Puente leader sheds his ‘comfort zone’

Preconceived notions of isolated lifestyle fractured by progress


Cody Perez / The Advocate

cody casares / The Advocate Economics major Oscar Martinez’s undocumented status inspires him to surpass the limitations of being a first generation student to educate himself and his community.

By Roxana Amparo, Editor-in-Chief

Taking the initiative to break down perceptions carried with being undocumented has motivated him to give back to the community in which he grew up.

Contra Costa College economics major Oscar Martinez is a first-generation student, mentor, coach and friend.

“Seeing a lot of students engaging and having a passion for what they are learning gave me motivation to step out of my comfort zone,” Martinez said.

With the many student leaders and club presidents that come from different backgrounds here at CCC, Martinez said he likes to do things that contribute to the community.

English professor Elvia Ornelas-Garcia said Martinez excelled in the Puente Project classes (English 14A and English 142B) back in 2015.

“He is already fulfilling the Puente Project mission,” she said.

The goal of the project is to produce students who will return to their communities and give back.

“He is a great example to other students who face challenges of being first generation and AB540 (qualified undocumented student paying in-state tuition) students,” Ornelas-Garcia said. “Especially in these political times.”

Martinez immigrated to the United States from Chimalhuán, Mexico in 2002 when he was 5 years old.

“I used my cousin’s birth certificate. We were both around the same age,” Martinez said.

He said he remembers seeing pictures of cracked walls and floors while living in Mexico.

“We were very poor,” he said. “My mom’s family, her brothers and two sisters, lived in one small house. There were more than 20 people living there,” he said.

“I remember wearing worn-out clothes. They told me we were always eating beans and tortillas.”

After arriving in Richmond in 2002, Martinez lived with his grandmother Trinidad, who took care of him while his mom was still in Mexico.

Since he was a child it was instilled in him to not share his undocumented status with anyone.

“My grandmother would always tell me ‘don’t say where you are from. Just say you are from Richmond, born in Richmond,’” Martinez said. “I have always been told to be careful and to hide my status.”

From an early age, Martinez said he understood that being undocumented meant he was “not allowed to be here, legally.”

“My grandmother instilled within me that fear of being undocumented. Even though it was for my own protection,” he said. “ I was always scared to do anything.”

The fear of being deported created barriers for Martinez.

But back in June 2012, when President Obama’s executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was enacted, qualifying undocumented students were protected from deportation and granted a renewable 2-year work permit.

Martinez was attending Richmond High School at the time of DACA.

“DACA gave me hope. It gave me the motivation to go to college,” he said.

Throughout his life, Martinez heard family members and others talk about how undocumented students are not “equipped” to go to college because they cannot receive financial aid.

“It’s a cliche, but DACA actually saved my life,” he said.

Seeing other DACA beneficiaries made Martinez realize he too could share his story and inspire people.

Psychology major Enrique Duarte said he began to see changes in Martinez around the time of President Donald Trump’s election.

“I saw him really come out of his shell,” he said. “He is a DACA student and this really affected him emotionally.”

Duarte and Martinez met in the Puente Club, a branch from the Puente Project, with student leaders who promote education through university trips and family-like support systems.

Martinez is treasurer of the Puente Club and said he enjoys managing money raised through fundraising events.

La Raza studies professor Agustin Palacios said Martinez is aware of what is going on and how the government affects him and community, he said.

Palacios is Martinez’s mentor who was assigned to him back in 2015 when he was part of the Puente Project.

“He keeps me grounded. I know that my work, or my job as a teacher or mentor, is part of a larger struggle,” Palacios said. “It reminds me of the bigger picture.”

Invested in his studies and taking 12 units, Martinez is also a writing tutor at his alma mater Lavonya DeJean Middle School as part of the WriterCoach Connection.

The goal of the WCC is to raise writing proficiency, develop critical thinking and build academic confidence.

When he started back in November, he was able to form connections with students on a deeper level.

“I really enjoy working there because I worked with ELD students,” Martinez said.

“I talk to them about their status and how I am undocumented too. I motivate them and tell them they can get better at schoolwork. They just have to try really hard.”

WriterCoach Connection site coordinator at Lovonya Dejean Middle School Riti Dhesi said the WCC is “very lucky” to have him as a coach.

“He is very sensitive to students in the way he works,” she said.

Interim Site Coordinator at King Middle School in Berkeley June Pangelinan said Martinez realizes students need to see people who look like them in their school.”

“(Students) know that a young man, such as Oscar, would have a better sense of what their lives must be like, navigating the challenges of being a middle school student and a young person in Richmond,” Pangelinan said.

Martinez said everything he does is for his parents.

“Knowing that their whole life was work and hard labor, I wanted to be that role model from them so they can see their accomplishments through me,” he said.

Martinez said the most damaging thing for an undocumented person is to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid, — nor apologetic. You are put through circumstances in life that you cannot control,” he said.