When Vanessa Cortes and Yessica Chavez Grimaldo were students at Marshall Middle School, one of their teachers had them write out their goals and bury the papers in time capsules that would be dug up right before they graduated from high school.
“At the top of the list, number one was, ‘I want to be valedictorian,’” Cortes said.
Cortes reached her goal as the first hispanic valedictorian at Plant City High School.
As her secondary school years come to a close, Cortes is preparing the speech she will deliver at graduation and thinking about who she wants to thank for helping her reach that goal. One of those people is Chavez Grimaldo, who will stand next to Cortes at the ceremony as salutatorian. They have been best friends since they were in third grade.
But Cortes and Chavez Grimaldo’s friendship is not the only thing that makes them stand out as a val-and-sal pair. Chavez Grimaldo is also the first hispanic student to be salutatorian at Plant City High School.
Cortes and Chavez Grimaldo are both of Mexican descent, and their first language was Spanish. Cortes’ father speaks English, but her mother does not, and neither of Chavez Grimaldo’s parents speak English.
Cortes’ family was migrant until she was in sixth grade.
“I can’t even tell you how many different elementary schools I went to,” she said. “The stability of having a group of friends, or a friend, was something that I never had until I had (Chavez Grimaldo) in third grade.”
Chavez Grimaldo had moved to the United States when she was 7. She went to a school in Wisconsin that had a first-grade Spanish immersion program, so she didn’t realize she would encounter language difficulties after moving to Plant City.
“I failed second grade because I didn’t know English, and my parents couldn’t help me,” she said. “I had to learn English right away. I didn’t pass FCAT. I failed everything.”
Fortunately, Chavez Grimaldo had tutors at Bread of Life Mission who helped her catch up in school and helped guide her through life in general. They became like family to her.
LIFE AT THE TOP
Cortes and Chavez Grimaldo knew that one of them would be first and the other would be second, but it didn’t put a strain on their friendship.
“It was never really like a competition,” Cortes said. “I would always tell her, ‘If you get it, it’s fine. If I get it, it’s fine.’”
When Cortes showed her father that her class rank was no. 1, his response wasn’t quite what she expected.
“He said, ‘That’s good. Try harder next time,’” Cortes said.
Because of cultural differences, Cortes’ and Chavez Grimaldo’s parents didn’t know what it meant to be valedictorian or salutatorian. The school’s migrant specialist contacted them to explain.
“She had to call and explain in their native language how prestigious this is, and how hard these girls have worked for it,” assistant principal Peggy Obel said.
Now that Cortes’ parents understand, they have been telling her younger sister that she, too, should be the top student in her graduating class someday.
Cortes and Chavez Grimaldo are both bound for University of South Florida, and they are the first in their families to attend college. They will definitely be carpooling from Plant City together and might eventually become roommates on campus.
“We’re trying right now to get some resources for them, so that they can actually have a housing allowance and stay in the dorms,” Obel said.
Both students are interested in nursing, and Chavez Grimaldo is considering becoming pre-med. Whether they will return to Plant City after college is up in the air.
“I like Plant City as being small, but at the same time, I do kind of want to live in a big city for a while, just to see what it is,” Chavez Grimaldo said.
“I’d like to venture off and do something and come back then, once I have a little more experience,” she said. “It will allow me to appreciate the city a little more than I currently do.”