HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Hispanic enrollment at postsecondary institutions has seen exponential increases in the past several decades, but there are still countless barriers.
“It’s exciting to see that more Latinos are applying to college. I think that shows a lot of promise for the future,” Cynthia Martinez, a West Michigan native and filmmaker, said.
However, as a first-generation college student, Martinez knows the challenges that come with pursuing higher education.
“I’m the granddaughter of Mexican migrant farmworkers, and I am the daughter of two teenage parents who had a rough start, but I watched my upbringing and my parents struggle through a life of generational poverty,” Martinez recalled. “Being in situations where I saw my parents have a hard time, I didn’t want that for myself. I didn’t want that for my children.”
Martinez graduated from West Ottawa High School, went on to complete her undergraduate studies at Western Michigan University, and then graduated from Columbia University’s School of Journalism with a master’s in 2012. Getting there wasn’t easy though.
“Our parents didn’t know how to navigate the systems that are created to be successful in higher education. There was also in them telling me about their educational challenges, also growing up in this community where sometimes you don’t feel like you belong,” Martinez explained.
“The TRIO Upward Bound program was a lifesaving program for me in high school. I didn’t know how to navigate how to get into college, and I actually enrolled myself into that program knowing it was a program that could help students like me whose parents didn’t go to college,” she said.
Martinez never expected to become a filmmaker but realized the barriers standing between Latinos and college needed to be brought to light. In 2022, she finished her first film “First Voice Generation” with the goal of screening it at colleges and universities all over the nation.
“First Voice Generation is a film about three Latino students in Holland, Michigan, struggling with identity and belonging because they are the children of Mexican immigrants. They dream of being the first in their family to go to college, but the global pandemic comes in and exacerbates the challenges that they already have of being first-gen college students,” she said.
In speaking with the students, Martinez found herself hearing about the same struggles she experienced during her educational career, including the cost.
“Making college more accessible and affordable and I think that work can be done at the national level meaning legislation can be put into place to help first-gen students,” Martinez said. “I also feel that it starts with the institutions, with colleges, with universities, recognizing those challenges and how they can work with getting students into the colleges and then keeping them.”
Martinez’s greatest mission now is to get the word out about her film and to talk about the issues and the topics in it. First Voice Generation premiered at Central Michigan University in February and will be screened at five other locations throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.
“For a long of the young people in this community to see the film playing during a month when we’re celebrating our heritage, and our accomplishment and our contribution to this community, to this nation, is a proud moment for the Latino community.”