Growing up, Jacob “Robert” Ortiz could often be found taking the lead among his friends on the playground of Adams Elementary School in Yakima.
He would play roles like the Red Power Ranger, known for being the leader of the teen superheroes. He credits this to being the fourth of five children, with all of the siblings fighting for attention.
As Ortiz matured, his strong will and social nature led him to community-building and leadership roles, something he plans to continue into adulthood after graduating from Eisenhower High School on Tuesday.
For the last two years, he led the student body of Eisenhower as Associated Student Body president. It was a nontraditional role in more than one way. While ASB is primarily student-led, it was even more so during Ortiz’s junior year, when the adviser was away on personal leave. That meant Ortiz took on project management duties, like ensuring preparations for the five school dances the team led were being completed on time. Ultimately, the projects were cut short when the pandemic led to school closures across the state in mid-March of 2020.
With leadership falling dormant and civil rights demonstrations rising across the country, Ortiz said he turned much of his attention to better understanding the U.S. political climate. Chief among the issues he zeroed in on was immigration and the controversy over the U.S.-Mexico border. With his own parents having immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Ortiz said the issue has always been close to his heart. But he gained a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the system and became more confident in his convictions. He was reading about things like poor sanitation conditions, the separation of families and the lack of COVID-19 safety precautions for people being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.
“Personally, I think it’s very inhuman what’s happening at the border,” said Ortiz. “The news that we do get about what’s happening at the border is awful, and I can’t imagine what isn’t reaching us.”
Ortiz considers himself privileged to have never experienced racist comments like being told to go “back to where I came from,” but is concerned that it’s a common experience in his community.
“I definitely want to do more advocacy for the Latino community, just because I do have a voice and I understand that I can make an impact,” he said.
Already, Ortiz is using his voice.
He was interviewed in The New York Times just ahead of the pandemic to help represent the changing faces of America, sharing his experiences as a Latino in the U.S. He also recently reached out to Yakima Health District officials to see how he could help dispel misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines in the local Latino community. And during remote learning, he supported and mentored his 12-year-old sister, Selena Ortiz, as their parents continued to work.
Recently, Ortiz was admitted directly into the University of Washington computer science program, his dream education path.
While the in-person community Ortiz thrives in was not accessible during the pandemic, he used video games and technology such as video calls to maintain a sense of community. He said his dream is to use his education to create community spaces through video game development. He’ll also be the first in his family to attend a four-year university and hopes to serve as an example to Selena.
“Our parents always told us how important education was,” he said. But as he navigated college and scholarship applications, he said he was “paving his own way in life,” learning how to navigate complicated school systems that his family hadn’t been exposed to before.
“Having her look up to me definitely helped me and encouraged me to do that as well,” he said of Selena.