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In The Process Of Becoming American: A Proud Son Of Immigrants Reflects On His Family's Past And Future

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The Martinez family circa 2012, with Geovanny at the far right. (Courtesy of Geovanny Martinez)
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What does it mean to be an American? Am I American because I was born here, or because I grew up here, went to school, paid taxes, formed relationships and supported racial equality?

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My reality would argue that I have to earn the right to call myself American. I've learned that being born in a country that gives its people the freedom to be who they want, wherever they want, is simply not enough.

MY PARENTS' DECISION

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I was born in 1992, in a country that my parents did not grow up in.

My mother was born in 1955 in the small town of Mineral del Cubo in Guanajuato state, Mexico, where she became the second daughter of the Muñoz family.

She was raised as a responsible young girl. It was at around age 11, as my mom recalled, that she began to work in the home.

She would help her mom take care of her younger siblings, cook for the family, and go to the store every now and then. It is safe to say that my mom grew up with a lot of family values, values that parents teach their kids about how unity is strength, and this strength is held together by a family foundation.

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Geovanny's parents shortly after arriving in L.A. (Courtesy of Geovanny Martinez)
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My father, on the other hand, grew up mostly on his own. He was born in 1956 in Yuriria, also in Guanajuato state, a son of the Martinez family. He was taken care of until he was old enough to take care of himself, at around the age of 13. Unlike my mother, he did not have similar family support and unity.

My parents met through friends while still in their late teens. These two individuals survived the struggles of life together until, around their mid 20s, they officially decided to have children.

They began raising their children -- starting with my two older brothers -- with the great hope that maybe, just maybe, they would grow up in a better place and in a healthier way than they did.

Their approach to reach this goal: to relocate to a country that "everyone knew had opportunities," even though they knew the opportunities were not going to be for themselves. Or at least, that's what my father told me.

They invested in the future, their children's future.

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WELCOME TO AMERICA

My parents settled in Southern California at the end of 1991, as they were about to enter their 40s.

I was born just in time to be able to say that I existed during the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict -- on April 28, 1992. The riots began the next day.

My parents were scared, as those were scary times. I remember them later saying they were afraid to leave the hospital. It would be many years before I could wrap my head around the world I was born into.

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Geovanny as a young child with his father, Agustín, and his younger sister Linda. (Courtesy of Geovanny Martinez)
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I grew up in South L.A., in an area where gang violence literally surrounded us, but it was as if we were just quiet enough to not draw the attention of these dangers.

Our family did not associate with gangs, not only because we were taught not to, but because it sounded like common sense to us: you carry a weapon, a weapon will be used, someone will get hurt. In a sense, the quieter you are, the safer you are. I learned this.

We lived in the same building for years, until a classmate of mine showed up to school completely destroyed emotionally because his older brother had been the victim of a shooting outside our building the previous night.

The shooting itself was not rare, but this particular one happened right outside our apartment complex, where the boy's dead body could be seen just beyond the parking lot.

My parents used their very limited resources from my dad's job as a welder to relocate our family, to Lynwood, to Downey, and finally Huntington Park, away from what felt like the center of crime. Our family, at this point, didn't worry about quality of life necessarily. We prioritized survival.

A QUIET KID COMES OF AGE

Keep in mind, my parents never completed school as kids. They got as far as what we would consider to be the end of elementary school. So when I was growing up, there was very little talk about my options in terms of education and a career.

What my parents did know was that education is important, so they made sure that I attended a charter high school to help guide my education. It is thanks to this that I was exposed to a world beyond the one our family knew.

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Geovanny, right, on his 21st birthday with his dad, Agustín. (Courtesy of Geovanny Martinez)

At my Huntington Park charter school I learned about college, financial aid and career options. Unfortunately, the environment I had grown up in had led me to believe that finding a job right after school was "good enough" for everyone, so it should be good enough for me as well.

This turned out to be a poorly thought out approach to life, because it took me a decade and a pandemic to push me back to school. Without college, I ended up in what I had thought to be a solid career choice, working as a card dealer in a local casino. But my job turned out to be non-essential.

After strong recommendations from my life partner, I am now back in school, attending community college and attempting to complete my Bachelor of Economics degree with hopes of bettering my career options.

Together, we are exploring new grounds that we couldn't ask our parents about, since we are the first in both our families to attend college.

WE SURVIVED. NOW, HOW DO WE THRIVE?

Today I am 28 years old, two years older than my mother when my parents had their first child.

