SAN ANTONIO – A Saint Mary’s Hall student captured a defining moment in her life in 600 words. Maria Benavides’ essay titled Speechless is published online for New York Times readers and the world to view. 

  • Won the NYT first-ever personal narrative essay contest
  • Published her own book about several immigrants’ journeys to the U.S.
  • Raising money to send 100 copies of the book to U.S. senators.

Her short story is part of the newspaper’s first-ever personal narrative essay contest. The competition challenged teenagers to write short, powerful stories about a meaningful life experience. Benavides wrote about a time at a speech competition. 

“I had written an original oratory about statelessness, so feeling like I didn’t belong in the U.S. and in Mexico. I was sharing my experience as an immigrant woman and I felt passionate about my piece and I loved speaking it,” said Benavides. 

In her story, Benavides describes making it to the final round, but says she lost confidence when she overheard two girls speaking negatively about her speech. 

“They thought the only reason I found success in the activity was because I was trying to obtain diversity points and I was just speaking of this pity narrative, when in reality, I was speaking about something that was extremely important to me,” she said. 

Benavides’ New York Times piece is one of eight winning stories now featured on the site. A total of 8,000 pieces were submitted. 

“As an aspiring writer, being published in the New York Times is the biggest dream one could ever accomplish,” said Benavides. 

One byline isn’t enough for the teen. She recently published a book expanding her passion for social justice. 

“[In 2018] I volunteered with the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education Services, also known as RAICES for a little bit. I was at the bus station in downtown San Antonio providing brief legal aid to the refugee families,” she said. 

A Summer with the Butterflies outlines the journey of each immigrant she met, and includes a blank page to for someone to draw or write about their own journey in America. While she was there she provided art supplies to the children and read them books. 

“Most of the kids gave me their drawings as a gift and by seeing all of those drawings I was inspired to put them together in this book,” said Benavides. “Writing is the best way that I can advocate for others and I definitely want to keep advocating for immigration reform.”

She is raising money on Kickstarter to send 100 copies of the book to U.S. senators. A separate portion of the proceeds will go toward a nonprofit she plans to create that will focus on providing art scholarships to immigrants.