L.J. Valenzuela will graduate from Mandarin High School with a 4.5 grade point average. He will attend Brown University on a full scholarship in the fall. | Will Brown, Jacksonville TodayL.J. Valenzuela will graduate from Mandarin High School with a 4.5 grade point average. He will attend Brown University on a full scholarship in the fall. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today
L.J. Valenzuela will graduate from Mandarin High School with a 4.5 grade point average. He will attend Brown University on a full scholarship in the fall. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Unbridled Mustang: Mandarin grad hungry to change his hometown

Published on May 30, 2024 at 5:20 pm

L.J. Valenzuela is happy.

His happiness is not born out of his impending Friday graduation from Mandarin High School with honors nor is it because his theatrical debut received a standing ovation last week. It comes from his presence as his true and authentic self in his hometown.

“There is constant talk of the things we accomplish and do,” L.J. says. “I celebrate the direct art of living.”

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During his high school years, Valenzuela, who is transgender, became an activist for LGBTQ rights, an advocate for student safety within Duval County Schools, as well as a producer of a one-act play that was not performed in public school amid the uncertainty under the state’s 2022 Parental Rights in Education law, which, among other things, forbade instruction about gender or sexual orientation.

“He doesn’t try to follow peer pressure or a trend,” his mother, Natalia, says. “He’s tried to form his own path, regardless of what other people think. I really admire him.”

L.J. has lived every one of his 18 years in a home by St. Johns Bluff with mother Natalia, father Robert and younger brother Luke.  He loves Jacksonville and plans to return after he earns his undergraduate degree in urban studies from Brown University.

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Valenzuela says he’s not running from Florida. He’s running toward an opportunity to earn a full scholarship from an Ivy League institution that has one of the best programs in his field.

“I’ve always viewed Jacksonville as a city that no one would think anything of unless you take a look at it. But, once you take a look, it’s fascinating,” he says.

That has been the takeaway of so many people who have met Liano J. Valenzuela: fascination. READ USA Chief Executive Rob Kelly certainly is in awe of what L.J. has accomplished.

‘Heart for Justice’

In 2022, L.J. was among the first group of tutors in READ USA’s Literacy Tutoring Program, where teenagers help elementary school students with their reading fluency and reading comprehension. He was 16 and earning a paycheck for the first time.

“He has a heart for justice,” Kelly says. “He strives to make sure that whatever he’s doing, however he invests in the community, it is to make it better. … When L.J. was tutoring with us, we immediately recognized his leadership skills and we relied on him to help us think through issues that we had with the tutoring program.”

This spring, READ USA proved that its reading programs increased student reading accuracy, comprehension and oral reading skills.

L.J. didn’t volunteer as a tutor this academic year. But Kelly would often cross paths with the teen because both frequently attended Duval County School Board meetings.

Kelly was among those in attendance when Hunger, a one-act play written by Ashlyn Colwell and produced by L.J., made its debut inside the Hicks Auditorium at the Jacksonville Public Library this month.

“I saw an opportunity when the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill came out,” L.J. says of Hunger, which was written while he and Colwell were students at Mandarin in 2022. “The school was uncertain and my teacher was uncertain about queer art. This was an opportunity to show we could do it anyway.”

More than 100 people paid to watch the student-led production that was performed by 18- and 19-year-olds and produced by someone who was a week away from earning their high school diploma.

The audience included members of Northeast Florida’s LGBTQ community, along with local parents and students. Natalia Valenzuela sat about five rows up, enthralled at what Ashlyn’s mind and L.J.’s vision could conjure. Toward the back, Robert Valenzuela obsessed over a tripod and monopod to ensure he perfectly captured still and moving pictures of his son’s production.

Finding one’s flock

When Hunger ended, Cindy Coates could not stop smiling. She has known L.J. since he was a child, watched as he testified in front of the Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine in February 2023, and is immensely proud of the person he has become.

“He’s going to be phenomenal,” Coates says. “He has such a great spirit about him. … If the world had more parents who support kids and LGBTQ kids, you can make it through this.”

Coates is a neighbor of the Valenzuelas. She, Allene Monaco and Natalia call themselves “the flamingos” because they are always together.

“I’m so immensely proud and in awe of him,” Natalia says of her eldest child. “He has done so much in his young life. He really made this all happen himself.”

The Valenzuelas are a working-class family. Natalia says she and her husband are both introverted, yet supportive of their son’s dreams. There are, she acknowledges, things she does not know. When she says L.J. has achieved by himself, she highlights his curiosity about a subject and a commitment to find a way to obtain his desires.

We do talk about Bruno

That’s why Natalia was tremendously proud when L.J. was accepted into Brown last year.

The news came less than two weeks after Natalia’s mother, Leonora Favre, died. She was 83. In Favre’s final months, she lived with L.J. and his family.

“She was the one look I had into college,” L.J. says. “Even though she couldn’t do as much with her degree, she always told me to get an education.”

Favre was born in the Bronx and overcame personal obstacles to earn an undergraduate degree later in life. She used her education to coordinate mediation services in New York as well as read to L.J.’s elementary school classmates when he was a child.

