When Carlos De La Cruz moved with his family from Nogales, Sonora to Rio Rico at age 5, he didn’t speak a word of English.
He remembers that, in preparation for his first day of kindergarten at San Cayetano Elementary School, his mother taught him basic phrases in English, such as how to ask for permission to go to the restroom and what to say if someone picked a fight with him.
He was speaking English fluently by the end of that same year and, about 13 years later, De La Cruz has now graduated from Rio Rico High School as the Class of 2021 valedictorian.
“Years ago, it was something that seemed so impossible,” the 18-year-old Nogales native said, adding that he was first told that he ranked number one in his class during his freshman year of high school, but he thought he’d eventually lose the spot.
When he found out that he was still ranked at the top of his class by his junior year, he made it a goal to keep it that way until graduation.
While he was able to quickly learn a new language and adapt to a slightly different culture, De La Cruz said that his close ties with Mexico played a big part in helping him succeed.
He noted that he typically travels to Nogales, Sonora about once a week to visit his family. He has also focused some of his community service activities in that area.
For instance, he said, his participation as treasurer for the Interact Club has taken him to gather donations for organizations in Sonora. One year, De La Cruz and his sister also hosted their own donations drive for an orphanage in Imuris, Sonora.
“It’s part of me, still,” he said of his Mexican culture. “Mexicans are always like, ‘With desire, you can do anything.’ So I feel like that’s really impacted me.”
Some of his other extracurricular activities also included the Future Business Leaders of America, the Activism Club, and student council for one year.
When it came to his academics, he said, it was fairly easy to maintain high grades in most subjects, particularly in math. The same could not be said of chemistry class.
He said the lowest letter grade he ever received during high school was in Teresa Potter’s chemistry class, after he passed one semester with a C. Still, the experience taught him a valuable lesson and he now refers to Potter as one of his biggest mentors at the school.
“I had never gotten a C in any of my grades, so getting that C showed me that I wasn’t invincible or anything,” he said, adding that Potter didn’t allow him the opportunity to raise his grade but taught him how to learn from his errors. “Her telling me that really showed me that I’ll make some mistakes and it’s going to be fine.”
Another challenge throughout high school, he said, was pushing himself to meet more people and continue making new friends. During his first years at RRHS, De La Cruz said he mainly stuck with a small group of close friends until he realized there were so many people in his school whom he didn’t know well enough.
Now, his fondest memories at RRHS include the events where everyone got together to bond by showing their school spirit such as pep rallies, as well as basketball and football games.
And although the coronavirus pandemic interrupted a lot of those activities during his last two years of high school, he said he was thankful that his class got to experience their senior prom in-person.
“It was amazing to see everyone together,” he said of all the events where he and his classmates were able to show unity over their school.
He referred to his parents and peers as his biggest supporters, adding that his friends also encouraged him to maintain his place at the top of his class.
Looking forward, De La Cruz now plans to pursue a major in physiology and medical sciences at the University of Arizona.
He said he decided on that career path given all the help he has received throughout the years in managing an autoimmune disease.
“I think just knowing that I was helped throughout all these years, in my mind, there’s always been that thing that I have to be a doctor and give back to the community,” he said.
He added that he’s most looking forward to a more independent lifestyle once he begins college.
“My mom is always telling me, ‘Do your homework. You have a meeting right now. Let me take you to the doctor,’ and stuff like that,” De La Cruz said. “So I think it’s going to be a real challenge to see what I can do by myself.”