When Pedro Matala first arrived at Deering High School in the fall of 2019, Gelson Toko knew immediately that they’d become great friends.

Matala and his family had recently come to Portland from Angola. Toko, who is also Angolan, said his teachers asked him to help Matala adjust to his new surroundings.

But it didn’t take long for Matala not only to adjust but to flourish. He was popular with his classmates, Toko said, helping his peers who were new to English and forming close bonds in Portland’s Angolan community.

Rogero Matala and Helena Lundo hold a cellphone photo of their son Pedro Matala, who drowned in the Presumpscot River in Falmouth on Sunday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“He was one of those people that always brought joy to the people around him,” Toko said Monday.

Matala died while swimming in the Presumpscot River in Falmouth on Sunday afternoon. He was 18 years old, about to enter his senior year at Deering High School, where staff described him as a terrific athlete and a gifted graduate of the school’s English language learning program.

“I just feel like the Angolan community lost one piece of us,” his friend Toko said Monday. “He will forever be in our memories. I wish I could be talking about him because it was his birthday or something like that. I never knew I would ever be talking about him because he was among us no more.”


Matala was swimming in the Presumpscot on Sunday afternoon when he went under and did not resurface. Friends who were with him called police, who conducted an extensive search and recovered his body Sunday night.

Family and close friends, many of whom filled the Matala home Monday evening, said Matala’s loss is one deeply felt by many.

“It’s leaving a kind of hole that nobody can fill,” said Jacques Kanda, a pastor and family friend who was among those in the Matala home offering comfort and support.

Matala leaves behind five younger siblings. He set a good example for them, said Kanda, helping with their homework and encouraging them to focus on classwork.

Teachers said Matala was a promising student. During his first year at Deering High, Matala excelled in his ELL class, said instructor Molly Callaghan.

He was a voracious reader and a precocious learner, she said, and she sent him a copy of “The Hunger Games” to read in his spare time after the school moved classrooms online during the pandemic.


While many students learning English struggled during the pandemic – away from the classroom, no longer able to observe and interact with other students, sometimes saddled with technological difficulties – Matala, who was already multilingual, excelled, Callaghan said. He spoke French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Matala was one of a handful of students who volunteered to help students newer to the ELL program navigate the online curriculum and learning from home.

Pedro Matala on the soccer field for Deering High School in the 2020-21 season. Photo courtesy of Joel Costigan

“This kid is just so special, and I’m just so devastated,” Callaghan said. “It’s a huge loss to the Deering community and the Portland community because Pedro was a kid of great promise.”

Matala was an engaged student and member of Portland’s Angolan community, said Berthley Despacho, who works at Portland Public Schools’ Multilingual and Multicultural Center as a parent and community specialist.

Despacho helped with Matala’s enrollment at Deering High, soon after the family got to Maine. Now he is helping Matala’s family navigate his death – visiting funeral homes, interpreting conversations with police, taking calls from friends of Matala’s at school.

“He was a very smart kid,” Despacho said. “He overcame a lot of challenges that immigrant students face when they come to the U.S., and he made it look easy.”


In school, Matala was a valued member of Deering High’s soccer team, playing at both the varsity and junior varsity levels his sophomore year. Outside school, he would fill in on various community teams when they were in need of a player.

Matala generally filled in wherever his community needed him. He would drive friends and neighbors to appointments when they didn’t have their own transportation. He regularly stepped in to translate when someone was having a hard time with English. If a friend didn’t have anywhere to stay, Despacho said, Matala would offer a meal and a place to rest for the night at his Deering Place studio apartment, which he moved into about nine months ago.

Pedro Matala playing soccer for Deering High in the 2020-21 season. Photo courtesy of Joel Costigan

“He was the person who was always fine with everything, happy with everyone,” said a friend of his, Ruscirene Dinanga. Dinanga, who attended Portland High School, met Matala at her own birthday party two years ago. They liked to hang out together in Old Orchard Beach. They’d go to barbecues and sporting events together.

Many of the Angolans who settle in Portland leave behind large extended families, people they would normally gather with for holidays, weddings and birthdays, Dinanga said. Portland’s Angolan community regularly comes together as one big family to celebrate these events and to help each other when there’s hardship. To Dinanga, no one embodied that spirit more than Matala, who Dinanga said she considered a cousin.

“He was always willing to help people in the community,” said Toko. “He would always stop what he was doing to help someone. He always put everyone else’s needs in front of his own.”

Matala’s soccer coach, Joel Costigan, said Monday that Matala’s teammates are devastated. He described Matala as someone who was very “coachable;” he loved to work hard and improve at the sport. He grew up playing it in Angola, said his father, Rogero Matala, and was a fan of Barcelona’s soccer team. His father compared his son to Lionel Messi, who was a star player for that team for years.


During his junior year, Matala took a break from soccer because he was busy at work. Rogero Matala said his son was working nights at Abbott Laboratories, trying to juggle school and work. Later, he found new jobs, at a restaurant near his parents’ place and as a disability service provider.

Earlier this summer, Matala emailed Costigan to apologize for his time away and to say he was eager to return to soccer senior year.

“A lot of our kids have a lot of stuff going on. They have to balance work and academics,” Costigan said. “The fact that he emailed me to apologize that he couldn’t play last year, that’s amazing. That’s not something most kids do.”

Matala’s family said Monday evening that they are still planning the details of a service.

Matala was in Falmouth on Sunday afternoon, hanging out along the river near Walton Park. From what friends who were with him have told Despacho, Matala asked the group to get a video of him swimming in the river. They watched and filmed as he swam against the current.

The others were considering jumping in when they lost sight of Matala, according to what Despacho was told. When he didn’t resurface, they called the police, who shut down the Allen Avenue Extension connecting Portland to Falmouth to conduct a search using patrol boats and a helicopter.

Multiple law enforcement agencies participated in the search. The Maine Marine Patrol found Matala’s body around 9 p.m. The patrol is not responsible for determining a cause of death, but a spokesperson from the agency said Monday that the river’s currents can pose a risk to swimmers.

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