“My mom had a big impact on L.J. She did so much at a time when she lived through a lot of violence,” Natalia Valenzuela recalls. “People can go one way or another when they go through major trauma. She did so much for her community. … I think hearing about (that) and reading about it, I think, had a big impact on L.J. to see my mother overcome a lot.”

Inaugural Thrive Scholar

Natalia Valenzuela describes her older son as comfortable, confident and charismatic.

He will need all of those attributes at Brown this fall. One organization that will help in that transition is Thrive Scholars Jacksonville.

The nonprofit initially was created in 2001 by philanthropists James and Patricia London to help high-achieving Black and African American students from Los Angeles from under-resourced communities attend college.

Over the last two decades, it has expanded its scope to include Latino, indigenous and other people of color from six cities. Jacksonville is the smallest of the six, and it’s where the Londons moved in 2020.

The couple connected with then-Community Foundation for Northeast Florida President Nina Waters shortly after moving East. Conversations between the Londons and the Community Foundation over the following 18 months helped fund Thrive Scholars Jacksonville.

There was so much excitement about expanding Thrive Scholars to Jacksonville that $1.8 million was raised in four weeks.

L.J. is among the first group of Thrive Scholars to graduate. The 11 students from Duval and Putnam County have a 3.92 average GPA and average family income of $47,000.

Thrive Scholars Jacksonville Executive Director Hannah Oberholtzer found L.J. to be quiet and kind when they first met last May prior to a six-week immersion course at Amherst College, where the scholars took calculus and writing courses that would prepare them for the rigor of undergraduate life. Since then, he has soared.

“These young people are who we want in our leadership positions in our corporate, civic and academic institutions in Jacksonville,” Oberholzer says, “they are set up with the tools and have the networks where they can ascend into those positions. We are not only going to create a diverse workforce, but diverse (corporate) suite executives in our community.”

This summer, Thrive Scholars will take L.J. and his peers to Northwestern University for additional college prep.

Chicago may be a thousand miles from home. L.J.’s journey toward adulthood has been longer than that.

Finding one’s footing in Florida

In middle school, L.J. endured depressive episodes, was diagnosed with anxiety and was absent for 45% of seventh grade. Valenzuela says he didn’t attend school at the time because he didn’t feel like he had support there as a closeted trans person.

His grades plummeted.

Attending Florida Virtual School, coming out, receiving family support, attending The Lighthouse, a resource for LGBTQ teens that is affiliated with Christ Church’s Ponte Vedra Beach campus, as well as volunteering, all helped him find his footing.

L.J. decided shortly before the 2021-22 academic year that he wanted to return to a physical campus. That campus was Mandarin High School.

Amid his mental health valleys, L.J. says he read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. That, combined with a pair of visits with family members in New Mexico, made him realize he wanted more from this life.

He didn’t know if he could, but he wanted to try.

His first year on campus was amid the furor of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education conversation. The bill, which was derided as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, passed the Florida Senate five days after L.J.’s 16th birthday.

While the Legislature considered the bill, L.J. didn’t pay it much mind because he did not believe there was any chance it would pass. Instead, L.J. recalls, that spring of 2022 was when he truly began to accept and love himself.

“After that, I was (aware) of uncertainty within my school experience,” L.J. says. “All of a sudden, everything was up for debate. I no longer felt like I had any legal protection. It was me as a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old hoping adults would listen.”

He found that people who were supportive of trans rights and the LGBTQ community remained supportive after the law was passed. Those who were more hands off have become “more afraid to express acceptance” of the LGBTQ community over the last two years.

Over the last two years, portions of the Parental Rights in Education law that most irked LGBTQ people and advocates have been clarified.

Natalia Valenzuela says she knew of L.J.’s transgender peers who were “deadnamed” (called by their birth name rather than the name matching their gender identity) and felt disconnected from their parents because of the gap between the child’s gender identity and what their parents expected from them.

“I know there are a lot of kids where their parents don’t approve of things and they are exposed at school because they have to follow the parents’ wishes,” Natalia says.

Natalia says her goal was to ensure her son felt safe at school.

“It’s my child’s life. It’s their journey. Even though there are some things I would feel are important, I feel like it’s his journey. Whatever would make him feel more comfortable is what I would want to do. I know every parent is different,” she says.

Natalia says there was some shock when L.J. came out. Her surprise was more about initial concerns for his future and safety than the person he was in that moment.

“When L.J. felt like he was accepted — and we did everything we could to make him feel accepted — he blossomed,” his mother says. “He became who he is. It’s such a big difference from when he was in seventh grade. His confidence is there when it wasn’t (in seventh grade). He’s moving forward and trying to help others.”

Friday, L.J. will graduate with a 4.5 GPA. He’s in the top 10% of his class, but is more concerned over whether students in the years ahead will have the freedom to speak up and speak out.

“I see it as a celebration of the past because now high school is my past,” L.J. said this week. “I know this is my jumping-off point to do everything else I want to do with my life.”


author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.
author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.

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