she said. “I told him, ‘I don’t look the same, but I sound the same, maybe even better!’ Then he asked me if I played an instrument, and I said, no, but I’m willing to learn.”

In mariachi class, DeLuna learned to play the vihuela, a small high-pitched guitar with five strings. Before her first performance in the bright blue Islander trajes, DeLuna said she struggled with nerves.

“In the beginning, I had forgotten how to communicate with the crowd, and to be honest, I felt like an old lady around all the younger students,” she said. “But seeing the great responses we got made me feel much more comfortable.”

Her family, including her husband Chris, and her four children, Ariela, 21; Cristobal 19; Sofia 15; and Andres 12; attended many of her performances to cheer her on.

While being a part of Mariachi de la Isla gave Deluna an outlet for creative expression, she said that her Spanish program courses opened her eyes to a whole new world of knowledge and inspired her to see herself as part of a bigger picture.

“The Mexican American Women’s History class with Professor Amanda Marquez was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken,” she said. “Everything we learned was a reminder of who I was, or I should say, who I am. These Mexican American women worked in the fields and traveled from one place to another. They migrated, they suffered, they fought for what they believed in.”

In each class, Deluna not only connected with her professors and the information being shared, but with her younger peers as well.

“I feel very motherly toward the young ladies,” she said. “I sometimes would give them rides instead of letting them take the bus. When they didn’t show up for class, I would call them to check on them. I listened to them when they needed to talk.”

In her final semester, DeLuna took five classes and continued to work numerous jobs, including as a Spanish instructor at Del Mar and as a voice teacher at a local private school.

On Saturday, DeLuna once again will find herself back on stage; this time, however, she will walk the stage as a college graduate. Through it all, she was able to maintain a 4.0 GPA and will graduate with summa cum laude honors. She hopes to find a job translating for the legal or health care system.

“I’ve always worked so hard for everything I have – motherhood, marriage, my career – but this feels different,” DeLuna said. “This is the hardest I’ve worked because I did it while juggling so many other things. I’m still a mother, a wife, a worker. People in our church community need me. Each time, I’ve answered the call, and I also kept going to school. Earning my degree was hard, really hard, but it was totally worth it.”

Beyond her family, DeLuna thanks TAMU-CC faculty, staff, and administrators, especially Professors Mara Barbosa, Melissa Culver, Rossy Lima de Padilla, Amanda Marquez, Maria Mata, Rai Morales, Cristina Ortiz, Lon Seiger, University President Dr. Kelly M. Miller, and Del Mar Spanish Professor Javier Morin.