Riverhead High School senior Ceaser Chabla-Sarmiento remembers advice he got when he was 6 years old living in Ecuador with his maternal grandmother, Lola, who told him what to expect when he moved to America.
“She told me: ‘They are going to look at you differently. You’ll need to work hard and never give up,’” Ceaser recalled during an interview this week.
Fast forward to 12 years later: Ceaser is Riverhead’s 2014 valedictorian, president of both the math and the Leaders Club, a member of Mentathletes and the National Honor Society, and has earned a weighted academic average of 106.31. He’s also held a variety of part-time jobs.
Ceaser, who was born in America before going to live with his grandmother in Ecuador, said he plans to study engineering in college and then go on to law school so he can practice patent law.
When Ceaser moved from Ecuador to America, he lived in a small Hampton Bays house with his parents, Cesar and Maurita, and 12 other people.
Ceaser said after he enrolled in school and learned he would have to repeat kindergarten, he realized his grandmother was right.
“It’s one of the big things that left an impression on me,” Ceaser said about being left back. “I decided I had to prove them wrong.”
When he was in third grade, his sisters Saida, now 22, Emily, 14, and Kiara, 8, moved to Flanders, where they now live. Since his parents became U.S. citizens two years ago, his grandmother is now permitted to stay in this country for two months annually, and one of her favorite outings is visiting the Statue of Liberty, he said.
Ceaser plans to give part of his valedictorian speech in Spanish so she and his other grandparents can feel they are part of the ceremony.
Principal Charles Regan said he’s very proud of Ceaser’s accomplishments, especially given the challenges he faced growing up. “I know he’s going to continue on to great things,” Mr. Regan said. “He’s very driven, very intelligent and is a good person. I would love to hear from him the future. The door will always be open here.”
Although Mr. Regan has worked in the Riverhead district since 2007, this is his first year as principal, and he said he’s very pleased that Caesar is the first Hispanic valedictorian under his tenure. It was not immediately clear if Caesar is the first Hispanic valedictorian in district history, though that appeared possible after speaking with district officials.
Superintendent Nancy Carney described Ceaser’s achievements as “very admirable.”
“It’s a wonderful American Dream story,” she said. “It’s a testament that anyone can achieve anything with hard work.”
Ceaser’s father, who earned $6 a month as a teacher in Ecuador before coming to America, said his son’s accomplishment is, literally, a dream come true.
“I’m really so happy about my son, because we come to the United States with big dreams for my family, which is education and safety,” he said.
We sat down with Ceaser at the high school this week to discuss his accomplishments. The following was excerpted from our conversation.
Q: Why do you think you’re a high achiever?
A: I’ve tried to break stereotypes. I hate when people think Spanish people aren’t smart. I want to hit the nail in the coffin and show them Spanish people are very intelligent. Some people just lack motivation. Others just lack the desire to succeed. I know a lot of Spanish people who are very bright, but they lack the motivation to get them through life. I have family members that are in jail. I see that and I don’t want that for myself. I want to better myself, break the stereotype and give an example to younger people, especially my little sisters.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced growing up?
A: Making friends. I didn’t know how to communicate with people. I was very hostile because I felt like everyone looked at me differently and thought I was someone that I wasn’t. Eventually when they learned who I was and how I am, they started opening up to me and I started opening up to them.
Q: What are some memories you have about Ecuador?
A: Ecuador is like my second home. I have lots of family there and try to visit when I can. I’ve been back about three times. It’s hard to get over because it’s a lot of money. I have fond memories of being around cousins and family, but Ecuador wasn’t always nice. It was very nice in terms of family, but I definitely understand why my parents came here. Actually, I thank them for coming here. A lot of kids aren’t very appreciative for what their parents have done for them. I’m very appreciative for the opportunity my parents gave me to not only go to school here, but they provided me with the essential things that I need to progress. They tried their best. My parents worked really hard for me, so I didn’t want to ruin my opportunity to make something of myself.
Q: Why do you think your parents decided to leave Ecuador?
A: There’s no opportunity to progress. You live your whole life trying to graduate from what they call a high school. Then you get on the job market with your suit and tie, but you’re not making any type of money that’s going to get your family out of a one-room space. My dad graduated from college, which is rare in Ecuador. He studied to become a teacher, but he couldn’t raise, at the time, one kid with the money he was making from teaching.
Q: What do you think could help other Hispanics in the community?
A: I think the community does what it can, but, sometimes, people just don’t like each other. That’s definitely a problem. I know you can’t make a utopia, but it would be nice if everybody could get along and help each other. If there was more understanding of what people have gone through and what people had to go through to get here — it’s tough. You ask my dad how did he get here, and he’ll tell you about how he crossed the border, gone through dehydration and had to hide in trucks. You take that in and say to yourself, ‘My dad worked hard. Let me work hard as well. And then work harder.’