After her parents separated, Caroline Martinez ’16 left Ecuador for the United States with her siblings and her American mother. She was 16. Now, as her graduation from Bowdoin draws closer, Martinez is eager to return to her home country. Although she has appreciated her college education, she said she has often felt too distant from the cause she’s committed to.
Since she was a teenager in Ecuador, Martinez has been fighting for the rights and welfare of the country’s 14 indigenous nationalities, which include the Kichwa, Waorani and Cofan people. These groups are in danger of losing rights over their land, natural resources, water, schools and medicine. Since coming to Bowdoin, Martinez has seized several opportunities to continue being involved, including using college grants to do sociological research in indigenous communities.
As a child, Martinez’s Ecuadorian father would tell her not to forget that while some of her blood is European, some also comes from indigenous people. “Mestizo people are indigenous people, too,” he would tell her. Mestizos refer to people of mixed heritage, and in Latin America, they often enjoy greater privileges than indigenous people.
Martinez’s dedication to working on behalf of indigenous people, particularly women, received a boost recently when she won a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace foundation. The organization supports undergraduates who want to implement projects around the world that contribute to conflict resolution and peace building in some way.
Martinez will use her funding to organize a series of free leadership trainings in the highland communities of Ecuador. With Ecuadorian partners, Martinez will provide training for women of all ages, from teenagers and up, skills such as public speaking and how to draft project proposals and implement them. The workshops are designed to encourage women to organize to promote the welfare of their communities. “The workshops will give women a chance to speak with each other about what they face and what they want,” Martinez said.
This summer, Martinez will travel to 14 highland provinces to help offer the training. She anticipates that about 200 women will attend. At the end of the summer, she’ll invite all the participants to a great assembly. “The idea is to form a core of indigenous female leaders and this core will be able to teach other, organize and be an advocacy force for women,” she said.
Martinez is going into her project well-versed in the needs of indigenous women. Last summer, with funding from Bowdoin’s Grua/O’Connell and Surdna Foundation research fellowships, and support from a Mellon Mays fellowship, she conducted sociological research in Ecuador. She interviewed 10 indigenous women leaders, aged 40 to 66, about their life stories, and listened to them talk about what has helped them achieve their position of prominence and what has held them back. “My goal was to understand how these women were able to become leaders in their community and be in a position where they could create change for both women and indigenous people,” she said. This year, she wrote a thesis paper for an independent study, outlining the services or opportunities that would help more indigenous women gain influence and also describing what is holding them back.
One of the requests she heard over and over from the women she spoke with was for more leadership training.
After being gone for five years, Martinez said returning to Ecuador was joyful for her. “I felt very happy to be there again. But doing research didn’t feel like enough. I’m not going to just write a paper and that’s it,” she said. She asked herself, “What can I do now that I am outside this situation to contribute to women and indigenous people’s struggles?”
After she completes her summer of leadership trainings, Martinez said she will start thinking about attending a graduate program in sociology in her country. She said there’s no question about her leaving Ecuador again. “It is where everything I care about is,” she said.