News and Highlights

Teen survives Mexico ordeal, becomes inspiration

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.

"I really like telling kids, 'Hey, this is not a big problem - there are things in your life that are going to be much harder than this," Sotelo says.

Sotelo's sage advice comes from years of overcoming obstacles most of his peers will never face in their lifetimes.

This week marks the fourth year he has lived in Hutchinson after death threats from a drug cartel forced his family to flee Mexico.

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.

Fleeing Mexico

"I'd lived with my grandmother since I was little - my parents were too young to have a child," Sotelo said, recalling how his parents left him and moved from Mexico to the United States.

Amid a crippling Mexican economy, his grandmother raised him and two of his cousins whose mother died, he said.

"I'm glad my parents abandoned me with her, because I probably had the best education... and the best values," he said.

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.

One day, he recalled, he was walking home from his school bus stop when he saw a member of the drug cartel holding a gun.

"In a town smaller than Hutch, everyone knew," Sotelo said, explaining how he knew it was a member of a cartel. "They drive really nice cars.

"They're getting easy money, obviously, because they didn't have jobs."

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.

"I got arrested, and at that point I didn't know what to do," Sotelo 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 for her to figure out where he was taken, he said.

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."

A new home

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, recalling how his aunt and uncle were approved to pick him up from the shelter in January 2010.

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 sure she was qualified to take him in.

Julie said was nervous at first because she didn't know Sotelo, but the family, including her own children, opened their hearts and their home to him. Julie said she also didn't think twice about any potential danger, even though Sotelo had fled the threats of a Mexican cartel.

"The only thing she was worried about was me being safe," Sotelo said. 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. His grandmother had returned to Mexico after six months in the United States, since her U.S. Visa expired. They keep in touch, he said, but he tries not to talk to her about those three days in December 2009 when she didn't know where he was.

"She'll start crying, and then I'll start crying," he said.

A drive to succeed

Starting over in a new place and adapting to a new language didn't stop Sotelo from wanting to excel.

Within a year of moving to Hutchinson, he was campaigning to become Student Council president of his class. Although he lost, he started a connection with Communities That Care leadership students that would make a deep impression on his life. In Hutchinson, Communities That Care offers a variety of programs geared toward strengthening families, mentoring and youth leadership.

"Those were the kids I wanted to be like, because they were doing the right thing," said Sotelo, who is now a CTC youth leader at Hutchinson High School.

He's involved in Key Club, cross country and track, and his youth group at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. He helps produce Salthawk TV at the high school, along with the school's yearbook. 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."

"He just does everything he possibly can to help others and give others opportunity, because he feels like he can pay it back in some way," said Carla Smith, Communities That Care program coordinator. "I think a lot of it has to do with what he's been through ... Maybe he feels like he has to pay it forward.

"He's seen what drugs and alcohol and crime can do to people, and he doesn't want anybody to slip into that. He's a great kid."

Sotelo says he's thinking about becoming a teacher, because he enjoys mentoring younger students. He's also interested in broadcast journalism and politics.

"He has a clear idea of what he believes is important, and part of that is a passion for clean living," Cross-country coach Lisa Bonds said when asked about Sotelo. "His experience in Mexico and what he's seen - how drugs affect people and everything that's taken place - I think he feels like he has a mission to help people understand how their actions affect others."

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."

By Darcy Gray - The Hutchinson News
Posted On Jan 18, 2014