Thursday, May 12, 2011
On a morning so cold she couldn’t feel her hands, Sofia Martinez picked peas until her thumbnails fell off. But it wasn’t until she ran her overflowing pail of peas to the foreman that she noticed the blood. She paused to clean and bandage her hands, and picked up an empty bucket to resume harvesting.
What bothered Martinez wasn’t that she lost her nails or the throbbing pain, but that the foreman dumped the load because blood had dripped, contaminating the batch. Though she was still paid for those bloodied pounds of peas, watching them get trashed distressed her sense of accomplishment.
“I just take life very competitively,” Martinez says.
Martinez, 17, has harvested vegetables every summer since she moved to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, seven years ago. This year, after she graduates from Greenfield High School, she hopes to take summer classes before going on to Hartnell College, though her parents insist she also needs to work in the fields, where she says she routinely earns even more than her dad precisely because she turns harvesting into a competition.
It’s that same competitive spirit that earned Martinez recognition from the region’s Migrant Education Program, where migrant parents from five schools selected her as the honors student this year based on academic achievement and life experience.
She seems to thrive on challenges: Martinez is now finishing up an advanced placement class in English, her third language. Her native language is Triqui, spoken by the small indigenous Mexican Triqui population with a growing presence in the Salinas Valley.
Martinez, who aspires to be a pediatrician (and run a clinic in Oaxaca) or an anthropologist to study her own culture from an academic perspective, is as decisive in her ambition as she has been in her departure from cultural norms.
“It is my goal to prove my culture wrong,” Martinez said in a speech at the migrant program’s annual regional debate in March. “Women can be as successful as men.”
To “prove girls are just as capable,” Martinez joined the high school wrestling team this winter. She lost 22 pounds by the end of the season, one day dropping five pounds after running in heavy clothes around the track starting at 5am. She became so conditioned to competing against boys in her 103-pound weight class that when she would occasionally face a girl from another school, “It felt like nothing,” Martinez says.
Martinez stands out to Robin Cohen, a migrant program specialist in the region for 16 years. “She’s my first student of indigenous background,” Cohen says, “who has that kind of consciousness and passion to challenge her own culture.”
What further differentiates Martinez, Cohen adds, is that “at the same time, she’s not a rejectionist.”
Martinez knows her plans to pursue academics are nontraditional, and says her family would prefer she get married and start a family. But she is determined to transfer from Hartnell to a bigger school in another city.
The second of seven children, Martinez grew up sharing tortillas with her siblings and sometimes eating boiled wild plants when food was scarce. She didn’t speak Spanish or English until her family moved first to Yuma, Ariz., then to Greenfield, migrating for a few years then settling down here as she was starting high school.
Such permanence has become a growing trend in recent years, with about 15,000 migrant students in the migrant education program today compared to 28,000 students in 2003. Cohen says it’s partly because of the success of the 100-plus migrant education program staffers encouraging families to establish stability in their children’s lives, which boosts academic achievement.
Martinez misses a close friend in Yuma, who she competed with in school. Here, she says, “Sometimes, I feel like I’m alone in this world.”
Now, Martinez’s drive for excellence is pushing her to run faster for Greenfield’s track team. Her best mile is 6:03; she is determined to break six minutes. “If I don’t break six tomorrow, I feel like I’m never going to be successful,” she says after a practice in April.
She misses the six-minute mark that day, but that only further encourages her to wake up early for extra practice.
“Everything’s a competition in this life,” she says. “If you want to be the best, you have to feel the pain.”
The Migrant Education Program welcomes eligible applicants or referrals for summer school, including a residential college program. 755-6401 or http://tinyurl.com/3gtof8r