The music cues, and a stream of cloaked teenagers in tasseled caps march forward. After 13 years of elementary, middle and high school, it’s all come to this: graduation day.
Along that journey, some have become stars in the stadium, some have basked in the limelight, and some have advanced to the head of the class.
But others have excelled in a completely different way. They’ve overcome trials and hardships, often beating odds that others wouldn’t have conquered.
These are the stories of neighborhood graduates who, in the dawn of life, have outshined some of life’s darkest moments.
In terms of family, Monica Dominguez is an incredibly rich young woman. Both of her parents are immigrants, her mother from Ecuador and her father from Mexico, and they have sacrificed to send Dominguez and her 14-year-old brother to private school.
“They’ve done all they can to provide a really good education for us, at least what they can afford,” says Dominguez, now a senior at Bishop Dunne High School.
Her mother is a bookkeeper for Merry Maids, and for a time she worked two jobs to help the family make ends meet, all the while caring for her 102-year-old grandmother, who lives with them. Dominguez’ father handles apartment maintenance for Lincoln Properties, and he typically comes home late in the evening.
But despite their long hours, Dominguez says, the time her parents spend at home is poured into their children. They’re “the most humble people,” she says, and they’re often underestimated. She describes her father as “a little short man with a very thick accent and a very extensive vocabulary,” the latter being something that most people don’t expect upon first meeting him. Watching her parents make their way in the world has taught Dominguez how to make her own way.
“Quite literally, anything can be done with some creativity and some determination. It’s interesting because being a girl and being Hispanic, you’re very often underestimated,” Dominguez says, with some people surprised that “you’re intelligent and able to carry on a conversation and know what’s going on.”
She has made a name for herself at Bishop Dunne — vice president of the school, varsity softball player, president of National Honor Society and Latinos Unidos, ecology club member, part of the President’s Advisory Group, fourth in her class academically, and “just about anything else anyone asks for help with,” Dominguez says. “If it needs to be done, and I can do it, why not?”
Lydia Torrez, the school’s director of development, describes Dominguez as “extremely articulate and very mature — more mature than the average high schooler. She has always worked for everything, and what she does, she does from the heart. She doesn’t expect anything in return.”
Dominguez didn’t waltz into the school oozing confidence, however. For a while, she says, “I was a little bit conflicted about who I really was.”
Her freshman year, the diminutive Dominguez played volleyball with mostly tall, blonde teammates, and she visited friends’ homes that looked nothing like hers.
“There for a while I was like, ‘How do I bring them home to my little house?’” Dominguez says. “Economically, we weren’t at the same level as everyone else. My friends never resented it, but I started to realize the difference between us. But you just become yourself and accept yourself, and everyone takes you for who you are.”
This fall, she will attend the University of Dallas on a full scholarship. Dominguez isn’t yet sure what she will study, but she plans to follow her parents’ example and put family first to honor the sacrifices they’ve made.
“My parents have helped me get this far,” she says. “There’s no reason to stop now.”
His curious mind and strong dedication to academics had teachers at Bishop Dunne eyeing Arturo Herrera from the moment he stepped onto campus his freshman year.
But toward the end of his freshman and beginning of his sophomore years, it wasn’t clear Herrera would be able to continue at the school. Around that time, his parents were divorcing and trying to decide about custody for Herrera and his two younger brothers, now 16 and 10.
“My mom wanted custody of me and does not make nearly as much [money] as my dad does, so it was really hard to keep sending me to this school,” Herrera says. “I thought, as the older brother, it was probably my obligation to go to a public school, and let them get the foundation — if you don’t get that foundation, it’s hard to build.
“I knew if I went to public school, I was going to do the best I could,” he says, but still, the prospect of leaving “was pretty hard.”
Bishop Dunne administrators fought to keep Herrera around, which included finding scholarship money for him. The Bishop Dunne senior didn’t disappoint them — he’s third in his class academically, a varsity wrestler, president of the pre-med club, and a member of Latinos Unidos. He also grins sheepishly before mentioning that he is a “male cheerleader,” explaining that “this year, I decided to do something different and explore. I was able to convince two other guys to do it with me, and it was a lot of fun.”
