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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Remembering Miguel Sanchez-Tortoledo ’23

Miguel Sanchez-Tortoledo seemed to know everybody. On campus, he couldn’t help stopping to greet nearly everyone he passed, which often made those walking with him late. His family and friends remember him as an overwhelmingly positive presence and magnetic personality whose ambition never got in the way of his care for those around him.

Miguel died on Aug. 14 after a months-long battle with cancer. He was 19.

Miguel grew up in Bell Gardens, Calif. — a city just outside of Los Angeles. At Middlebury, he studied sociology and political science, served as first-year and sophomore Student Government Association (SGA) senator and as a representative on Community Council, worked at the Student Financial Services office and much more. He wanted to be involved in everything, and he gave his all to everything he did. 

His mother, Juana Tortoledo, always knew that Miguel would be the first in their family to go to college. He came from a low-income, immigrant household, and he was determined to give his parents a better life. He told his mother, “When I get rich and have a good job, I’m going to buy you a house… I’m going to help all my family and my community.” 

Miguel was always sure of himself. After joining the cheerleading squad in junior high, he refused to pay credence to those around him who teased him saying that cheerleading was for girls and that he should quit. His mother remembers him telling her, “I'm going to stay [on the team] because I know who I am, and I know what I want and I know I can do it.”  

Courtesy Photo
Miguel Sanchez-Tortoledo and his mother, Juana Tortoledo.

Miguel attended Bell Gardens Senior High School, where he served as the Associated Student Body (ASB) class president his first three years and ASB president as a senior. He received the presidential volunteer service award four times for completing 600 hours of community service each year. In addition to juggling multiple part time jobs, he led the marching band as a horn sergeant. During breaks in the long practices, he worked on his college applications under his tuba. 

“He was never supposed to stay in Bell Gardens,” his friend since middle school, Emily Galdamez, said. “He was always made for much bigger things.”

 After winning several scholarships, including a $20,000 Coca-Cola Scholarship, Miguel threw himself into life at Middlebury. He scored a job at the Student Financial Services office off of one conversation with Associate Vice President Kim Downs-Burns during orientation. She knew instantly that he would put students coming into the office for difficult conversations at ease. He went above and beyond his job description and took every opportunity to question the school’s policies and advocate for his peers. 

His greatest passion at Middlebury was SGA, and he was committed to making the college better for all students. He tried to meet as many as he could so that he could best serve their needs. And once he set his mind to do something, he made it happen no matter what. After overhearing students complaining about having to fill their water bottles from the bathroom sink in Stewart Hall, his first-year dorm, he organized to get water bottle refilling stations installed soon after.

“He never did things for himself,” Melisa Gurkan ’23.5 said. “Anything that he did, he did it with a purpose, and he did it for other people.”

In class, Miguel was animated by questions of how he could practically improve his community and city, rather than abstract theories. His career ambitions changed often, but they were always oriented towards public service — he had recently settled on working in politics and law.

“He had a vision that he wanted to contribute to make things better,” Associate Professor of Sociology Linus Owens, Miguel’s advisor, said. “If we’re going to get anywhere, we’ll need people like him and people inspired by what he did in his life and the courage with which he faced such an unfathomable thing to happen to someone so young.”

Even after moving across the country, Miguel remained closely connected to his family and carried his pride and love for them wherever he went. His first year, he returned from winter break with carefully-wrapped packages of his mother’s tamales packed in his suitcase, which he proudly gave out to all his friends. 

“Everything he did was to make his parents proud,” his high school friend, Joel Leyva, said. “I think that was what made him the proudest, and I think that's what allowed him to be at peace towards the end, knowing that he made his parents proud.”

As committed as Miguel was to his family, school and future, he never took life too seriously. His friends disagree about how his laugh sounded — Eric Burchill ’23 said it was a deep belly laugh and Gurkan remembers it as fast and high pitched — but they all say it rang out often.

He was deeply devoted to his friends. When Leyva was bedridden alone at home, recovering from a surgery, running out of money for food and too proud to tell his parents that he needed help, Miguel showed up at his doorstep unprompted with bags full of groceries. And when Miguel found out that Adam Maguire ’23 hadn’t celebrated his birthday much growing up, he tracked down Maguire’s friends from home to plan a party for him. 

Miguel spent much of his time with friends, exploring Vermont and bringing them along on spontaneous visits to restaurants and spots he found online. He belted along to Adele, Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo with unabashed enthusiasm, if not talent, and dominated the dance floor at parties when “Shake It Off” came over the speakers. 

In his rare moments of free time, he liked to clean and reorganize the 150 knives he kept cloth-wrapped and stored in a black duffel bag in his closet to sell for his side job as a knife salesman where he set records for most sales in his first few months.  

On quiet mornings, he sat in the back corner of Proctor lounge, facing the door to the dining hall so that he could greet people as they came through and pull them in to share a conversation or breakfast with him.  

His friends remember him as unshakably positive, even after he was diagnosed with cancer in March and had to return to Los Angeles for treatment. While undergoing 52 rounds of chemotherapy, he was determined to finish the semester and keep up with his job. 

Throughout his illness, Miguel never lost hope. He was elected junior SGA senator from his hospital bed. From there, he applied to scholarships, plotted his eventual run for SGA president and shared his excitement about returning to Middlebury in the fall and possibly studying abroad in Spain.  

He also never lost his joy or his adventurous spirit. Whenever he got sick of hospital food, he would pull out his IV, tape down the needle to stop the bleeding and hit the road with his friends to visit his favorite restaurants, more often than not Dave’s Hot Chicken.

On June 12, Miguel fell into a coma, just two treatments shy of completing his chemotherapy. He died nine weeks later, on Aug. 14, less than two weeks before his 20th birthday.

Miguel is survived by his mother, Juana Tortoledo, father, Miguel Sanchez and brothers, Sebastian, 17, and Kevin, 31, but he touched many more people. A GoFundMe organized to cover his medical and funeral expenses gathered more than 1,200 donations.

The college is planning an event to celebrate Miguel’s life early this fall.

Editor’s note: Eric Burchill ’23 is a copy editor for The Campus. 

Sophia McDermott-Hughes

Sophia McDermott-Hughes ’23.5 (they/them) is an editor at large.  

They previously served as a news editor and senior news writer.

McDermott-Hughes is a joint Arabic and anthropology and Arabic major.  

Over the summer, they worked as a general assignment reporter at Morocco World News, the main English-language paper in Morocco.  

In the summer of 2021 they reported for statewide digital newspaper VTDigger, focusing on issues relating to migrant workers and immigration.  

In 2018 and 2019, McDermott-Hughes worked as a reporter on the Since Parkland Project, a partnership with the Trace and the Miami Herald, which chronicled the lives of the more than 1,200 children killed by gun violence in the United States in the year since the Marjory Stoneman  Douglas High School shooting in Florida.