NFA senior Valeria Yraita-Zevallos draws strength from the women who raised her
Norwich — She was readying to write her college application essays and Norwich Free Academy senior Valeria Yraita-Zevallos was trying to think of something to detail other than her path as a Peruvian immigrant, having arrived in the United States when she was six years old.
"I didn't want to be labeled as an immigrant, a minority girl just trying to get things because I'm a minority," said Yraita-Zevallos, a member of the girls' tennis team. "I kept trying to think of other topics.
"I just couldn't avoid it. It's me. I can't hide who I am. It's too much of me to cover up just for other people's feelings. I have to be open to who I am."
Without the descriptions of Yraita-Zevallos' journey from Peru, there would be no stories of her loving maternal grandmother, Elsa Botetano, who gave of herself to the community in which she lived in Lima and helped raise her children and grandchildren to always exercise kindness.
"She was selfless," Yraita-Zevallos said of her late grandmother. "She would always help other people. She would hold this big toy drive with hot chocolate; she always got the neighbors to donate toys. She was such a selfless person. Every house knows who my grandma is. They look up to her."
Without the story of her emigration from Peru, there would be no mention of her mother's bravery. In 2009, Rita Zevallos, having made trip after trip to the U.S. Embassy in Lima — Peru's capital, located on the country's coastline along the Pacific Ocean — was granted permission to move with her children, Anthony and Valeria, to the United States. The children's father, Jorge Yraita, was already living in the U.S., residing with several other family members in New Jersey.
"I'm really close with my mom," Yraita-Zevallos said. "Her dream job was to be a teacher. She was a teacher in Peru. She was willing to give up her dream job just for the simple fact for me and my brother to have other opportunities. Nothing was guaranteed here. I was little, I didn't realize ... for her to leave her friends and family members, leave her own mother, all of that just portrays how brave she is."
Without the story of her journey to America, that would remove the traces of her connection with her first-grade teacher at the Samuel Huntington School in Norwich, Virginia Levasseur, another in a line of strong women that Yraita-Zevallos has admired.
Yraita-Zevallos arrived in the U.S. speaking only Spanish, brushing up on her English from watching the Disney Channel with her cousins, but recalls the compassion she was shown by Levasseur, her first American teacher, with whom she is still Facebook friends. With help from Levasseur and an ESL specialist (English as a second language), Yraita-Zevallos was in class full time by the second grade.
Finally, without the story of her immigration to the U.S., there wouldn't be the candid speech Yraita-Zevallos delivered in December as the recipient of a $20,000 award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund. Yraita-Zevallos will attend Boston University and major in political science, with the intent of becoming an immigration lawyer.
Spoke Yraita-Zevallos: "Immigrants. Criminals. Job stealers. Lazy. Violent. And illegal. However, I'm a proud Peruvian immigrant. We immigrants embody strength, diligence and kindness. I underwent the broken immigration system that acts like a game of luck, giving some the opportunity for a better life and leaving others with no way out of the dark, giving my family no guarantee to reaching the country of endless dreams.
"Fear overtook my younger self, fear to lose my identity and fear to not accomplish my American dream. Yet my mother's fearless attitude and hope kept me strong and resilient to continue dreaming as big as I wanted."
She closed by thanking her mother and grandmother in Spanish.
"Mama, thank you for leaving all your fears aside to give me the opportunity to dream," she said. "Grandma Elsa, even though you are in the sky, thank you for your unconditional love."
Yraita-Zevallos remembers that there were a handful of children in her first-grade class that didn't speak English.
"I tried so hard to make friends; a lot of them were from different countries, China. Imagine us trying to communicate. But we could still do anything," Yraita-Zevallos said.
Levasseur, in the final year of her teaching career that school year, remembers that Yraita-Zevallos was at the center of everything in that classroom.
"She would come in (from ESL) and she would extend the time in our class as she progressed," Levasseur said. "She was a tremendous help. There was maybe four kids who came in with her and they would all crowd around her and ask her to help them as they went along. It was a natural role for her. She was so generous in her approach. She was very awake about wanting to learn. Somehow, she was like my assistant.
"She was just a big highlight. She made my job so much easier. Her personality. ... I'm sure she's going to do well."
Leo Butler has been NFA's director of diversity for the last 20 years. In his role, he helps to facilitate the high school's Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship applications and is the moderator of the Norwich NAACP Youth Council, of which Yraita-Zevallos is vice president. Butler sees Yraita-Zevallos nearly every day in some capacity. He calls her "genuine."
"Valeria blends her lifelong experiences with what she wants to accomplish in the future," Butler said. "She understands and recognizes the importance of her past, her familial relationships. She showed me, one day, pictures of her with her grandmother, her mom. You could see it in her face; this is something so important to her.
"She has incredible plans for the future, helping everyday citizens like herself. ... I've heard Valeria speak, I think it was at a rotary club, somewhere outside of school, and I have to tell you, I thought, 'Wow, this kid's unbelievable.' She's an inspirational figure and role model for younger students on a level that's much more far-reaching than even she realizes."
Yraita-Zevallos traveled to appointments with her mother at the U.S. Embassy in Lima as they sought to join their other family members who had already emigrated from Peru.
"They weren't nice to be honest," Yraita-Zevallos said. "You see all the different people, people breaking down because they're denied and maybe they're trying to escape some sort of violence or trying to see a family member who was dying. You see how broken the immigration system is."
She saw her own grandmother, Elsa, denied a tourist visa to come to the U.S. for another of her granddaughter's quinceanera, or 15th birthday celebration. Elsa, a former police investigator in her home country whom her friends jokingly called "Sgt. Pepper," much to her delight, was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and never got to make the visit. She died last August.
"They always assume you're going to overstay your visa. She honestly was not," Yraita-Zevallos said. "She wanted the opportunity to visit us. She only wanted to see us grow up. It literally breaks my heart."
But if Yraita-Zevallos worried that Elsa's death would cause the family's ties to sever without her influence, that isn't the case. The home in Lima which Yraita-Zevallos once thought of as her extended family's "castle" remains, even as a large part of the family has relocated to Norwich, where Yraita-Zevallos lives with her mother, paternal grandmother Fortunata Montes, aunts, uncles and cousins.
"It's still a big family house. It's three floors split so everyone has a separate space, but we eat together and see each other everywhere," she said.
Yraita-Zevallos is a straight A student, a member of the National Honor Society and the Science National Honor Society and secretary of the NFA Class of 2021. She is active in the community, plays doubles for the NFA tennis team, and is interning for Atty. Randall Ortega in Norwich.
In every way, she strives to make an impact ...
So that when she enters a store with her mother and they're conversing in Spanish, she doesn't get what she says are curious looks from people. So that immigrants to the U.S. are viewed with more empathy — "people don't understand how hard it is; you don't understand the desperation," she said.
"I've seen it up close," Yraita-Zevallos said. "All people just want is to have a better life."
"Keeping a spark of hope within is the only way to defeat life's worst enemies," Yraita-Zevallos said in her Martin Luther King scholarship address, "and allow you to chase your dreams without outside noise."