Are you Latino? Do you enjoy learning new ideas? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to earn a doctorate and then become a professor in a university? Read the following interview with James Martinez, Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies, and find out what it is like to be a Latino in academia.
Please tell us about your childhood–where did you grow up?
The grandson of Mexican immigrants, I was born and raised in the United States, in South Dakota. My grandparents worked the railroad in Texas, and eventually my family moved to the Black Hills of SD.
If you lived in another country, was the transition to the US difficult?
I am proud to be from SD, but many would say it is another country for a Latino family of Mexican descent. The bi-cultural transition continues to be a challenge. Being Latino means many things at different times. In high school and college, I was often asked if I was from the United States. Despite being a second-generation, U.S.-born Mexicano, I was told that I spoke English very well and was often mocked with the typical tortilla, taco, and spic jokes. Deemed a “slow student” but a good athlete, I was a credit to my people. I was often told I was very lucky to inherit the talent to run fast and the aptitude to work hard for manual labor. The genes of my ethnic group are supposedly best suited for sports and that type of employment.
What do you remember being the biggest obstacle you overcame because of your Hispanic background?
Resembling the Asian and Native American experience, Latinos also faced issues often overlooked by the black-white concerns. When I was growing up, and still today, the everyday challenges of being Chicano / Latino are that I face similar racism and discrimination as other Mexicans or non-dominant people, and sometimes more. Because I am light-complected, sometimes I don’t fit in anywhere. Some Mexicans do not accept me because I look or “act White” and am not fluent in Spanish. Some Blacks do not accept me because I am not dark enough and am considered White. As the adage says, “If you ain’t Black, you are White.” I am often considered “one of the good ones” by both the majority and minority races.
Did you go to college? Was being a Hispanic an advantage or a disadvantage?
I received my BS and MA from the University of South Dakota and my Interdisciplinary Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Though I had been “Americanized” in youth, being a Chicano in college meant that my citizenship was still questioned: “When did your family come up to our country?” “Did you have to swim to get over here?” “What sport allowed you to get into college?” Wearing a “Mexican Pride” shirt, I was warned, “You are just asking for it” while my White friends were free to wear “I Love Irish.” I faced the same everyday challenges of prejudice and discrimination as other non-dominant people, and sometimes more.
What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
I have been a tenure-track, assistant professor of education at Valdosta State University for four years. I was a teacher and coach for almost two decades in rural, inner-city and urban profile public schools.
In what ways does your Hispanic background help or hurt you or change the way you do your job compared to your peers?
As a tenure-track Assistant Professor in Education, my demonstrated record of teaching, research, project management, editorial work, and published scholarship raises consciousness about and with Latin@s in academia. Being Chicano certainly helps with my differentiated teaching, research, and training. My research interests are critical pedagogy, critical race theory, differentiated multicultural education instruction, youth gang risk factors, education innovation, immigration reform, and racial/ethnic inequality.
Please describe the things you do on a typical day.
As a professor, my focus is teaching, scholarship and service. I teach a 4/4 course load each semester that also includes apprenticeship and supervision of student-teachers.
What did you learn the hard way in your career and how did that happen?
I learned late in life that everyone has enemies, people who don’t care about the person but will put themselves first, despite the opportunity to do what is honest and right. Seems relatively elementary, but not until my late thirties did I learn that just because I’m nice to someone does not mean she/he will be nice to me.
What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
Many well-meaning people and educators still believe and teach that our U.S. education system is the “great equalizer” of our society. This idea is false and needs to be countered with the reality that empirical evidence shows the opposite is true. Until structural changes are made, there is not a place for everyone at the table, particularly for disadvantaged students and children from less affluent backgrounds.
On a good day when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
Authentic teaching explores these problems noted above and wrestles with the difficult answers to complex questions about youth, identity, and schooling. Most important, it feels good to see teachers start their lives of fulfillment and usefulness to the youth, county schools, local institutions, and social agencies.
When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
Dismantling deficit views (“blaming the victim”) is challenging and can be overwhelming. I caution others against those forms of power that promote oppression that inevitably claim its participants. In so doing, I continue to stave off the naming and silencing of the U.S. regimes of truth by empathizing with those whose cultures are different from my own to bring competence / equity and to reconcile differences in global perspectives.
How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
A tenure-track professorship is very stressful, yet very fulfilling. Like most things, the most difficult part is getting started (e.g., starting a new career in higher education from public education). My wife has a truer perspective on my growth in my healthy work-life balance yet I continue to improve.
What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
Depending on the state you live, the number of years in your previous career and how a person wants to use her/his degrees, all who leave public education for higher education may see a substantial salary change. Unfortunately for me, I took a big salary cut to start my new career, however, the schedule and travel of a professor are more rewarding to me than my previous 7:30am – 5:30pm public school schedule. It’s all about the impact for students and achievement.
What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in your current position? Did you feel pride of being Hispanic?
Always proud of being Mexicano / Chicano / Latino, my most rewarding moments so far have been my [family and I] thriving in teaching, scholarship (publications) and service for my students, university, and community.
What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
My most challenging moments continue to be the micro-aggressions toward me as a Chicano professor, that despite my proven skill set and education, somehow I am still less and must prove myself to belong. I don’t need to forget but must continue to learn from and with others to re-educate and dismantle deficit views.
What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
A doctorate in education from a regionally accredited college or university of recognized standing is needed to be an assistant professor. In short, assistant professors conduct assigned undergraduate and graduate courses and seminars, serve as an academic advisor to students; serve on department, college and university committees; engage in scholarly activities like publication, and/or creative endeavors that contribute to the academic mission of the University. A tenure-track assistant professor also participates in curriculum development activities; serves on graduate committees; supervises student teachers, independent study activities, and off-campus learning such as practicums and internships; and renders service to the profession and community relevant to the individual’s academic specialty.
What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I continue to share with family and friends who desire to be a professor in higher education to consider the differences between a professional schedule and other professions. Consider if you can work independently from the office, as sometimes 65% of scholarship and service will be completed on your own time.
Have you gone back, or considered going to your native country, or that of your forefathers, to give back to the community?
Of course, most of us want to return to Mexico to give back to the community. And while I have and will continue to go back, my current focus is on those of us here in the United States. The level of challenges in obtaining an education, the school to prison pipeline, being profiled by police, and level of incarceration for Latin@s, we are living in dangerous times right here.
Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
A common misunderstanding about being a professor is that it’s the easiest job in the world (just read a few articles in the past year stating this). Yes, for those who have the education and skill set it is easier but not easy. The overgeneralization of the easy professional schedule and good pay can be misleading. Like any profession, it takes a sincere commitment, devoted time, energy and deliberate practice to be successful. It is far from easy.
Does this job move your heart? Feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
Yes, my heart is moved as I have found my calling first as a teacher and coach, and now as a professor in higher education. As a growing scholar, I share similar dreams of other Latin@ scholars who meet this challenge of demystifying our past and generating Latin@ students and faculty on a journey to establish presence and voice in search of a place in the academic culture. Check out my work on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/james-martinez-ph-d/8/62/859.
And keep a look out for my full narrative in my forthcoming co-edited book called Latin@ Voices in Multicultural Education.