Daniel Alejandro Martínez: Finding my Latin American Identity from Boston

Daniel Alejandro Martínez is a sonsoneño trained at Harvard in Social Sciences and Philosophy. Fellow of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. He is currently traveling the Brazilian Amazon working with social projects on education, health, and environmental conservation. You can accompany his trip on the blog: danielmgsa.com


Finding my Latin American Identity from Boston

By Daniel Alejandro Martínez

Boston is still a town that’s not quite a city. It is a place with an air of history, where the house usually two or three stories high, are practically piled on top of each other. Their slanted rooftops and smooth walls are a constant reminder that snow has to slip off in the winter. Some stone and cobbled streets, although crowded with cars, are narrow enough to give the impression that horses and carriages circulated there not so very long ago.

This sense of town is even clearer in East Boston, a part of the city facing the Boston Harbor where a diaspora of Central Americans, Caribbeans and Colombians are concentrated and more Spanish is spoken than English. East Boston became my home in March 2008, when on the eve of my birthday, when I was only twelve years old, I left my mother and almost all my family in Colombia and traveled alone to the United States to live with my father.

East Boston Together with two of my friends in the streets of East Boston. The two are sons of inmigrants, Daniel Alfaro (left) Salvadoran and John Tabares (right) Colombian.

In Colombia, I grew up on a farm in the municipality of Sonsón, Antioquia. This was a region plagued by violence, in which a guerrilla group twice blew up the main bridge that connected my municipality with the rest of the country, and from which I have memories of a simple country life, sadly stained by violence. Memories like the disappearance of my brother, Edwin, at age 15, taken away by force one of the armed groups, or the time I was almost kidnapped because my father had emigrated to the United States and criminals thought my family had money. These experiences filled me with uncertainty and thirst for knowing the truth about what happened, why the armed conflict existed and why it affected innocent people like my family. This anguish and restlessness to search for truth and meaning is something that I am sure millions of victims of the conflict share, and that became a will to know and learn that accompanied me to the United States.

TasajoLa finca, the farm where I grew up in the mountains of Colombia, Sonsón, Ant. In the background, there is the famous Morro de la Vieja which summits at 3150 meter above sea level.

Leaving Colombia allowed me to take emotional, as well as physical, distance from the conflict and, over the years, helped me to understand more clearly the reality that I had to live. Once in Boston, away from much of my family and my land, my immediate concern was to adapt to a new life in New England. However, while expanding my identity, I kept feeling Colombian. And really, there was no way to avoid it. Not in East Boston. There, a colony of people, most of them from the village of Don Matias (in the department of Antioquia), built a Colombia where it snows and has its own dialect with words like parquear, mopear, diswachear y dar vacuum, among other Anglicisms. Terms of everyday life of Hispanic immigrants, like my father, who came to the United States with hopes of achieving the "American Dream" and have spent their days working in cleaning services and restaurants.

Thanks to my family's effort and education, my life in the United States took a different path full of opportunities. When I started studying in Boston’s public schools, my world view expanded overnight. I had left a rural area in the mountains of Antioquia, white, traditional and conservative, where Bogotá and Cartagena were known as remote and amorphous places in the imagination, and reached a place full of different cultures, races, religions and heterogeneous social realities, such as Muslim women wearing hijabs, large African American communities in the marginalized neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, Southeast Asian people, mostly refugees from the Vietnam War, and the Latin American diaspora of Salvadorans and Hondurans, most of them economic migrants and refugees from the violence in their respective countries.

It took me a little more than a year to learn enough English to avoid being called a spic—a common insult in the United States aimed at Hispanics who do not speak English—and be admitted to a prestigious public school (which takes only students that pass an exam) that focused on mathematics and science. Once again, I had to leave my new home, those borders between Saratoga Street and Liberty Park in East Boston, to find opportunities in a reality beyond my experience. Boston, like the United States in general, is a place divided into cultural, socioeconomic and racial bubbles, which segregate and determine people's lives and dreams. Upon being admitted to the exam school, I reached out for opportunities and encountered experiences uncommon for the Latino community remaining in East Boston. I was able to participate in extracurricular activities, where I spent the afternoons practicing sports, studying science and partaking in leadership programs that took me on social service trips to countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

Through these travel experiences, I discovered natural beauties, customs, and beliefs similar to those of my home country. I also found problems of violence, poverty, classism, and racism typical of Colombia. The greens of the Nicaraguan mountains and the simplicity of rural life kept reminding me of the colors of Sonsón and life in the village where I grew up, Tasajo. On the other hand, the violent stories of the Sandinista Revolution and Counter-Revolution brought back memories that were too familiar. Nonetheless, It was these similarities in beauty and tragedy that led me to realize the shared realities and brotherhood of Latin American countries. It was on these trips that my appreciation for multiculturalism, which I first encountered in Boston, became a passion for Nuestra América (Our America). Llama Experiencing in my visit to Machu Picchu my fascination for llamas (and all animals) and the sense of adventure — something that has accompanied me since I left my farm in Colombia.

In 2013, once again, I decided to reach outside of my comfort zone. I aspired to go to college and gained admission with a full scholarship to Harvard, a prestigious institution that, despite being only a few minutes away from East Boston, I did not know until I decided to apply. During college, I focused my studies on the social sciences and philosophy, specialized in Latin American studies, wrote a thesis on the Colombian armed conflict, and graduated with honors. Looking back, I can say that it was my thirst for truth that accompanied my pilgrim’s journey from Colombia to Boston that led me to adapt to a new life, to feel a multicultural identity as Latin American, to be educated at Harvard, and above all to understand what unites us above what divides us. I hope this journey will one day bring me back to my home country, and that I can accompany my fellow citizens—especially the youth—as they try to create spaces for truth, justice, and reconciliation.

Amazonas Unedited photo of a rainy and foggy morning over the Amazon River, near Tefé (AM) Brazil. I took this photo during my one-year journey through the Brazilian Amazon, as part of the Michael C. Rockefeller Fellowship.