Journey to me

Autumn 2017

by Julia Martinez, associate professor of psychology

I am a female. I am Hispanic. And I’m different among those groups with which I identify. I’m an only child, and I don’t have any children. I come from a tiny family, and among Hispanic people, big families are the thing. My family really focused ​on English being my first language, and in terms of religion, I am a Christian, but I am not a Catholic. Over time, I’ve come to feel much more comfortable with being different. In fact, I revel in it.

My first lesson in being different came when I was in middle school. I lived in Denver, Colo., and I went to a big public school where there was gang activity. There was a girl with a name very similar to mine — Carmen Martinez — and she and I would sit in a lot of classes together. She was a member of a gang and dressed in the gang outfit of the time: a plaid flannel shirt, long hair, big hoop earrings, heavy makeup. I was more of a nerd, with thick glasses and dorky shirts, and I wanted to go to college.

One day, on the P.A., I heard, “Would Julia Martinez please come to the principal’s office?” I freaked out. “What did I do?” I went to the office, and in this big school, the principal had never seen me before. But he took one look at me and said, “Not you. Go back to class.” I realized it was Carmen Martinez who had gotten into trouble. She got into trouble a lot for various things.

That got me thinking. We had similar names and similar cultural backgrounds, yet we were so different. Is it good or bad that somebody could take a look at me and think about who I am and see me being different or similar? How do I fit in versus how am I different?

Illustration of the elements constituting Martinez's identity

Illustration by Clare Owen.

I kept rolling on. My folks wanted an adventure, so at the end of middle school, we moved to West Plains, Mo. — right on the Arkansas border in the Ozarks. I was 14 years old, in my first year of high school, and again I had an experience with the P.A. system. This time, the principal said, “Attention y’all. Hunting season’s coming along, and I want to remind you not to bring your guns to school.” I had culture shock. I was in a place where everybody had a gun and everybody was going to be hunting.

I’m still in touch with one of the friends I made in West Plains. His name is Eric, and he grew up on a pig farm. Eric taught me how to shoot and helped me get to know the agricultural community. Now, I’ve shot about every gun there is: semi-automatic handguns, rifles, black powder — you name it. I really got to enjoy shooting, because I was getting to know the people.

Time went on, and I applied to colleges. I was accepted at Dartmouth College. I went all the way to the East Coast, and again, I felt very different. I remember sitting in a psychology class, in a lecture hall, and the professor said, “So we need to know animals and how to train them. Does anybody know how a chicken eats?”

Silence. And in front of 200 people, I said, “They scratch.” And he said, “Yes, you are right.” They actually take their little feet and they scratch the ground to look for bugs, and I knew this because I was part of this rural Ozark community.

I thought, “I feel strong in my difference. I feel like I’m a valid member of this community.” There’s so much imposter syndrome in college, and it was weird to feel that I was bringing something to the table by being different. That was the first time I felt that way, and not because I’m Hispanic, but because I’m a rural Ozarks person.

I got my PhD at the University of Missouri, and that was the first place where I started thinking that I could bring my culture into my career and be a strategic voice. This is because I met two people. They both are Hispanic, but different from me.

The first one is Kiero, from the Dominican Republic. He made me recognize that we all have expectations and stereotypes, and it’s OK to feel that way as long as you’re prepared to have those expectations blown away. It’s OK to take a stance against them, too.

One day, we were sitting in a park, playing our guitars, and he said, “Promise me something.”


“Promise me that you and I, for our entire career, will show up early or on time to everything, because we never want it to be said that ‘you’re running on Latin time.’” It’s a stereotype. People think that, if you’re Latinx, you’re always late.

I thought that his idea was so cool. We’re recognizing this stereotype, and we’re taking our own kind of action, right or wrong, to stand up to it. I felt a little power in that.

Later, we went to a music store and looked at acoustic guitars. I play flamenco guitar — yes, very Hispanic. Kiero sat down with an acoustic guitar, and I was thinking, “He’s gonna bust out with some traditional Latin music.” He actually played “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica! My expectations were blown away. And I felt like, OK, I’m recognizing that. I’m putting those expectations to bed, taking a stance against them by acknowledging them.

The other person I met in graduate school was Miguel, and he’s still a collaborator of mine. If I’m actively bringing culture into my career, it’s because of Miguel. He’s from Spain, and when he studied here he didn’t speak English that well. My Spanish stinks. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about that. I felt like an imposter — like I’m identifying with this culture yet not fully in it.

Miguel and I talked about adicciones a las drogas, and I always spoke in Spanish and he always spoke in English. We recognized that it’s OK to feel a little uncomfortable — like maybe you’re not 100 percent part of this culture, and that’s OK. We’ve done some projects together, and we recently talked about doing a study on drinking and drug use in different cultures around the world. That ongoing relationship makes me feel so thankful.

I love the fact that one thing we all have in common is that we’re different. It’s such a great paradox. Everybody’s bringing different skills, traits, and characteristics to the table. It gets even more complicated when the thing that you consider to be different about yourself is cultural — where you come from, what you’re eating, if you come from a big family, and how you perceive other people around you who are different.

My passion for this topic is like a love affair: you accept its mysteries, you have a lot of questions about it, you take your time with it. Through this strange love affair, I’ve learned things from different people. From Carmen, I learned that there are many ways to be different. From Eric, I learned that, over time, you bring more cultures into yourself. You become more complex and multifaceted. From Kiero, I learned that everyone has stereotypes and expectations, and as long as we’re willing to let that be jarred, it’s good. And Miguel let me know that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable about your own culture. It’s a never-ending learning process. It’s very much a love, a passion.

Julia Martinez, associate professor of psychology, originally gave this talk during a gathering for students in Ciccone Commons.