Wyoming — There are many ways to describe Adriana Ortiz-Torres.
She is a graduating senior recently awarded for academics, and with the Seal of Biliteracy, earned for demonstrating proficiency in English and Spanish. She’s an incoming freshman at Michigan State University. She’s a thoughtful student who has found an outlet in journalism.
She’s a nearly full-time restaurant host, paying her own bills. She’s a former migrant worker who spent summers as a child pulling weeds from crops.
She’s been a caregiver, a child/daughter/sister who endured enormous loss. She’s a girl in transition.
There’s a maturity present in Adriana, her wide smile hiding a complex history that spans her 18 years. She talks about her 14-month stop at Wyoming High School, one of four high schools she attended along her way to graduation. She will receive her diploma on Tuesday, May 24 on the high school football field.
Summers in the Field, Falls in School
Born in Grand Rapids, every summer, Adriana and her family, including parents and five siblings, worked in the agricultural fields in the thumb area of Michigan. Sparta was homebase, where she would return each fall – sometimes starting the school year a month late.
“We would work in bean fields. We would walk up and down rows, taking out any weed we could find,” she said. “We also picked blueberries. (My parents) picked apples for a while.”
Adriana started ninth grade at Unionville – Sebewaing High School, where she stayed for just two months before returning to Sparta High School, which she attended for the rest of that year.
During that year, her father was deported to Mexico.
She had already faced a major loss. When she was in fourth grade her mother left her and her five siblings, and cut off contact.
Faced with her father’s absence, she, and her brother, Mark, and an older sister moved as close to him as possible – to Texas, 10 minutes from the Mexican border – yet still a whole country away.
Her older sister moved out when she turned 18, and Adriana was in charge of paying the phone bills and for food and other necessities for herself and Mark. Part of the time, she worked at Olive Garden. “We had a place to live, but everything we needed for ourselves, we had to pay for ourselves,” she said.
Sometimes, people would take Adriana and Mark to visit her father over the border, but mostly she relied on communication with him by phone.
A Devastating Loss
Adriana tried to create priorities and boundaries for her brother, making sure he was passing his classes and doing what he needed to do. “I viewed myself as his mother figure, and that’s kind of what he viewed me as too,” she said.
But Mark died unexpectedly at age 14. After that, her other siblings made it a priority to get her back to Michigan.
“It was about getting me out of that situation that we were living in in Texas. It was kind of like, ‘Get me out of there as fast as I can get out of there,’ ” she said.
She now lives with her older brother.
Adriana enrolled at Wyoming High School last March. By then, she was used to moving from house to house – the experience made even heavier and isolating by the pandemic. Her transience had become repetitive. “I didn’t like the fact that I was comfortable with being the new kid,” she said.
Plus, she had lost her sense of purpose. “It was always about making my dad proud and making sure my brother saw that he could also do this (finish school).
“After my brother died, it was kind of hard because he was my main motivation. Now I think it’s just for me to be able to know I can actually finish this year off.”
Staying busy is what kept her going, she said. During her most difficult times, she increased her focus on school and her job. “My form of dealing with (anxiety and trauma) is giving myself more work to do just to get my mind off it.”
Wyoming High School social worker Nicolle Smith described Adriana’s remarkable independence.
“She has done a lot of things on her own. She has a lot of grit, a lot of perseverance. She comes every day – she shows up and she just does her best. She gets along with staff and students. She gets the job done. She just does what she needs to do.”
Finding Her Way at Wyoming
Though she spent much of her childhood in Sparta, coming to Wyoming High School from a predominately Hispanic area of Texas was a “culture shock,” she said. “Here, it’s so diverse. … They offer a lot more classes here than in Texas. The environment and energy around here is a lot different.”
Counselors helped provide a smooth transition. “They helped me find people I shared interests with. It did take me a bit to start socializing and everything. I don’t think I started fully making good friends until the beginning of this year.”
Social worker Maggie Hummel said her heart went out to Adriana when she first arrived – the weight of her grief seemed overwhelming, but her perseverance was strong.
“In the midst of all she had been through, she demonstrated to me that she was determined, passionate, caring and absolutely brilliant,” Hummel said. “She came with such an impressive academic history and had a history of managing work outside of school. In the thick of everything, when she arrived as a new student, she had absolutely no hesitation about wanting to continue to be challenged academically, with her mind made up that she would pursue college-level courses at Wyoming High School.”
Now she has made friends and gotten involved. She joined the National Honor Society, Campus Life and Alpha Wolf 11 Leadership Council. She excels in math and English, and has already taken five dual enrollment classes through Grand Rapids Community College. She also works full time as a host at Rockwell Republic, a restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids.
She also discovered a new interest in journalism, thanks to English teacher Tom Cornell, who challenged her to write for Wolf Pack Press.
“When I first came here, I was very shy and didn’t want to talk to anyone,” she said. “He just threw me in to start interviewing random people at the school.”
She liked that way of getting to know her teachers and peers: “learning new things about people I hadn’t even met before.”
“Off the bat, you know random facts about people,” she said. “You get to ask more in-depth questions.”
Cornell said he was impressed with Adrianna right from the start. “She is such a great kid. It has been fun to watch her grow as a student and person. One of the first things I remember her doing for my journalism class was to create a zine (homemade magazine),” he said. “Hers stood out for its creativity and writing style. Her writing had spunk. It was fun to read.
She has grown in confidence socially and academically since she first arrived in my journalism class. It has been an absolute joy to have her in class. I am proud of her and excited for all of the opportunities that await her at MSU.”
‘After my brother died it was kind of hard because he was my main motivation. Now I think it’s just for me to be able to know I can actually finish this year off.’– Adriana Ortiz-Torres
Now, she’s focused on her next step: Michigan State University. She’s always wanted to be a Spartan. “State was always a big dream. When I was little I just liked the colors. But now, researching into it, it is the best match for me.”
Her siblings recently attended an awards night where Adriana was honored, and they plan to be at graduation. Her father will connect by phone.
Adriana said she’s always believed that there are good things coming, even when times are really tough. She shares advice with others who are struggling.
“It’s definitely hard to push through some moments. You get overwhelmed a lot. Just think about what you will be doing in one year or two years from now, or even a month from that time. It does get better.”