It’s one thing to be applauded and called an inspiration by your classmates and teachers.
It’s a bigger distinction to be celebrated by your community at large.
And when the Northeast Georgia History Center records and archives your success for posterity’s sake — it may feel like the pinnacle of achievement.
But this is the life Guillermo Beltran, 18, is living since graduating from Gainesville High School as the first Latino valedictorian.
“I feel real honored to be the first Latino valedictorian because of the people that approached me and told me … that I’m doing something good for Latinos,” said Beltran, who moved to America from Mexico as a permanent resident when he was 11. “I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Beltran will enroll at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, on a full-ride scholarship this August.
“It’s way beyond what I dreamed about,” he said.
The adjustments he must make to adapt to a new life at Dartmouth doesn’t seem to rattle Beltran. After all, this won’t be the first time his life has been upended, for good or bad.
“I don’t feel too stressed about it,” he said, adding that other students will be coming from similar immigrant backgrounds. “So hopefully I’ll find my niche there.”
Beltran’s father first came to the United States more than two decades ago as a migrant worker. He picked oranges in fields of fruit trees in Florida and worked for a time on a cattle ranch in Texas.
Growing up without his father around much was strange and difficult for Beltran to understand.
“I would only see my dad like a week per year” when he visited the family in Mexico, Beltran said. “I remember one time somebody asked me if my dad had passed away. I knew he was providing (for us). But I didn’t understand the magnitude.”
When he was 11, Beltran, his siblings and mother finally joined his father in America as legal permanent residents.
Beltran said his earliest memories of Hall County are tied to the culture shock he experienced on arrival. It wasn’t just the language, hobbies or habits of Americans that threw him off, but the scenery, as well.
“It was really green, lots of trees,” he said. “Where I come from, it’s semi-arid.”
And the humidity.
Beltran’s exact words were overshadowed by the expression on his face — a mix of exasperation and resignation that any Southerner could recognize — when describing the swamp-like heat of a Georgia summer.
“The beginning was very hard,” he said. “I struggled a lot.”
In time, however, and with the support of family, friends and teachers, Beltran’s genius began to shine.
He gravitated toward the emerging field of robotics, and found passion in engineering and medical studies.
Beltran said he hopes to meld the two interests in college. But he’s also a rational, down-to-earth thinker.
“I have all these things planned in my head,” he said. “But not all things come true.”
Beltran is just the second in his family to graduate high school and will be the first to attend college.
In that narrative, Beltran’s story takes on an all-American flavor — an expectation the next generation will have it better than the previous one.
“They’re obviously very proud,” he said of his parents, adding the sacrifices his father and mother made for him and his siblings resonate deeply. “I really appreciate what they’ve done and continue to do.”
Beltran said he hopes to be an advocate for other immigrants pursuing their dreams in America.
“There’s more to us than the news portrays,” he said.
On a recent morning, Vanesa Sarazua, director of the Hispanic Alliance Georgia, a Gainesville-based nonprofit, sat down with Beltran inside the soundproof Mike and Lynn Cottrell Digital Studio at the Northeast Georgia History Center to film and archive an interview about Beltran’s educational achievements.
“Get used to it,” she told him of the attention he has earned but that leaves him a little shy, “because you are going to be doing wonderful things.”
Glen Kyle, executive director of the history center, said it’s important his organization document and catalogue the history of the region, past and present, for future generations.
And as the cultural makeup of the region evolves, the history center is beginning to tell the stories of the people who call this place home in new ways.
“It’s always tricky to document that,” Kyle said.
Traditionally, 3D artifacts from the “frontier” days when settlers first encroached on Native American lands in the region and when African-American slaves toiled this area’s fields have been showcased at the center in Gainesville to tell of bygone eras.
But today’s visitors and viewers of history are looking for other representations, Kyle said.
“So we’re starting to look more toward the stories, the experiences, and ways we can incorporate that into our exhibits and programs in an audio and visual way rather than a traditional objects-and-cases type of display,” he added.
Reaching contemporary audiences through video, be it in a gallery or online, is critical for the center to continue meeting its mission, and the digital studio is a major addition.
“That has had a huge impact in the way we are able to tell our stories,” Kyle said, adding that the center can reach younger audiences with this capability, as well. “Modern audiences want to watch something. The studio allows us to be able to tell those stories … in a way that appeals (to them).”
Beltran plans to visit his old stomping grounds in Mexico once more before heading off to become a college man.
But Hall County has become his home as much as anywhere, and it’s a place that holds friendships he will miss while he’s gone.
“It’s really a melting pot,” he said of the area. “I got to see people from all over the world in this place. I love the people here. I’m used to this place.”