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Mother of Paterson honor student accepts his posthumous diploma

The Record, Bergen County logo The Record, Bergen County 6/30/2022 Joe Malinconico
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PATERSON — Amid the front row of graduates, a picture of Robert Cuadra smiling in his blue gown stood upright on an empty white folding chair at his high school’s commencement ceremony in Paterson this week.

The empty seat paid tribute to the 18-year-old college-bound honor student who was killed last January in the crossfire of a gang shooting while he was bringing home groceries.

Cuadra's mother, Ivernis Santiago, was among the hundreds of proud parents at the ceremony. She sat in the back row behind the graduates, apart from the other family members, and waited for her chance to walk onto the stage to accept her son’s diploma.

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“I was happy and sad at the same time,” Santiago said of her swirling feelings. “I was proud but alone.”

Cuadra had been a popular student at Paterson’s Harp Academy the past four years. He had earned a four-year scholarship to Montclair State University through a program for teens facing economic hardships and other adversities. Outside of school, Cuadra helped build homes for low-income families, collected food and clothing for needy families and fed homeless people on the holidays.

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The Harp principal, Kelli White, said Cuadra epitomized the school’s motto, “Service above self.”

“We thought it was important to honor Robert,” White said of Tuesday’s graduation ceremony. “We know he couldn’t be there with us physically. But his spirit was there.”

During the ceremony, six of Cuadra’s classmates took the stage. They had been awarded partial college scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 from money raised in tribute to Cuadra.

“It was difficult,” White added. “We all cried, but it was beautiful at the same time.”

Santiago said she was emotionally moved by the scholarship recipients and plans to stay in touch with them as they go though their college years.

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“I want them to finish and accomplish what my son could not,” she said.

The graduates who received the scholarships released balloons into the sky. But one of Christopher Gomez’s balloons got caught on his graduation cap. He said he felt like his best friend was holding on a little longer.

“We had an amazing bond,” said Gomez, 17, who is attending New Jersey Institute of Technology in the fall. “We were always talking about our lives after high school, about going to college. He used to say he wanted us to be friends for life.”

Gomez said Cuadra’s death would motivate him in the years ahead.

“I do feel obligated to continue his legacy,” he stated.

Another scholarship winner, Ambar Gomez, who is not related to Christopher, said she initially didn’t apply for the Cuadra scholarship.

“I felt like I was taking away from a part of him, and I didn’t like that,” said Ambar Gomez, 17, who is going to Ramapo College.

But a guidance counselor convinced her that seeking the scholarship would be a way to honor her friend. Ambar said she missed her friend during Tuesday’s graduation.

“Seeing his chair, it was very hard,” she said. “He should have been there.”

Santiago said she was happy that her son had inspired his classmates. But five months after his death, the honor student’s mother said she still feels deep grief.

“I’m never going to have peace,” she said. “I will never accept what happened to my son.”

Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: editor@patersonpress.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Mother of Paterson honor student accepts his posthumous diploma

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