'She wanted to touch the stars and walk on the moon'

Empowering First Generation Latinx Voices in Cynthia Martinez documentary


Frida Ferrusquia (left) and Niko Araujo-Pedroza (right) perform ballet folklorico during the CMU Pep Rally/Kickin' it With the VPSA Friday, Sept. 8 outside Kulhavi Events Center Plaza. They are both part of Ballet Folklorico de la Luz, an RSO at CMU dedicated to teaching the traditional Spanish dance form.

To kickoff the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, an event run by Central Bridge and the Multicultural Academic Student Services (MASS) invited keynote speaker Cynthia Martinez to discuss her experiences as a first generation college student.  

On Sept. 15, the Bovee University Center, Auditorium 302 was filled with students who came to listen to Martinez’s story on being a first generation college student and her path for her new documentary “First Voice Generation." 

 “CMU has been recognized as the first gen serving Institute … we wanted to start off with something that's important and impactful and aligns with first gen students,” Alejandro Gadilla, the assistant director of Latinx/Hispanic American Student Engagement, said.  

Martinez is a Western Michigan University and a Columbia University graduate. She was a reporter with Univision in Miami, Florida and had used the skills she had learned and connections she made to become a filmmaker for her documentary.   

“My purpose is bigger than my fear,” Martinez said. “My mission is bringing awareness to first gen students … and sharing my experiences and giving them a voice and a platform.”

Personal story of a first generation student

Martinez is the granddaughter of Mexican migrant farmworkers. Her parents had her when they were in high school. Growing up, she wasn’t able to take part in activities like summer camp, but had other responsibilities such as working on the farm. 

Her childhood served as an inspiration for the First Voice Generation biographical documentary. 

“It's a story about my personal story and struggle to rise above the cycle of generational poverty and be the first in my family to go to college," she said.    

Martinez defines first generation students as students who are the first of their family to go to college and receive a college degree.  

“You may not look like you fit the puzzle or the piece … or maybe you come from a different socioeconomic background,” she said.  

Martinez expressed the different challenges that came with being a first generation college student.  For example, when moving into her dorm at WMU, she could only bring in what she needed the most, which included blankets, pillows, clothes and snacks, but not the dorm decorations. 

Martinez also wasn’t able to afford the meal plan.  

“I remember one of my friends I met had extra meal plans and sometimes she shared with me,” she said.  “There are a lot of times where you may not feel like you belong.” 

Breaking cycles of generational poverty

Income inequality was one of the inspirations for Martinez’s documentary.  

“Latino workers are the lowest paying wage of any other racial group … with a 32% difference compared to their white counterparts,” Martinez said. “I’m hoping with my film to bring awareness to that and help change those statistics.”  

Martinez said the generational poverty affected her directly. Her father had battled with alcohol and drug abuse while her mother was often late for everything.  

“I was always the last one to get picked up from school,” Martinez said. “That was really tough because … I felt neglected. I felt like … sometimes that my parents didn't even want me.”  

Martinez said that she had valued conversations with her peers’ family and friends. When her friends asked about her and what she wanted in the future, she felt a sense of being wanted and cared for. Those conversations sparked her thinking of higher education.  

As a little girl, Martinez was always smiling, despite the family troubles she was faced with, she said. 

With her family's financial hardship, her mother did the best she could with helping her children experience life whether that be sports or activities. Those pastimes wouldn’t last long though.  

She knew as a young girl that she wanted to figure out a way where she and her children could do the things they wanted to do without limits.  

“And with that, little Cynthia wanted to touch the stars and walk on the moon because I wanted to be an astronaut,” Martinez said.  

Lessons for First Gen Latinx students

From her experience, Martinez shared the three lessons she has learned and hoped to pass onto her listeners.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Martinez said. “There's so many people that want to help you, there are no stupid questions.”

Martinez talked about the importance of getting to know the people that are teaching you. She also extended the meaning of help to mental health and her struggle with that.  

“I needed therapy,” Martinez said. “It's okay to not be okay.”  

The second lesson Martinez shared is to find a passion or mission. She was able to set up a scholarship opportunity for students like her, who went through the same experience of being a first generation college student.  As her mission, she builds awareness for students like her.  

The final lesson Martinez shared was to build relationships and invest in networking. Creating connections can be very vital. Reach out to those that can and want to help you, she said.  

“Your purpose is indeed bigger than your fears,” Martinez said, and through repeating this phrase, she increased the importance of it and how crucial it is to understand the message she sent out to those who came to listen to her story.  

Martinez closed the speech by asking the audience, “What’s the impact that you want to leave?” The answer for which she was able to find through her experiences as a first generation college student.

Impact of the event

Julian Hurtado, a student at Central Michigan University, shared that as a first generation student, it was inspiring to hear Martinez’s story.

“It was very inspiring to see how she really went through her life … even when a lot of people opposed what she wanted to do,” Hurtado said.  

Hurtado said his biggest takeaway from Martinez’s speech was to never give up and to not be afraid to ask others for help.  

Freshman Andre Mirijanian wanted to go seek new things and events going on around CMU’s campus. Mirijanian is a first generation Armenian American.  

“I got to learn more about a whole new culture that's kinda new to me,”Mirijanian said. “I’m not Spanish myself … so for me, this is a new thing to see and it was very interesting.” 

Yet, Mirijanian said Martinez’s speech was relatable.  

“I was born and raised in a predominantly white community so I always felt like an outlier … but as I grew, I tried to like my culture … and maybe bring it out to other people the same way she did today with her heritage,” Mirijanian said.  

Valentina Memije is the president of Central Bridge, an organization whose focus is first generation college students, who worked with the MASS office in gaining connections to Cynthia Martinez.  

“Seeking representation and to know that you're not going through it alone … seeing that other people before you have gone through similar experiences is a huge part, especially for me as a first gen student,” Memije said.     

It is important to know that there are things for you, opportunities and people willing to help, Martinez said.    

“I think it's a really important thing to just know that there's going to be a lot of things that you don’t know or you're not aware about but if you ask for help," Martinez said. "There is more opportunity and exposure to new things … and being comfortable in a setting of being at a college institution you're going to be able to utilize all the resources available to you by asking."