Herrera remains down to earth and modest, his teachers say, not the kind of person who gloats or shows off.
“When I think of Arturo, conscientious is probably the biggest word that comes to mind,” says James Martin, the school’s theology department chair in the office of campus ministry. “He’s very conscientious about everything he does, from the way he dresses to the way he walks down the hall. He stands tall.”
Recently, Herrera was awarded a $130,000 scholarship to Rice University in Houston. The scholarship was based on both family income and an application process that included essays and interviews.
When Herrera faced the scholarship committee, he told them: “When I want something, I do all that I can to make sure I achieve that goal.” Based on his track record, the committee apparently believed him.
“It has not been a simple ride in the park,” he says. “It’s hard with financial burdens, and then trying to help your parents out, trying to maintain a high GPA, and being involved in extra curricular activities and trying to have a social life, which in high school is very important.”
Herrera says he’s interested in studying medicine, the field in which his mother has always worked, or finance, since his father is a Federal Reserve Bank employee.
When he was 12, Jose Ortiz witnessed the unthinkable — his father shot his mother to death right before his eyes.
“It was less than a foot away from me,” Ortiz says, in a hushed tone. “I’m still traumatized by that.”
Soon afterward, Ortiz and his brothers left their village in Mexico to live with their grandmother in Dallas.
“I’m sure that God had something better for me to do, and I see that he did,” Ortiz says. “As soon as I got here, I dedicated myself to school. I learned English in the first six months or less, and by the time I was a freshman in high school, I could understand and speak English almost perfectly.
“Now in my senior year, I’m pushing myself to the limits to see what I can do.”
The soft-spoken Ortiz will graduate this month from Sunset High School as the class salutatorian, and he’ll become the first person in his family to attend college.
His introduction to Dallas was harsh. Fellow students made fun of his broken English, calling Ortiz an “alien” who was “not from this planet.”
“It would hurt me, but it also added wood to my fire — my desire to overcome this and demonstrate that I’m better than this,” Ortiz says.
“Now most people who used to make fun of me, they respect me. They come and salute me and say that what I’ve done is an accomplishment and an inspiration to them.”
The young man faced not only scorn from his peers, but also tragedy that continued to follow him. Two years ago, Ortiz’s grandmother was shot and killed during a trip visiting family in Mexico. And a year ago, a younger cousin involved in gang activity also was shot and killed.
Ortiz says he has pushed through all of this by remembering a promise he made to his mother before she died, when he was a young child already showing potential as a student in school.
“I always told my mother I would become someone else in life — someone that would bring us up and take us away from there,” Ortiz says. “Every time I feel like I can’t do it, I’m going to give up, this is impossible … every time, it strikes me — I promised her I was going to come up. I can’t give up. I’ve never given up what I want. I work so hard — always.”
Ortiz believes he can fulfill his promise to his mother by setting an example for his younger brothers, a 16-year-old who attends Sunset and a 14-year-old at Greiner Middle School.
It’s common for immigrant students to think that college isn’t an option, Ortiz says. Higher education is expensive, he says, and his peers believe “I’m not a citizen. I’m not a resident. They’re not going to help me, so why bother to try hard for college?”
But Ortiz says he witnessed “something I couldn’t imagine could happen” his sophomore year. A friend of his, who was also an immigrant, graduated as Sunset’s valedictorian and received a full scholarship to the University of Texas. That helped Ortiz believe “that everyone can do it, as long you want to. You have to try hard. He inspired me to be the best I can be, also.”
Ortiz hopes to be a similar inspiration for other students — and his brothers — who might see the obstacles as insurmountable.
“I want to show them what we can do as immigrants and as kids who don’t have their parents,” Ortiz says, “and just keep fighting no matter what — we can always overcome.”