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Education

From the tomato fields to Cambridge: the son of Mexican farm workers who graduated from Harvard and is now a doctor

In the mid-1980s, a couple from a remote ranch in Mexico migrated to the US where they found jobs as farm workers. Erick, the second of their four children, went on to study neurology at Harvard before recently becoming a doctor
15 Jun 2021 – 10:13 AM EDT
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"My medical school graduation was one small step for a man, one giant leap for fam-kind," Erick Martinez wrote on twitter. Crédito: Twitter: Erick Martínez Juárez, M.D.

A shy boy with brown skin and coal-black eyes stared into the distance at a group of people in white coats tending to some tomato field workers in his south Georgia community. Among them were her parents.

It was the late 1990s, and Erick Martinez stared at the gleaming medical instruments on the white coats as doctors checked children, women and men. At that moment, the little boy knew he wanted to be like them, that he wanted to learn how to heal people.

Martinez has no particular memory of any of the health professionals from Atlanta's Emory University who would periodically show up in his community to give free medical consultations to families. He also has no memory of ever talking to any of them to learn more about their work.

"I was very shy... what didn't come out of my mouth came in through my eyes", he recalls in a phone interview with Univision News, after recently graduating as a medical doctor from Augusta University in Georgia. He previously studied neurobiology at Harvard University, graduating in 2015.

Childhood in the tomato fields

In the mid-1980s, 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.

Both had been born into poverty and had dropped out of school at an early age, she during third grade and he during first grade, to support their family.

Erick Martinez recounts that his parents came to the border to cross the Rio Grande into the United States with nothing but the will to work.

At first, they both worked growing produce in North Carolina. Then they moved to South Florida where they picked oranges before settling in an isolated farmworker camp surrounded by tomato fields in Decatur County, Georgia.

The Martinez's lived with their first two children, including Raul and Erick, in a house they shared with other farm workers. Maricela Martinez remembers the small house that, with no air conditioning, and sweltering in the hottest months. It was there that the other two of Erick's siblings were born.

A gifted child

Erick Martinez says that, in addition to being surrounded by farmworker families, his childhood was spent among blacks and some whites. In his community, he says, Hispanics barely made up 3% or 4% in the area and shifted seasonally depending on the need for labor.

In that corner of Georgia, Martinez says he didn't have many distractions growing up. "That helped me focus on my school. I had a lot of freedom, but there wasn't much to do," he says.

The young man clarifies that he can't consider himself a farm worker because he never was one. He says his father once took him on vacation to work with him and his siblings, but he did it like anyone else who wants to show his children how hard it is to make a living.

Erick Martinez attended an elementary school in the village of Attapulgus, a small town of fewer than 500 people, for which he had to make a 15-mile round-trip commute.

"That school was very poor. At least 95% were African-American, the rest were Hispanic like me and less than 1% Caucasion. For me that was the normal, but quite interesting. I knew the needs of the black population from a very young age," he says.

In second grade, a teacher took the initiative to give him a test to find out his academic level, revealing he was a "gifted" student. That's how he was included in a county program where every week a group of students would meet to take classes with other gifted students. "That program showed me a world apart from what I knew until then," he says.

Graduating with honors

Martinez and his family moved in 2003 to Bainbridge, a slightly larger town with about 13,000 residents, because the tomato field where they worked was sold by its owners.

There he continued his secondary and high school studies with distinction and attended vacation academic programs at prestigious institutions such as Duke University. In 2010, he graduated from Bainbridge High School as the first Hispanic valedictorian of his class that year.

Being Hispanic and the son of migrants helped Martinez to apply to different high-level academic institutions such as the West Point Military Academy and Harvard University. To his and his family's surprise, he was admitted to both institutions.

Military cadet

Martinez says he opted for a military education because he felt committed to giving back "in the most honorable way" what the country had given him and his family. One of his best friends in high school tried to advise him not to put his own personal dreams aside for the sake of duty, but he still enlisted as a cadet in the military.

Martinez entered West Point in June 2010. However, during initial training he learned of the death of his friend in a car accident. It was a blow that made him readdress his priorities and he decided to leave West Point after his first year.

"I dropped out of school. They were very difficult months, the worst of my life," he says of the period he spent without attending classes.

H

arvard

Erick Martínez wrote to Harvard to find out if he could reapply. To his surprise, he was accepted a second time to the university, entering in the fall of 2011 to study neurobiology program. He graduated with honors in 2015.

But Martinez's academic aspirations did not stop there. Right after graduating from Harvard, he enrolled at Augusta University where he completed his medical degree in May.

Martinez is now continuing his studies in neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

He says he is eternally grateful to his parents Maricela and Loreto, for giving him and his siblings the best education and being his inspiration in life.

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