A former foster child makes it to the Royal Court, with determination and her new family's love

Tournament of Roses princess Donaly Marquez has attended nearly 100 events as a member of the parade's Royal Court. Some of those, like the Coronation Ceremony, are pointedly glamorous. But the high school student's strongest memory is of making bracelets and sipping tea with the girls at Hillsides, a Pasadena child welfare agency.

"I was in a group home myself," Marquez told the girls in an impromptu speech in November.

Some looked at her in disbelief, she says. But she continued: "I've been through foster homes, and I understand what it's like."

Marquez, 17, says that her birth mother was an abusive drug addict. She was barely more than a toddler, she says, when she began filling in as mom for her younger siblings.

"I fed them, I changed their diapers and I tried to take care of them as much as I could because my mom wasn't there to do that," she says.

They moved every couple of weeks or so — from garages, to friends' houses, to motels — never staying anywhere more than a month. Some days she went to school; other days she didn't.

"I was very exposed to the real world," she says.

When Marquez was 5 years old, a friend of her birth mother persuaded her to bring the children to the police station. The children cried and screamed as authorities took them away from their mother, Marquez says.

For a few months, she lived with her siblings in a group home. Then foster parents Rosie and Juan Leon took the children into their home. Rosie, however, was diagnosed with lupus, and when its effects began to wear on her, Rosie Leon turned to her aunt and uncle, Sara and Ignacio Marquez.

The Pasadena couple's own children were in high school and college, and they offered to adopt Marquez, then 7, and her siblings. The children eventually took on the Marquez name.

The transition wasn't always easy. Sara Marquez recalls that on one of the first nights the family sat down for a meal together, Donaly had her armor up. She wanted to feed the other children.

"'No,'" Sara said she told her. "'It's your job to be a kid, and it's my job to be the mom.'"

For a while, Donaly told her parents she wasn't ready to call them "Mom" and "Dad."

Sara recalls the day Donaly said she had something to tell her.

It took her a while to get it out, Sara says, but what Donaly finally said was: "I just realized that it's OK that I wasn't born from your stomach because I was born from your heart … I think I can call you Mom now."

Sara says that she'd never asked God for a sign that she and her husband were doing the right thing, but those words were her sign.

Even in her new family, she still faced challenges. Kids at school taunted her for being a foster child. "'Your parents don't want you,'" she says they would tell her.

Midway through high school, she started to feel anxiety and anger, Donaly says.

"I was still trying to grasp … 'Oh, my gosh, this happened to me, and I don't know how to handle that.'"

Her therapist, Maria Lozano, helped her. "I started to feel more confident," the teenager says. "I started getting involved in the community. I started to join all these organizations."

And she decided to try out for the Royal Court.

Lozano describes Donaly as a headstrong young woman who takes initiative and asks for help when she needs it. When she told her about her Royal Court aspirations, Lozano encouraged her.

"From my experience working with families and kids who have experienced trauma, it's pretty easy to lose your spirit," Lozano said. "And for some it's a lot harder to regain that or rebuild it."

Donaly, she says, is among those who've somehow figured out how to use hardship to grow stronger.

Sara Marquez says her legs were shaking as she watched Donaly standing among 39 Royal Court finalists at the Rose Parade's Tournament House.

A couple in the audience asked if she knew someone.

"Yes," Sara said. "No. 22 is my daughter."

When Donaly's name was the first announced as one of the seven princesses, their eyes locked.

Sara's first thoughts, she says, were "If anybody deserves this …"

A month later, Donaly told the girls at Hillside: "It doesn't matter where you come from, you can do anything as long as you set your mind to it."

She also understands their disbelief. She says she too used to get annoyed when people would tell her, "It gets better."

Donaly will graduate from Blair High School in the spring. She plans to go to college and study either criminal justice or medicine.

When she was living on the streets, though, she had no concept of success, let alone a Rose Parade or Royal Court.

She would never have dreamed of one day wearing a sparkling crown or a ball gown, or, most of all, of having a loving mother to cheer her on from the stands on the day she accepted the honor.

taylor.goldenstein@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 01, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Her rags-to-royalty dream - Rose princess, once an abandoned child, rises on her new family's love" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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