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Rio Grande grads return to head local high schools

From left, West Mesa High School Principal Mark Garcia, Atrisco Heritage Academy High School Principal Irene Cisneros and Rio Grande High School Principal Antoinette Valenzuela pose at Rio Grande High School, their alma mater. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The same desire brought them all back.

While their education and careers have taken them across the city and state, three former Rio Grande High School Ravens returned to work in Albuquerque Public Schools’ Zone 2, becoming principals in the very community that helped to shape them.

Rio Grande High School Principal Antoinette Valenzuela, West Mesa High School Principal Mark Garcia and Atrisco Heritage Academy High School Principal Irene Cisneros were each born and raised in Albuquerque’s South Valley.

Garcia, who is in his fifth year as principal at West Mesa, says the intention is to help build up the community.

From left, West Mesa High School Principal Mark Garcia, Atrisco Heritage Academy High School Principal Irene Cisneros and Rio Grande High School Principal Antoinette Valenzuela. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“Students in this community can become whatever they dream and want to be. I think we’re all examples of that. We believe in all of our students,” he said. “We want to see the South Valley and the city of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico be the best it can be.”

Cisneros hopes students see themselves in the principals.

Irene Cisneros poses for her 1993 Rio Grande High School yearbook photo.

“It’s important for us to be proud of where we came from and be proud of who we are and that right there really helped kids to see beyond their circumstances and really show them that they can do it. We are all Hispanic. We are all from Rio Grande, which has not always had the best light shined on it. But we’ve all lived down here in the South Valley,” she said.

While the three principals are colleagues now, their story together starts a couple of decades before the trio were leading schools.

Garcia remembers having matanzas with Valenzuela’s family. The two think they may be third or fourth cousins, coming from the same small town of Torreon near Estancia.

And Cisneros and Garcia go way back, too, having attended the same middle school and church youth group.

They all knew each other in high school when Garcia sported a “Saved by the Bell” haircut and Valenzuela and Cisneros had a little more volume in their hairdos.

All three graduated from Rio Grande: Cisneros and Garcia in 1993, Valenzuela two years later.

Life took them all over New Mexico from there.

Valenzuela went south to New Mexico State University for her undergraduate degree, Cisneros headed north to New Mexico Highlands University, while Garcia stayed in town at the University of New Mexico.

All three were among the first in their immediate families to go to college.

Their careers, too, have taken them to schools around Albuquerque.

Mark Garcia’s 1993 Rio Grande High School yearbook photo.

Garcia has worked at all three Zone 2 high schools and at La Cueva High School in the Northeast Heights. (Zone 2 is one of four smaller, geographic school groupings of APS.)

After working at elementary schools in the South Valley, Valenzuela was the assistant principal and later the principal at Hayes Middle School in Northeast Albuquerque. And Cisneros taught a variety of subjects at former Sierra Alternative High School on Eubank NE before coming to Atrisco Heritage.

What brought them back to South Valley area schools was the same for each of them: to be a role model for students and work in their native community.

After all, they’re from the area, know the culture and understand the specific strengths and challenges of the community – a perspective they use to lead at the schools.

Antoinette Valenzuela smiles in her 1993 Rio Grande High School yearbook photo.

Valenzuela said when kids tell her that she doesn’t understand their hurdles, she’s able to relate to them through her background.

Cisneros added that kids are looking for connection and having similar roots is a way to foster that.

“It feels good to say I grew up right there,” she said.

There’s a special feeling, the three described, to go from student, to graduate, to principal in the part of the city they feel fiercely connected to, something that’s about more than just geography.

It’s memories.

It’s culture.

Cisneros said she remembers the small details of the area that welcomed her back when she came to work at Atrisco Heritage.

“It was like being at home. Taking the drive down, seeing all the sights that I didn’t really get to see anymore because we had moved when I was younger. The community, all the trees, the dirt, the arroyos that you’d pass coming home. It just made sense,” she said.

She was an assistant principal for about six years at Atrisco and has been principal for four years, including an interim year.

Valenzuela said becoming the principal of Rio Grande in September was a type of homecoming for her, too, one that she hopes encourages students to keep striving.

“It’s coming back home,” she said. “It feels good. I feel proud to be a role model for the students and let them know, ‘You can and you will.’ ”

Whether it’s the food, family or arts that keep them here, the three of them say it was a no-brainer to stay in New Mexico and work in their South Valley area community.

“This is mi gente,” Valenzuela said. “These are my people.”

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