Irene Andrade insists she doesn’t cry much.
But sitting on a white lawn chair outside her house on her last day of high school, she begins to tear up. Many things are coming up — her looming graduation, the last days spent with her friends, the transition to college, eased by her academic success at Huguenot High School.
She’s at the top of her class, a feat that just 10 students in the city achieved this year. But what makes her the most emotional is the thought of representing Latinos through her academic success.
“I can’t really express how great it is to carry that on,” she said of the pride she takes in being a valedictorian representing a community that graduates at half the rate of Richmond Public Schools graduates as a whole.
She is more walk than she is talk, and has spent hours working against the grain of that statistic and mentoring other Latino students. She counsels her peers, captains her robotics team and is a “great role model” for other students, her teachers say.
“She pays it forward and defies the stereotype about Latino students,” said Vilma Seymour, the president of the Richmond chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “She’s incredible.”
Andrade will graduate Tuesday from Huguenot with a 4.48 grade-point average, high enough to earn co-valedictorian status. In her four years at Huguenot, she’s imprinted on friends, family and teachers a legacy that’s defined not just by a high GPA, but by her character and compassion for her community.
Those lessons began at home, a small brick house in a cozy southwest Richmond neighborhood where neighbors chat while mowing the lawn and the mailman waves as he drops off the day’s goods.
There are more photos in the family’s living room than houses on the street, each one documenting a specific moment that Andrade’s mother, Maria Margarita, can easily recount. They hang mostly in large collages, a mashup of years of family history, from El Salvador to Northern Virginia and now Richmond.
There’s one that stands out above the rest: A banner hanging just to the left of the kitchen entrance anchored by a photo of a smiling Andrade cheers her largest accomplishment — class co-valedictorian — and dominates a living room that overflows with her younger sister’s toys, Christian paintings and the dozens of family photos.
“I’m so happy because she’s going to reach something great,” her mother said in Spanish.
Maria Margarita Andrade knew her first daughter, the middle of three children, would be smart when she sought out books while other children played with toys.
“She wasn’t focused on what other kids were,” she said, “but I never knew she’d come out this great.”
Now, as other parents and strangers ask her about her daughter, all can she muster up is one word: “Proud.”
It’s the same word Irene Andrade uses to describe being co-valedictorian, alongside Itzel Jimenez, and it’s the academic culmination of four years of hard work for the Arlington-born, Richmond-raised student.
But it’s not enough for Andrade to succeed in her own pursuits. She was a mentor for the Exito Mentor Escolar, and a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Latino Education Achievement Program from grades 8-11.
Just 2 in 5 Hispanic students in Richmond Public Schools graduates on-time, according to state data, and 73 percent of English language learners drop out, figures that have prompted the Richmond School Board to create new positions that specifically serve those students.
Andrade will address her cultural experience at Huguenot in her valedictorian speech, something she originally left out but reinserted at the behest of Gwendolyn Nixon, her AP literature and composition teacher.
“As a class of mostly minorities, we have faced diversity with both positive and negative effects,” her speech reads. “The positives being the times our peers and others have taken the time to learn from each other and their cultures. While the negatives are the exact opposite, which have sometimes led to misunderstandings and ignorant acts of aggression. I personally know and have heard of the many adversities my Latinx community [have] gone through. Yet, through all these adversities, we too have managed to make it here today, haven’t we? I congratulate you all on being some of the strongest, and most ambitious kids ever. The world out there better be ready for us.”
She also helps mentor family members in addition to her peers.
In 2016, she helped her father earn his U.S. citizenship, teaching — and translating — U.S. history lessons to him a few times every week in her bedroom.
In that same bedroom, Andrade often clears her head late at night through art, which she’s always dabbled in, but has taken more seriously since she was 13 years old.
“I just get so focused that I don’t want to leave it,” she said. “I love the focus and it’s the time I make for myself.”
Art has always been a gateway for her, a time to think outside the box and showcase her natural creative ability, recently focusing her work on portraiture.
“She always was really ready to learn,” said Lauren Bleam, her art teacher since last February, adding that she’ll miss Andrade’s social justice passion that she integrated into her artwork and her genuine care for people in the school.
When James Westmoreland wanted to move out of his grocery store jobs and into teaching, he dreamed of working with students like Andrade.
“She’s restored my faith in humanity for the next generation,” said Westmoreland, now in his ninth year of teaching. “She’s just the ideal student. There’s no quit in her.”
Andrade will leave home in August — which she’s a little worried about — to travel an hour north to Fredericksburg, ready to study psychology at the University of Mary Washington. Neither of her parents attended college because of the cost and family ties. She’s made them proud.
On the day of her senior class trip, she sat around her kitchen table with three friends and her little sister, decorating graduation caps in preparation for Tuesday’s ceremony at the Altria Theater.
Andrade’s cap has a simple message of thanks: “Para Mi Familia,” or “For My Family.”