The Scoop - Tenacious

"Race shouldn't matter..." - Daniella Willis

Daniella as a pre-mature babyThe lights dim. The audience fades. She begins. Crackling embers disguised as words escape her mouth. Language and rhyme fire dance around the hungry flames. She sprays singed ears with the emotions of her voice. Her story reveals heartache and pain, joy and laughter, and as it races toward a crescendo Daniella Willis reflects on her personal journey.

“When you’re on stage, nothing can touch you,” Willis said.  “For however long you are speaking, nothing touches you; it’s just you.” 

Willis was born on April 10, 1994, to an African-American father and a Mexican-American mother. Premature and weighing a mere 4 pounds, 3 ounces, she crossed paths with adversity early on. A ventilator supported her breathing for four days while her undeveloped lungs learned how to survive on their own. And plastic tubes and IVs stayed connected to her miniature body for an additional two weeks before her health stabilized.

Hospital doctors eventually released Willis to the care of her parents, but her homecoming was short-lived. Asthma attacks and upper respiratory infections forced a follow-up trip to the ER within three months of her initial release. Willis’ parents eventually came to know their daughter’s doctors by name, returning to the hospital for weeks at a time over the next five years.

The physical challenges that plagued Willis when she was a baby were replaced with social challenges when she entered middle school. African-American students failed to identify with her multiracial background, and friendships with Mexican-American students usually reached a dead end due to her inability to speak Spanish. In a setting where social cliques tended to divide along ethnic lines, Willis often found herself on the outside looking in.

“It’s ok to acknowledge race, but when you start to put a value on it, then it creates a problem,” Willis said. “Race shouldn’t matter; it shouldn’t matter what color you are. The only thing that should matter is who you are as a person.”

If acceptance eluded Willis inDaniella and her Great Grandmother the classroom, it also kept its distance at home. Her father’s noticeable absence in her life compounded the frustrations she was experiencing at school. His irregular visits and intermittent communication failed to produce the meaningful relationship she craved, and by her teenage years she had all but given up on playing the role of affectionate daughter in her own father-daughter screenplay.

Willis’ mother and great-grandmother filled the void left by her father, continually encouraging her to use education as an escape: an escape from her father’s broken promises, from economic hardship and from a neighborhood littered with disappearing dreams. And when the opportunity presented itself to attend high school at Oakridge College Preparatory School in Arlington, she enrolled with the hope of one-day attending Texas Christian University.

“I think you grow more as a person depending on what life throws at you,” Willis’ mother Carmen Branch said. “Daniella has taken a lot and learned from it -- or at least she’s tried to -- and I think those challenges have helped her grow into the person she is today.”

Any nervousness Willis felt on her first day of high school was quickly overcome with optimism that her future would be brighter than her past. Oakridge provided the academic environment she needed to fulfill her potential, but the transition from public to private school was not as easy as she had anticipated. New surroundings and new faces meant new challenges. Adjusting to unfamiliar teaching styles proved difficult, and Willis watched as her grades began to slip.

Daniella's Photo Album

Daniella as a toddler. Daniella (right) at the Oakridge Sports Banquet with her track and field teammates. Daniella and her mom at her uncle's 75th birthday. Daniella at her 8th birthday party. Daniella poses with her brother before sophomore homecoming. Daniella (left) and her family on a vacation to Disney World. Daniella with a fellow contestant at a poetry slam event hosted by Mike Guinn.

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