The only thing that interrupted the sounds of laughter on Saturday in the Almaguer backyard was the sizzle of a grill and the sound of music as relatives and friends celebrated a family milestone.
Victoria Almaguer, a 24-year-old first-generation student, graduated the day before from the University of Texas at El Paso, and joined her older sister as the only two in the immediate family to earn a college degree.
“I was just telling my best friend that I’m happy they made a big deal because they just remind me that things like this need to be celebrated and sometimes I take that for granted,” Almaguer said during a short break from posing for photographs in front of an electric sign that read “GRAD” in white letters.
Family from New Mexico, Mexico, and her former high school advisor all stopped by to celebrate Almaguer at her graduation party. She couldn’t stay in one spot for too long as the guests poured in.
Almaguer’s story is a common one in El Paso. In 2018, UTEP reported that 50% of its graduating class were first-generation students. Last year the university was a part of a 2020–2021 cohort of First-gen Forward Institutions by the Center for First-generation Student Success — a recognition that highlights schools for improving academic accessibility for first-generation students.
Almaguer graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism and dreams of working for National Public Radio. But for now, she plans on returning to UTEP to get her master’s in library science.
As a first-generation student, Almaguer said she feels pressure from all sides: pressure to do well in school, pressure to make her family proud, and the pressure from being a preacher’s daughter. But she knows she’s putting all that pressure on herself, she said.
“My parents never told me I had to go to school or do this and that, but I put it onto myself because I know what they have sacrificed,” she said.
Her parents, Felix and Guadalupe Almaguer, met through relatives in Mexico when her mother was 10 and her father was 19.
“She just thought of him as her brother’s friend but eventually time went on,” Victoria said as she translated for her mom. “He invited her to eat and then, yeah,” Victoria said as the group of women laughed.
The couple became legal residents of the United States and first moved to Dallas, where their son, Daniel Almaguer, was born. Then moved to Albuquerque where Eunice, the first daughter, was born and then made their way to El Paso in 1987 and had Victoria.
“It’s a different life than Mexico. There’s a lot of opportunities,” Guadalupe Almaguer said.
Eunice, 33, said the family lived in a mobile home as her dad built their family home from the ground up. Victoria remembers the mobile home and said the family home was finished when she was 12.
Located in Socorro, the house is home to Victoria, her parents, her sister, her sister’s husband, and their 1-year-old daughter. Felix Almaguer couldn’t help but smile when he said he built this home for his family — something he says he dreamed of when he was in Mexico before the children were born.
Felix is the pastor at Rey de Paz church in Ciudad Juárez. But it wasn’t what he originally had in mind.
“When you work with the pastors you know how hard the work is,” he said.
Felix Almaguer said he tries to ensure his family isn’t looked at differently and can instead relate to the rest of the members of the congregation.
But Victoria Almaguer said there is still stress that comes from her father’s title at the church.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it can be to be a preacher’s daughter because people are always looking to me and what I’m doing,” Victoria said.
But that pressure recedes when she’s at work at the KTEP radio studio, where Victoria is in charge of transitioning programs and providing live traffic and weather updates.
“It’s my therapy, being here, even the drive coming here” is therapeutic, she said.
In a full household, there are few opportunities for silence. But at work it’s just her and the control board.
“I really hope to do this in the future,” she said, before turning her “radio voice on” and going live with a traffic update.
Victoria Almaguer’s path to commencement wasn’t all smiles and celebrations. Just one day before her graduation, she was told she didn’t get an internship as a production assistant at “Marketplace,” a radio business program.
“Before I was like, there’s so many opportunities and possibilities, but now I really don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”
Throughout the challenges, she’s been able to find comfort and support from her older sister, who teases that Victoria is more “Americanized than any of us.”
Also a first-generation student, Eunice graduated from UTEP with a degree in education in 2014. As the first in the family to go to UTEP, she said she was always thinking about how she could make the process easier for her baby sister.
“It was a struggle, it was bumping into dead ends, it was reaching out and asking for help because I didn’t have someone who went through it before me,” Eunice Almaguer said. “So when Victoria went through it, I didn’t want her to struggle.”
Eunice said small details like telling her sister to get a parking pass, something she didn’t have, is one indication of how she’s tried to advise her younger sister. She said she’s already trying to prepare her 16-year-old niece for when it’s her time to go to college.
“We’re just trying to make their struggles worth it for future generations,” Eunice said.
But as she sat with other graduates from the College of Liberal Arts during their Friday graduation ceremony, Victoria knew she was at the finish line.
“I’m finally done,” she said.
Before the ceremony, Victoria said she felt weird about graduating, but the uncertainty quickly vanished.
“It’s like a birthday, it comes abruptly and then it’s over,” she said before the ceremony.
Later that night, she waved to her family in the stands as they cheered her on. She threw the customary Miner’s pick hand gesture as she posed for the camera and walked across the stage.
Before the graduation party, Victoria’s mom proudly looked over the pictures from the ceremony. She also opened Whatsapp and looked at screenshots family members sent of Victoria walking the stage during a livestream of the ceremony.
“We’re so proud of her,” she said.
As she looked out at her family in their UTEP shirts, Victoria said she felt nothing but love.
“I think after a year of uncertainties, me stressing, and wanting to quit so many times, it feels great to have all this support around me,” she said.
Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.