A shy boy with brown skin and coal black eyes gazed into the distance to a group of people dressed in white who were serving in their community in southern Georgia to some workers in the tomato fields. Among them were his parents.
It was the late 1990s, the twentieth century was sinking, and Erick Martínez observed with attention the gleaming auscultation instruments on the white coats with which doctors examined children, women and men. At that moment, the little boy knew that he wanted to be like them, that he wanted to learn how to heal people.
Martínez does not remember in particular any of the health professionals from Atlanta’s Emory University, who periodically appeared in his community in that southern corner of the state, located in Decatur County, to give free medical consultations to families. He also has no memory of having approached to talk with any of them to find out more about their work.
“He was very shy,” recalls the young man on the phone to Univision Noticias from California. He recently graduated as a physician from Augusta University and previously as a neurobiologist from none other than Harvard University. In good Spanish he says that at that time, “what did not come out of my mouth entered my eyes.”
Childhood in the tomato fields
In the mid-eighties, Maricela and Loreto, then 20 years old, decided to leave Monte de Dios, a ranch near Tejupilco de Hidalgo, in central Mexico, in search of a better life in the north.
They were both born into poverty and they had dropped out of school at an early age, she during the third grade and he during the first grade, to support his family.
Erick Martínez says that his parents came to the border to cross the Rio Grande into the United States with nothing more than the desire to work.
At first, they both worked growing produce in North Carolina. Then they moved to South Florida where they worked picking oranges and later settled in an isolated farm worker camp surrounded by tomato fields in Decatur County, Georgia.
Maricela and Loreto’s first two children, including Raúl and Erick, They lived in a house that they shared with other working families. Martínez says that he does not remember those days of his first three years of life.
What he does have memory of is the small house that, although it did not have air conditioning and was suffocating in the hottest months, his “daddies”, as he affectionately calls them, were able to live without sharing it with any other family. It was there that the rest of his four siblings were born.
Martínez assures that, in addition to being surrounded by families of farm workers, his childhood passed between blacks and some whites.
In his community, he says, Hispanics barely reached 3% or 4% and they changed every season depending on the need for labor.
In that corner of Georgia, Martinez says he didn’t have many distractions during his childhood. “That helped me focus on my school. I had a lot of freedom, but there wasn’t much to do ”.
The young man clarifies that he cannot be considered a farm worker because it never was. He says that his father took him on some occasion, during the holidays, to work with him along with his brothers, but he did it like anyone who wants to show his children how difficult it is to earn a living.
“He never asked us to help him with the household income.”, he assures. “He always wanted us to focus on school.”
Erick attended a primary school in Attapulgus, a small town of fewer than 500 people, for which he had to take a truck every day and travel 15 miles roundtrip.
It was there that Martínez looked at another reality, that of poverty. “That school was very poor. At least 95% were African American, the rest were Hispanic like me, and less than 1% Caucasian. That was normal for me, but quite interesting. I knew the needs of the black population from a very young age, ”he says.
It was from the first grade when Martínez showed a superior performance than his classmates. In second grade, a teacher took the initiative to take a test to find out his academic level, which showed that he was a “gifted” student.
This is how he was included in a county program where each week a group of students met to take classes with other outstanding students. “This program showed me a world apart that I knew until then.”
Martínez and his family moved to Bainbridge, a slightly larger town that currently has about 13,000 residents, in 2003 because the field that produced tomatoes was sold by its owners.
There he continued his high school and middle school studies with flying colors and attending academic vacation programs at prestigious institutions such as Duke University. Martínez also excelled in sports, such as hiking.
In 2010 he graduated from Bainbridge High School as the first Hispanic “valedictorian” , that is, the top student in his class for that year.
His condition as a Hispanic and the son of migrants settled in Georgia with academic aspirations helped Martinez could apply to different high-level academic institutions such as the West Point Military Academy, located in New York, and the prestigious Harvard University. To his surprise and that of his family, was admitted to both institutions.
Martínez says that he opted for military education because he felt committed to return something “in the most honest way” of what the country had given him and his family.
One of his best friends in high school alerted him to the mistake he made by putting his dreams aside to go on duty. Still, the boy enrolled as a cadet in the military institution.
Martínez joined the military program in June 2010 at the New York facility. However, during the training period to enter the institution, he learned of the death of your friend in a car accident. That was a blow that made him back up and look again where he wanted to go and decided, in March 2011, to leave West Point.
“I left school. They were very difficult months, the worst of my life, ”he says about the period he was without attending classes.
Erick Martínez wrote to Harvard to find out if he could redo the admission procedure, to which the institution responded in the affirmative. In May, to his surprise, he was accepted for the second time at the university.
In the fall of 2011 he entered a neurobiology degree from which he graduated with very good grades in 2015 and belonged to the Latino community of the prestigious university.
But Martínez’s academic aspirations did not stop there, on the contrary, they seem infinite. Soon after graduating from Harvard, he enrolled at Augusta University where he concluded his medical degree last May.
And even more, its presence in California, in Los Angeles, is no coincidence. Martinez is now a new neurology major at the University of California (UCLA).
He says he is grateful to Maricela and Loreto, his parents, for having given him and his siblings the best education and being their inspiration in his life.