When she was 16, Caroline Martinez left the life she had known since she was a baby. With her mother and two brothers, Martinez stole across the border of Ecuador into Colombia to escape her abusive father.
“I had to leave Ecuador because my father is a very dangerous person and there is not a lot of protection for women in Ecuador in these situations,” Martinez said. “My mother was in a very difficult situation, trying to get separated, trying to get restraining orders,” but the police would not help them.
The family was able to come to the United States and to safety because Martinez’s mother is a U.S. citizen, originally from Missouri. Martinez and her two brothers also have U.S. citizenship. One brother is now attending Brandeis University in Massachusetts and interested in physics and international relations; the other is a high school senior involved in music. While her family’s story is different from other immigrants who don’t find an easy path toward legal residency in this country, Martinez says she nonetheless feels an affinity for others from her region of the world.
“I go to Bowdoin because we are lucky,” Martinez said. Had her mother not been born in the United States, “it wouldn’t have mattered how successful I was in the U.S.A. because without papers I wouldn’t be able to go to college in the U.S.A., or I’d be in a state of limbo like the dreamers are now,” she said, referring to non-citizens.
This summer, Martinez is working for a nonprofit in St. Louis that advocates for Latin Americans, both in and outside the United States. She has a grant from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund, through Bowdoin Career Planning, to work at The St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America in what would have been an uncompensated internship position.
Martinez says some of her desire to get involved with the organization stemmed from personal reasons. “I moved to Missouri my junior year of high school, then spent a year in Maine,” she explained. “I felt disconnected from Latin America and from a lot of the issues that Latinos were facing in the United States,” such as racial profiling or sweatshop conditions in South and Central America.
Part of Martinez’s job as a summer intern is to do presentations at churches, schools and community spaces about the challenges of life here for immigrants. At these events, Martinez often tells her family’s story, and then asks people in the audience to share their stories. She recalls one particular experience she had listening to the lives of high school students. “The most moving stories were the ones that the juniors told me,” she said. “They are in this limbo; they don’t know if they will get a visa; they might get deported; they might not be able to get an education.”
The process of citizenship can take years, she continued, years of living with uncertainty. “If I were in that situation and had to go back to Ecuador right now, it would be crazy; I’d not be able to go to Bowdoin,” she said.