LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Lt. Col. Roberto Gomez Jr. unknowingly set forth on a path to become a high-ranking Army official in southern New Mexico when he waded across the Rio Grande almost four decades ago.
Gomez, a native of Torreon, Mexico, said he was 14 years old when he and his family set foot in the shallow riverbed in February 1978, seeking to escape their poverty-plagued life in Cuidad Juarez. “Our situation got worse in Mexico,” he said, “and my dad saw the opportunity to come here.”
When Gomez reached the other side of the river and crossed into the U.S., he never looked back. Today, Gomez, now 52, has full U.S. citizenship, a degree in electrical engineering from New Mexico State University and a high-profile job at White Sands Missile Range, where he has worked since 1989. He also is a commissioned Army officer and earned the rank of lieutenant colonel last summer.
Gomez said his accomplishments are the result of hard work, dedication and help from a group of mentors that include educators from his school years. “With a lot of effort and God’s help, putting the right people along my path, I was able to move up and achieve what I’ve done,” he said.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Gomez recalled crossing the Rio Grande with his mother, Rosario Gomez, and five younger siblings without much difficulty. The river at the time, he said, was “more like an arroyo” and had very little water. “We basically walked over to get to the other side of the border,” he added.
Once they made it across, Gomez and his family joined his father, Roberto Gomez Sr., who planned to settle in Las Cruces.
For years, the younger Gomez said his father supported his family by traveling from their home in Juárez to Las Cruces for weeks at a time to work at a body shop. By the late 1970s, his father made the decision to move the family to Las Cruces, Gomez said.
“It was more advantageous for us to be out here,” he said. “Once we got here, we could see what difference it was between Mexico and here.”
Gomez said his family made their first home in the village of Tortugas, where they lived in a furnished three-bedroom trailer. “We thought it was a palace,” he said, noting that his family had lived in a one-room home in Juárez.
Sometime later, the family moved within the city limits. Not long after they arrived in Las Cruces, the family’s newfound happiness turned into fear. Someone had reported the family to immigration authorities, Gomez said.
“We’re talking about less than a year, and somebody turned us in,” he said. “We were worried that they were going to come pick us at any time.”
Gomez said he was devastated at the thought of having to return to Mexico. But, he said, the family received a wealth of support from others in the community who protected them from deportation.
One family, Gomez said, opened their home to his family, giving them a space that felt much like a sanctuary. “We would go over there during the day, so we could escape – so we wouldn’t get deported,” he said.
His father’s employer also was instrumental in helping the family navigate through the visa process. About a year after arriving in Las Cruces, Gomez and his family became legal residents. He was 15 years old.
“What they thought was going to be a curse for us, it was a blessing,” Gomez said.
Even during the family’s first year in Las Cruces, when they most feared deportation, life went on. For Gomez, that meant regularly attending school.
He said he did not speak a word of English when he started in the sixth grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary in the spring semester of 1978. He struggled to learn the language, largely because the school did not have a program for English language learners, but he completed the semester and was promoted to the seventh grade.
He spent the next three school years at Court Junior High, where he eventually learned how to read, speak and write English with relative ease by the ninth grade.
He said he received daily tutoring from two educational assistants, Irma Valdespino and Gloria Cobos, who oversaw the school’s migrant program, which was designed to assist students of migrant farmworkers. He also took lessons from Loretta Barela, the school’s reading lab teacher.
Unfortunately, Gomez, the son of a non-migrant worker, did not meet the requirements to participate in the program. But that didn’t stop Valdespino from taking Gomez under her wings.
“The teachers in the migrant program felt sorry for me because I was having a really hard time,” Gomez said. “So, against policy, they would bring me into the classroom and help me.”
Valdespino, in a recent interview, said it didn’t matter to her that Gomez wasn’t a migrant student — she simply saw him as a student in need of help.
“We knew Roberto was not eligible to participate in the migrant program. But to me, it didn’t matter,” she said. “It didn’t matter if he was documented or undocumented, or whether he was a migrant student or not, because all I saw was a young, intelligent man eager to learn.”
Valdespino described Gomez as a typical teenager who got along well with others. But, she said, he stood out among his peers because of his “respectfulness and eagerness to learn and please his parents.”
By the ninth grade, Gomez’s English had improved so much that he was taking regular classes. Without those teachers, he said, “I would have been worse off.”
Gomez’s success continued into high school. While attending Mayfield High, he was active in various clubs and organizations, such as the Spanish Club. He also joined Junior ROTC during his senior year, which became the start of his military career.
He graduated in 1983 and received a scholarship to attend New Mexico State University, he said. He first studied civil engineering but soon realized he that he wanted to pursue a career as an architect.
By his second year at NMSU, Gomez lost his scholarship because of his declining grades. He said he “survived” an additional year without the scholarship, but by his third year, he had depleted his savings for school.
That’s when he turned to the Army. The year was 1987.
He said he went through basic training that summer at Fort Bliss, then was “shipped out” to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to be trained as a medical lab technician. After nine months in San Antonio, he returned to NMSU to study electrical engineering, he said. Two years later, he said, he was offered a full scholarship through the Army ROTC, in addition to a job at White Sands Missile Range.
“There was just one issue,” Gomez said. “I was not a U.S. citizen.” And therefore, he did not qualify for the scholarship.
But within days, the Army sent him before an immigration judge in El Paso, he said.
“I went it in, and the judge asked how I was doing,” he said. “Fine, I said.”
The judge then asked Gomez if he was planning to join the Army, to which Gomez replied, “I’m already in the Army.” After that, he said, the judge signed paperwork granting him full U.S. citizenship on the spot. He was 25 years old.
By May 1992, Gomez received his Army commission and graduated from NMSU. He continued to work for WSMR, where he began three years earlier as a co-op. Today, after 26 years, he’s earned a bigger title: senior software and system of systems analyst of weapon systems.
It’s a title he never expected to hold, especially when he considers where he came from. But it best illustrates his steadfast determination for a better life, which never wavered once after he crossed into the U.S.
“If you work hard, if you apply yourself, you can do anything you want in this country,” he said.