If you’re digging for the “Eureka!” moment in Mateo Perez’s life, even he would admit you’re going to need to go a lot deeper than the highlight reel featuring his admission to the Ivy League.
Push aside the academic accolades at Santa Fe Preparatory School and promises of a bright future.
Ignore, for a second, the respect he’d earned from years of an unrelenting commitment to learning.
Instead, go back to the moment Perez sat down for a face-to-face meeting with Prep instructor Kristin Kalangis. It was then that a painfully quiet and maladjusted underclassman first realized he had a powerful voice he’d barely begun to use.
That’s when the proverbial switch was flipped and Perez recalibrated his trajectory toward success.
“Every student who comes through here has a story, and Mateo’s is special in its own way,” said Jim Leonard, Santa Fe Prep’s head of school. “He’s a young man from a different background who was presented an opportunity and absolutely flourished in it. Not all students can say that, but Mateo is a bright, humble young man who you might say faced longer odds and flew well past them.”
There are thousands of stories within Northern New Mexico’s Class of 2020, but Perez’s is as unique as any. Born and raised in Santa Fe to parents rooted in the Native American pueblos of Santa Clara, Picuris and Cochiti, he never had the privileged lifestyle that would have put him on a path to a school like Santa Fe Prep.
He attended Chaparral Elementary, studying alongside kids with similarly modest backgrounds. By sixth grade, his mother, Dawn Halsey, successfully lobbied to get him into the Breakthrough Santa Fe program designed for forward-thinking students with an eye toward college.
He was offered enrollment at Prep for seventh grade, but the school’s tuition made it impossible. He was granted middle school admission to Santa Fe’s Academy for Technology and the Classics, and it seemed he was on his way.
A year later he was on the Prep campus for good, thanks to a scholarship from the Davis Memorial Foundation.
“I was really lucky,” Perez said. “There were a lot of factors that needed to go just right, and without them, I’m not where I am right now. I know where I come from and I know where I’m going, but I also get that it took a lot to be in this place right now.”
His future is incredibly promising: Perez has been accepted to Dartmouth College and is awaiting word on whether he’ll be admitted to Harvard University and Columbia University, having already turned down a full scholarship offer to the University of Denver.
But as he looks to the future, Perez said he can’t help thinking about the past — his friendships, his mentorships, his good fortune.
All of which takes us back to the time when he found his true source of expression.
Kalangis is an English and anthropology instructor at Prep, and it’s her relationship with Perez that helped unleash his talent for crafting the written word.
“Mateo always had the analytical writing chops to flourish because he’s such a creative thinker,” Kalangis said, “but it wasn’t until we started doing assignments in ninth or 10th grade where he was asked what he thought about things and how he felt he fit into it all. That’s probably the first time he was able to insert himself into a situation and write the way he thinks.”
She said a revealing one-on-one meeting with Perez a few years ago left both in tears. He wrote about the influential women in his life — how he’d taken pride his ancestral roots and valued his place in life. The words, Kalangis said, were a window into the brilliant mind of a young man who once may have been considered a long shot to survive Prep’s curriculum and the culture shock that can come with it.
“To see a kid find his voice in that way is a beautiful thing,” Kalangis said.
Perez lauds former Prep science teacher Jeff Mathis for offering a course that was never easy; current math instructor Suzie Matthews, who was as much a teacher as a confidant; and a handful of others who offered courses in advanced Spanish, ceramics, darkroom photography and robotics. At no point was he allowed to slide into cruise control.
Still, there was the social aspect no one could help him navigate.
“It was an interesting adjustment to move into the kind of environment Prep offered,” Perez said with a nod to one of his best friends from the Breakthrough Program, fellow Prep grad Jerome Roybal, for making things easier.
“I’m coming from the other other side of town and have a different life than most of the people there,” he added. “Most of the kids I went to Chaparral with were kind of disadvantaged like we were. You just have to find what works for you, and I was fortunate there were people there who helped me do that.”
Both of Perez’s parents graduated from Santa Fe Indian School in the late 1990s and his father, Matt Perez, attended Dartmouth. Halsey, who works in town as a veterinary technician, said her son’s journey through a school that was wildly different than the family’s core has been nothing short of remarkable.
“When we were at the Indian School, we always had a different way of looking at the Prep school kids, but now that Mateo’s been a part of it it’s opened us to a whole new world,” she said. “There really are some wonderful teachers there, and the way they’ve accepted him and been there for him, it’s made such a change in a lot of things.”
Perez said he’s ready to challenge himself — to leave New Mexico behind and head to one of the nation’s top universities.
“I feel like I’ll be less afraid to go that far,” Perez said. “I know some of the kids around here definitely want to stick close to home. They’ve only known their one community for their whole life, and now they need go to college and they don’t want to go across the country. That isn’t a worry for me. I’ve been in different situations since ATC, so I’m ready for this.”
It’s just another example, Kalangis said, of how Perez draws strength from remaining grounded in who he is, not what he is. He’s not a stereotype, but rather a deep thinker who betters himself by using his lot in life as an advantage.
“He doesn’t have to be in the forefront because he knows that just being there, he’s going to learn what he needs to do because he listens, he pays attention to other perspectives,” Kalangis said. “The cool thing is when he’s got something to say — damn, you listen. You listen because you know he’s taken the time to absorb.”
Perez’s final three years at Prep haven’t been without challenges. He had a bout with Bell’s palsy not long ago and the novel coronavirus has tossed a wet blanket over the pomp and circumstance of graduating. But it’s clear he’s found a balance between what’s ahead and what he’s leaving. Whether it’s Dartmouth, Harvard or Columbia, he said he plans to return home at least once a year to participate in the ceremonial dances of his pueblos, to serve as a role model to kids who might one day walk the same path as him.
“He has so many moments that are little things to him but so amazing to the rest of us,” Halsey said. “I’m over here in tears when I find out something he’s part of, and to him it’s never a big thing.”