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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

From Kalamazoo, two artists full of Promise

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Since it began, 2,828 students in Kalamazoo have used the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship to help pay for college. 

This is the story of two of those students. 

Rogelio Almaguer and Raul Ortiz are both the first in their families to attend college. The two friends are now students at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. They're using the Kalamazoo Promise to pursue not just a career, but a passion. 

I met up with them where Rogelio, who goes by Roy, works when he's not in school – at a tattoo shop. 

When I arrive, Almaguer is working on a tattoo inspired by Michelangelo's famous sculpture, Pieta. He has arranged images of the sculpture around his workstation for reference. He leans forward with gloved hands, pressing the tattoo needle into the forearm of his latest customer, a repeat customer whose arms are covered in Almaguer's art. 

Ortiz sits nearby, watching.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Raul Ortiz, graphic designer.

"This is actually my first time here, watching Roy do his thing," Ortiz says. "Not impressed."

After a pause and some laughter Ortiz says, "No, I'm kidding." 

Ortiz is a graphic design major at Kendall. He says he wants to work on sports logos. Sports are his passion. He played middle linebacker for four years atLoy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo. He was one of only a few Hispanic players on the team. 

In art class, too, both Ortiz and Almaguer bucked the trend.

"There weren't really many Hispanics, there was just Roy in that class," Ortiz says, remembering. "Yeah, I guess we were the only two at the time, weren't we?" 

Ortiz says it was a rough school, and they both lived in a rough neighborhood.

"You can say I lived in the 'hood," Ortiz says. "I never minded, because I grew up in it."

From where he is now, though, at Kendall College, Ortiz's old neighborhood seems anything but normal.

"I've met so many people at college ... and as soon as I told them my stories and stuff, they were like, 'I [thought] that just existed in movies' ... I was like, 'No, it's worse.'"

Ortiz says he's told his new classmates what life was like at LoyNorrix, including the time Ortiz says a student was thrown through a window.

"Man, I've met so many people at college ... and as soon as I told them my stories and stuff, they were like, 'I (thought) that just existed in movies and stuff.' That's what they told me, and I was like, 'No, it's worse,'" Ortiz says. "It actually happens."

But Ortiz says at Kendall, he also feels like he can be himself. He tells me he started a sports club for others who are interested in athletics. 

"In high school ... just because of your race or the way you look, they expect something out of you that is the norm," he says. "But in Kendall, it's completely different. You can actually be who you want to be there, and no one can say anything because you're doing you. And it's your life and it's your future." 

Take Almaguer. He's a tattoo artist. 

"A lot of people don't get into detail with it and just do basic stuff, you know?" he says. "But I like to do fine work, you know, fine art." 

Almaguer says his style has been embraced at Kendall. Tattoos aren't his only medium. He says he also does airbrushing, drawing, painting and screen printing. But art school helps with the tattoos, as well. 

"School shows me how to put it on paper and I just try to apply it on skin," he says. 

Almaguer hopes to one day have his own shop, where he can sell art of all kinds, including tattoo art. That's the goal. But Almaguer's already made it a long way, compared to where he started. 

"It's definitely been a bumpy, bumpy ride," he says.

Almaguer says he went to 13 different schools from kindergarten through high school. His family did migrant farm labor, and he started in the fields at a young age. 

"Sixth grade I started working in Mexico picking tomatoes, the small ones," he says. "I hated it, man."

When his family moved to Michigan, he says they grew celery, onions, and cabbage. His brothers and his sister dropped out of school. 

"When we would move back and forth from here and Texas, they wouldn't transfer their credits. So ... my sister and my brothers were just like, 'You know what, we're done with school,' Almaguer says. "So my dad put them to work, started working in the fields." 

Credit Courtesy Rogelio Almaguer
Rogelio Almaguer's latest work.

But Rogelio Almaguer was not ready for a life working in the fields. 

"My dad told me, what do you want to do? Do you want to go to school, or do you want to work in the fields?" he says. "I'm like, 'I want to go to school!'"

He didn't even know about the Kalamazoo Promise. He just wanted to graduate high school. 

"But when I got into art, I found out about Kendall. And they told me that they were going to pay my college," he says. "And, yeah, because of the Promise, I'm at Kendall."

As he tells his story, he continues to fill in the lines of his Pieta tattoo, leaning in with his needle in hand.

Ortiz, his friend, chimes in.

"But you feel like you're in a better place now, though, right?"  

"Oh, yeah," Almaguer says. "Dude, like, I'm good." 

"You have dreams now," Ortiz says.

"Now I know things can happen," Almaguer says. "The problem is ... when it will happen, you know." 

But both these guys are confident it will happen for them. Almaguer dreams of his shop. Ortiz wants a design business, catering to clients in the sports world. He says he wants to some day create something iconic, classic, like the Nike swoosh. 

"Quitting is not going to be in our mind."

Ortiz believes he will be successful, because he knows he's passionate. 

"If you're doing something that you love, like we're doing with art ... we're going to go so far, just because we're having fun with it," he says. "And we're never going to get bored with it. Quitting is not going to be in our mind." 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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