The day after he was sworn in as the State Department's new chief of protocol last fall, Abelardo Valdez escorted Mexico's President José Lépez Portillo to the White House. The irony was not lost on Valdez. As the son of Mexican-American migrant laborers, he had grown up working in poverty alongside his parents, two younger brothers and a sister. They picked cotton in their home state of Texas, harvested sugar beets in Montana, dug potatoes in the Dakotas. "It was a dreary life," Valdez recalls, "especially in cotton, where you're stooped over and the wind blows sand in your face all day. It aged my parents and I think it aged me. I always felt I lost part of my childhood."

Although Valdez' parents had only grade school educations themselves, they returned to their little hometown of Floresville, Texas as often as possible for the sake of their children's schooling. "To them, high school education was everything," says Valdez. "They used to say, 'It's the one thing no one can take away from you.' "

For a while Valdez struggled to keep up in school. He could not speak English fluently until third grade, and for two years was classified a slow learner. Then his parents decided to send him to a small, makeshift summer school "with orange crates for desks, set up in the back of a grocery store. You had to recite every day, and the teacher would paddle you if you weren't prepared."

By high school Lalo had become a hometown whiz, graduating with honors and earning enough money to help put himself through Texas A&M. After graduating in 1965 with a degree in civil engineering, he served two years in the Army, where the young lieutenant's polish and Latin good looks earned him an assignment as a social aide in the LBJ White House. The experience inspired him to become a lawyer. He earned his degree at Baylor and prepared to specialize in international law. After two years of private practice, he joined the State Department in 1977 as top man for Latin America at the Agency for International Development.

Recommended for the protocol post by Rosalynn Carter and friends at the White House, Valdez, 37, realizes he has left a substantial policymaking job for one that is perceived as largely ceremonial. In fact, says Valdez, social functions fill only a third of his 12-to-16-hour workday. Most of his routine consists of keeping in contact with 140 diplomatic missions in Washington ("That automatically means 140 national-day parties a year") and handling everything from a simple request for a driver's license to a complicated international lobbying project.

Married and divorced while in the Army, Valdez has taken as his partner in protocol his Colombian-born second wife, Margarita. She is an international banking assistant who agrees that her husband's social commitments make his job virtually a two-person assignment. They met at a 1976 New Year's Eve party, married 19 months later and now live in a brick Colonial in Northwest Washington. "When I asked Margarita to marry me," Valdez says with a grin, "I told her I want a woman who can pick cotton and dance at the White House with equal grace."

Valdez, of course, has demonstrated both abilities, to the apparent delight of his Texas hometown. Last December more than 1,000 people turned out there for a testimonial banquet on Abelardo Valdez Day. Says the honoree: "People want to believe in the American Dream. I think it's important that a migrant worker with a Mexican accent could make it come true."