Watsonville High graduating class full of stars, stories

Watsonville High seniors, from left, Cesar Parra, Sophia Elizalde and Jorge Ortiz will graduate with honors in early June. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE — Like many kids today, Cesar Parra has spent numerous hours in front of a screen over the last two years.

Those hours, however, have been more work than leisure.

Parra, a graduating senior at Watsonville High School, immigrated to the U.S. from Durango, Mexico two years ago not knowing more than a handful of words in English — he was limited to words like “OK” and “cool,” which over the years have been embedded into the Spanish spoken in Mexico as slang.

So Parra, yearning to be a part of his community and the American culture, applied himself in class, and read plenty of books outside of school, too. 

He also had an easily accessible English tutor at home.

“I watched a lot of movies and TV on Netflix,” Parra said. “I locked myself in my room for two years and watched everything I could.”

And he made sure to turn on the subtitles, so that he could make the connection from one language to another.

On his watchlist: “The OA,” “Riverdale,” “On My Block,” “Stranger Things” and “13 Reasons Why” — to name a few.

“I made sure to watch series and movies that were about teenagers,” Parra said. “I wanted to learn about the culture, the slang, how people treat each other in America.”

On June 7, Parra will be one of more than 400 students from Watsonville High School that will cross the stage and receive his diploma. And he will do so with a strong grasp of the English language and an acceptance letter to Sacramento State in his back pocket.

whs 1 web

Blaze Dunn (left) helps arrange the graduation attire of Anthony Lopez-Zamora at Watsonville High’s commencement ceremony on June 7. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Two years ago, while he was living with his brother and sister south of the border, the idea of coming to the U.S., squeezing in seven school years of English into two and graduating with honors was something only imaginable in, well, a television series.

“It’s a little unbelievable,” he said. “My parents wanted me to come over here because they wanted me to have a better life. When I was in Mexico, I didn’t know what a better life would be. But I said, ‘let’s do this.’ I wanted a new experience.”

That new experience, he said, wasn’t very different from his old one — at least initially. With a little more than 84 percent of Watsonville’s population being of Hispanic or Latinx descent, according to the City of Watsonville’s website, Parra felt like he was still back in Durango during his first few months in the U.S. 

“I remember saying, ‘Where are all the Americans?’” Parra joked.

Nearly everyone in his neighborhood spoke Spanish and his mom, Paty Ascacio, and dad, Nestor Parra, didn’t know much English either. Parra said he could have gone the rest of his life knowing just enough English to get by.

“But I didn’t want to be that guy,” Parra said. “I didn’t want to be the guy that didn’t know English. I knew it would hold me back.”

Learning English unlocked several new avenues and challenges for Parra. He made friends throughout the school’s sprawling student body, joined the swim team and participated in speech and debate — he recently finished runner-up in a state speech competition. It also gave him a new appreciation for his community and the people that helped him along the way, especially his teachers and mentors at Watsonville High School.

“Once I get my degree, I want to come back and help make my community a better place,” Parra said. “I love Watsonville.”

whs cover 2 wbe

Watsonville High senior Ofelia Perez and others file onto Geiser Field for their commencement ceremony. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

MORE THAN A GPA

As Watsonville High School’s valedictorian, Sophia Elizalde will graduate as the No. 1 ranked student in her class with a 4.3 grade point average (GPA).

She said she’s extremely proud of everything she’s accomplished over the last four years, but her impressive GPA does not mean much to her.

“I work hard for my grades, but if I were to get a B, I wouldn’t be upset about it,” she said. “I think there are a lot of other factors that should determine if you’re fit for celebrating beside your GPA.”

What are those other factors?

“I think being a good person is important,” she said. “Helping out your community is big, too.”

In the fall, Elizalde will attend Yale — her “dream” school — to begin working toward a degree in history and a career in either government or education. She hopes to stop her generation from making the same mistakes that have plagued those that have come before.

“We repeat history a lot, so if you have a better understanding of it, you can better prevent the same mistakes from happening,” she said.

Elizalde has been involved in several after-school activities over the last four years. She was a member of the swim team for three years, participated in the school’s mock trail team and also starred in the school’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” after spending the previous three years working behind the scenes on lights, sound and production for the drama program.

She was also one of the primary organizers of last year’s school walkout in response to the devastating mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The only thing she did not manage to accomplish during her teenage years was learning how to drive.

“I never had time to learn,” she said. “I plan to learn before I take off for Yale. My mom said there’s no way I’m leaving to college without knowing how to drive.”

whs 3 web

Watsonville High senior Daniel Delozier staves off the sunshine with an umbrella. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

A ‘PRIVILEGE’

Since a young age, Jorge Ortiz, Watsonville High School’s salutatorian, has felt privileged.

Ortiz is not wealthy, but he does have something that more than a million other Californians do not: citizenship.

According to figures from the Public Policy Institute of California, there were roughly 1.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the state in 2017, the most recent statistics available. Ortiz’s older brother, Sergio, was one of them. And because of his status, his acceptance into a nursing program has been delayed for years.

“[Sergio] reminds me that it’s a privilege to be in the situation that I’m in,” Ortiz said. “Being a citizen, taking advantage of what’s been given to me. Education is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and it’s something that will bring success in the future.”

It’s also brought him a great amount of success in the present. Ortiz will graduate with a 4.2 GPA in early June, and he will attend UC Berkeley to study chemical biology. 

Over the last four years, Ortiz has also helped his community by volunteering with Jóvenes Sanos and tutoring kids in grades K-6th at the Villa Del Mar Apartments, where he lives.

•••

Graduation schedule:

MAY 24

Cabrillo College

When >> 4 p.m.

Where >> Carl Conelly Stadium

Monte Vista Christian

When >> 6:30 p.m.

Where >> Monte Vista Christian Stadium

MAY 25

St. Francis High

When >> 10 a.m.

Where >> Borina Athletic Center

JUNE 4

PCCS

When >> 3:30 p.m.

Where >> Mello Center

JUNE 5

New School

When >> 3 p.m.

Where >> Mello Center

Renaissance

When >> 5 p.m.

Where >> Mello Center

JUNE 6

Pajaro Valley High

When >> 12:30 p.m.

Where >> Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds

Aptos High

When >> 4 p.m.

Where >> Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds

JUNE 7

Watsonville High

When >> 2 p.m.

Where >> Emmett M. Geiser Field

Advertisement


Video News
More In Local News