Unexpected Connections: How the Spanish language created a lifelong bond between teammates


Central Michigan middle blocker Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez celebrates after scoring against Eastern Michigan Nov. 7 at McGuirk Arena. 

Language barriers and cultural differences made transferring to Central Michigan University a scary proposition, but Lisbeth Rosario-Martinez has found a home away from home through volleyball.

Born and raised in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Rosario-Martinez grew up playing volleyball. Her career started with the Dominican Republic U18 National team, playing from 2013-2017 and earning First Middle Blocker honors at the 2015 U18 Girls Pan Am Cup.

The success in her home nation opened doors to play in the United States. Rosario-Martinez continued her volleyball career at Arizona Western College in Yuma, Arizona.

Although switching to primarily speaking English was difficult for Rosario-Martinez at first, the diverse community of Yuma made the transition smoother.

“In Yuma, I have a lot of friends from Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, so it wasn’t as hard as it was coming here,” Rosario-Martinez said. “I’m glad I went to Yuma first.”

After being named to the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I All-Region team, it was time for Rosario-Martinez to figure out her next move.

Rosario-Martinez knew from the moment she stepped on CMU's campus that it was the next step. However, the people close to her, including her coach at AWC, weren’t so sure.

“When I came for my official (visit), everyone in Yuma and back home were like, ‘are you sure you want to go there, it’s super cold, it’s super different,’” Rosario-Martinez said. “This was my first official visit and I just knew I’m coming here.”

Farther from home than ever before, Rosario-Martinez longed for someone to speak Spanish with. An unexpected connection to her culture arose in the form of Anna Erickson.

After three months on campus, Rosario-Martinez heard the familiar sounds of her native language coming from somewhere behind her.

“I just didn’t know what to say, I was just like, 'wait who is speaking Spanish', and I saw it was (Erickson), she ran to me,” Rosario-Martinez said. “I was like, ‘really you’re just telling me now.’”

From that moment on, a bond was formed.

"I think they're both such wonderful people," said head coach Mike Gawlik. "I know that (Erickson) has kind of opened up her doors to invite (Rosario-Martinez) to Minnesota and it's not just (Erickson), it's (her) whole family."

While this was great for Rosario-Martinezes' morale, it also helped Erickson stay connected to her upbringing.

“My preschool was all Spanish, (so was) the daycare I went to when I was younger,” Erickson said. “The people that took care of me when my parents went to work were Spanish speakers from Spanish-speaking countries, so since I was one, I was speaking it at home.”

Growing up in Hopkins, Minn. allowed Erickson to attend a Spanish immersion elementary school where she thrived.

"We felt very strongly that being bilingual would be important in the world today,” said Allison Erickson, Anna's mother. “When Anna’s youngest sister was born, we decided to start doing the au pair program and decided Spanish was the language we wanted our kids to learn. (For) over five years, we had a Spanish-speaking au pair living with us, and we always welcomed them into our family.”

However, such deep immersion in Spanish provided unexpected challenges for Anna once she reached middle school.

“It was actually hard going to middle school because that’s when I started getting to English classes," Anna said. "My English grammar was terrible. There are no apostrophes in Spanish.”

Although there were challenges for Anna, her ability to speak Spanish has allowed her many unforgettable opportunities.

“I went to Belize, and I got to teach second graders English,” Anna said. “They just loved that I could also speak Spanish, so I could translate for them when it was hard to understand what some of the other English teachers were saying.”

Anna and Rosario-Martinez live with teammate Maddie Whitfield and regularly speak to each other in Spanish.

“It’s just great, because you feel more comfortable talking in your language,” Rosario-Martinez said. “Sometimes, I just don’t want to speak English at all, I just need someone to talk to but in Spanish, and I got Anna. 

“Thank God. She’s the only person I know here right now that can speak Spanish.”