HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Hutchinson High School student David Sotelo has an outlook on life that matches someone who’s lived well beyond his 17 years.
His teachers describe him as a leader and a student who always strives for perfection.
The high school junior encourages his friends not to stress about the “little things,” and he tries to do the same.
Sotelo’s sage advice comes from years of overcoming obstacles most of his peers will never face in their lifetimes.
This month marks the fourth year he has lived in Hutchinson after threats from a drug cartel forced his family to flee Mexico.
[PHOTO: David Sotelo, 16, a Hutchinson, Kan., High School junior, shown here in a Dec. 17, 2013 photo in the school, crossed into the United States from the Mexican state of Chihuahua in Dec. 2009, at the age of 12, with his family after threat from the drug cartel. Since 2009 he has became a legal U.S. resident and very involved in high school and church activities. (AP Photo/The Hutchinson News, Travis Morisse)]
It’s been more than four years since the U.S. Border Patrol took him into custody as he tried to illegally cross into the United States with his family members.
At 12 years old, he was alone and in a shelter in Texas, separated from his grandmother who raised him. Sotelo said his aunt was a police officer in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
“The drug cartel wanted her to stop doing her job, and she wouldn’t, so they threatened her family,” he said.
The family looked for ways to legally move to the United States, but “it was a very long, expensive process, and we didn’t have time to wait,” he said.
In December of 2009, the family decided to try to cross the border at Juarez using identification cards that belonged to other people, he said. They memorized the information.
He was the last in the line of family members to try to cross the border, and he didn’t make it. A border patrol agent noticed the picture on his identification did not look like him — even though the others’ photos didn’t match either, he said. He ended up in a Texas shelter with nearly 50 other children who were in similar situations. Meanwhile, his grandmother was “going crazy because she couldn’t find me,” he said. It took three days.
At the shelter, they gave him food, shots, offered him a lawyer, evaluated his behavior, and started teaching him English and other subjects. There were even soccer teams and games between different children’s shelters, he recalled.
After nearly three weeks, he said, he got a phone call informing him there were family members who could take him in.
“I started bawling,” Sotelo admitted. “I think it was a moment of hope for me.”
Jose and Julie Gutierrez, of Hutchinson, immediately opened their home to Sotelo, their nephew, when they learned he was arrested in Texas, taken to a children’s shelter and needed a place to stay.
“The process was faster if there were family members who were in the country legally that I could live with,” he said.
When Sotelo’s father in Wichita asked Jose and Julie if they would take David in, “we didn’t think about it twice,” recalled Julie, whom Sotelo calls “mom.”
Julie, who admitted being extremely frightened of heights, hopped on a flight to Texas to get her nephew. There was a mountain of paperwork involved and a trip to Kansas City for a background check to ensure she was qualified to take him in. Sotelo entered the seventh grade in Hutchinson USD 308 and set lofty goals of learning English within six months and writing English within eight months. It took longer than that, however, but he had the help of a translator.
“In Mexico, I was at the top of my class, and it was just frustrating not knowing what was going on,” he said.
Meanwhile, the process of becoming a United States citizen would take even more time and money. There were trips to Wichita, a lawyer advising his aunt and uncle on becoming his legal guardians, fingerprinting, questions about where his parents were and why he was in Kansas, and more paperwork. Months passed in between appointments, he recalled. Finally, last March, he completed his path to citizenship.
Starting over in a new place and adapting to a new language didn’t stop Sotelo from wanting to excel.
He’s involved in cross country and track, and his youth group at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. For the yearbook last year, he worked on 85 to 90 videos and matching QR codes, which allowed students to use their cellphones to scan the codes in the yearbook and then watch videos about various school activities.
“He is ‘Mr. Video,’” Steve Williams, a journalism and communication instructor at the high school, said of Sotelo. “David’s a perfectionist, too, which is great because he makes sure that things are done well.”
Sotelo says he’s thinking about becoming a teacher, because he enjoys mentoring younger students. He’s also interested in broadcast journalism and politics.
Sotelo said he hopes to change the minds of Americans who think the country doesn’t need immigrants, and he wants the community to see how Hispanics can make a positive impact.
“I’m going to do everything I can to show them we’re not always bad,” he said. “I want to empower other kids and show them we can do things in our community.”