Aliyah Quintana got up from her seat in the gym’s green room for Taos High School graduating seniors about a half-hour before they would march in two columns out to the football field, led by their teachers and greeted by family and friends.
Dressed in the white cap and gown and an orange stole with black accents, Quintana looked much like her 138 colleagues. She smiled when vice principal Lisa Abeyta-Valerio signaled to her. But then, who isn’t smiling when you’re headed out that gym door for the last time?
Nevertheless, this slight girl with horn-rimmed glasses, tight dark curls and a determination that belies her years has another reason to smile: $60,000 from the Taos Community Foundation. Quintana was named the “first generation scholar” for 2018 by the foundation last week. She gets an all-expenses paid, four-year stay at the University of New Mexico’s main campus in Albuquerque.
Raised by a single mom, Yvette Quintana, the senior is quick to claim her deep family roots in Taos County. A generation or two ago, her mother’s family moved from Questa to Taos. Then, her mom moved away. Aliyah lived in Albuquerque until the fourth grade.
But, like so many Taoseñas, the Quintanas came back to care for elderly parents.
Aliyah Quintana is a year-round athlete, a high-scoring basketball player, a member of the state champ Tigers track and field team and a soccer player, who blew out a knee and in the process found her career goal: physical therapist.
Her motivation? Her mom. “I watched my mom move from job to job,” she said.
Yvette Quintana has done administrative work for Taos Living Center and Tri-County Behavior Health Services. Recently, she took a second job at Walmart. Before graduation, her mom got news the retailer was cutting employee hours.
The scholarship is a lot of cash, nearly a free ride at UNM. But she didn’t get it because of her grades, said Helen Forte, director of community outreach of the Taos Community Foundation. Aliyah did not have an asterisk by her name in the graduation program, indicating a grade point average above 3.5.
“She’s a solid student,” Forte says. “But that’s not what this scholarship is based on.” Instead, it’s awarded to a student who will be a “first-generation” college student, who has overcome obstacles, has financial need and who impresses a foundation committee in an essay and an interview, Forte said. “The committee fell in love with Aliyah.”
The foundation scholarship pays the “last dollar.” It kicks in when the student has exhausted other sources of college money. “I won’t have any debt,” Aliyah Quintana said.
She wants to go on to the three-year physical therapy program at UNM Medical School after undergraduate school.
She even knows what she’ll take to fulfill her humanities requirement: African studies. “I love learning about Africa,” she says.
Not all of the Taos High seniors sitting in rows at Anaya field Saturday (May 19) probably had their futures planned out so definitively as Quintana. But many shared her modest family background, her love of sports and her smile that day.
The class of 2018, said senior English teacher Francis Hahn, was “lovely.” “They have a sense of camaraderie,” he said, standing in the gym lobby before the procession.
The seniors also shared a warm display of community that day:
• a blessing in Tiwa and English from Taos Pueblo Gov. Gilbert Suazo Sr.,
• a good-natured ribbing of principal Robert Trujillo about his PA announcement style from salutatorian Cora Cannedy,
• a valedictorian speech from Jinpeng “Will” Song in Spanish and English, peppered with his early memories of how Taos welcomed him as a non-English speaking small child. “I thought (my family) had been abducted by aliens,” he recalled. “But within two months, I was eating green chile. I was also taught English and Spanish.”
Pascual Maestas, economics teacher and Taos town councilor, perhaps gave the most traditional graduation speech:
“Listen to your elders,...be an adult...try your best.”
And then the Mariachi El Tigre broke into “La Tequilera.” Some in the crowd sang along.
When the first graduate’s name was called, the patient and polite crowd on the field and in the bleachers, some sheltered by cowboy hats or umbrellas against the warm and nearly cloudless sky, grew restless. About half rose to their feet with cell phones in hand. It was time to capture the moment.
Benjamin Romero, a bread baker and employee of Crucita’s Indian Shop at Taos Pueblo, perhaps said it best as he stood at the end of the bleachers reflecting on his own Taos High graduation and the UNM-Taos ceremony. He was there to watch his cousin Lance Archuleta walk. On Friday (May 25) it would be his sister at Vista Grande High. “There’s no other feeling,” he said thoughtfully. “Unless you’ve done it before, there’s no way to explain how it feels.”