So far, I have made multiple attempts to earn a college degree, worked in a casino that was not considered essential during a pandemic, and have come to realize that I want to focus my time on making a change. I have no children, and this is mostly due to the fact that I have yet to figure out who I am in this country, and what I have to offer my child.

I have to change my mentality, from being quiet in order to survive to being willing to speak out, in order to figure out who I am and what kind of parent I want to be.

To be American, in my opinion, you have to believe in something. You have to stand for something and belong to something bigger than yourself, always looking for progress so that you, and future generations, become better with time.

While the rest of the country shouts "go back to your country" at people like my family and me, I have to figure out what exactly my family stood for, and will stand for, once our name is established in these communities we now call home.

Unlike some families, mine did not grow up with goals such as which school to attend, and what career choice to follow. My parents wanted to give opportunity to their children, and maybe once they had reached that point of "satisfaction" with their efforts, whatever that point was, then maybe, just maybe return to see their parents in Mexico again.

My parents were never big on telling their children what to do or how to do things, because they had great faith in our abilities. This could probably be a big reason why we never sat down and talked about our plans -- we are Martinezes, after all. We are capable.

This was the extent of my parents' goal, investing in our family's future generations without as much as a second thought about their own well-being.

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Geovanny with his mother, Ofelia, who passed away in 2017. "Without her, I definitely would have not have become the person that I am today." (Courtesy of Geovany Martinez)

My mother died on Christmas Day three years ago, before ever seeing her own mom again. My maternal grandmother in Mexico, who I'd never met, died shortly after. Being separated was part of the sacrifice they made for us.

My father always drank his emotions away, so I still, to this day, don't know how he feels about it all, or what he now wants out of life for himself. But lucky for us, he is still alive, so there is still a chance that he might learn to share his thoughts with us.

DETERMINING MY OWN FUTURE

So while I sit here today, trying to figure out what exactly I want out of life for myself, I keep getting distracted, because I don't understand what gives me the right to ask myself this question, when my own mother and father didn't. They did what they had to do -- for us.

With all of these uncertainties about personal and family values, my life partner and I have hesitated to take our relationship to the next step -- having kids. We want to become the best version of ourselves before we begin to help mold the personality of another human being.

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Geovanny with his life partner, Yesenia, in a recent photo. (Courtesy of Geovanny Martinez)

Am I ready to have kids and have them join a world where the outgoing president has triggered many of the American people to hate themselves over such uncontrollable circumstances as their skin color? I really want to wait until the world is a better place. But if my parents thought I would make it, then my children should be able to, right?

My siblings and I face a different type of challenge than our parents did at our age. We don't have to worry about food, housing or work the way that they did. We are fortunate enough to remove that from our list of struggles.

Now, in the year 2021, while trying to stay safe during a pandemic, we are figuring out what our family values consist of. We have to build the kinds of relationships that some people are fortunate enough to be born into, such as having a family full of aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews, godparents-- and having them all here for us, a call away.

This might not sound like a big deal to some, but the truth is that when a family relocates the way mine did, you get a sense of loneliness, because you don't have as many people to count on growing up.

While we were being quiet growing up, learning to survive, we forgot to learn how to socialize. I struggle to maintain eye contact -- an important factor in effective communication -- because where I come from, this indicates confrontation, and confrontation puts people in danger.


MORE FROM OUR RACE IN LA SERIES


The reason the holidays are difficult for me -- I mean, besides the fact that the most wonderful woman in the world died on Christmas Day -- is that our family isn't as close as it should have been. We should have grown up as a unit, in a family-friendly environment where the parents can count on the children to look out for one another without fear of anyone getting hurt, the way my mother always wanted.

Unfortunately, living in survival mode, the kids in my family pretty much grew up doing our own thing. Yes, we tried our best to be there for each other, the way our mother taught us, but sometimes it felt forced.

We can only hope to learn from this, to potentially teach our kids how to build stronger relationships, and do our part to be as involved as possible with our nieces and nephews.

This is where my partner and I come in. We have to learn where our happiness comes from. We have to not only appreciate what we have, but also seek out new ways of thinking.

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Yesenia, left, and Geovanny pose with a tour host while visiting Belgium in 2019. "One thing I never imagined doing, traveling. Just one of the many opportunities that were given to me that not everyone has." (Courtesy of Geovanny Martinez)

We pay attention to each other. We listen, to the best of our ability, when we are angry, sad, frustrated, or just simply being irrational. These are factors that our parents didn't focus too much on, and I feel like this is our contribution to the family name -- learning and understanding the complexity of our cultural upbringing and human emotions so that our kids have a better understanding of the path this Martinez family has taken.

PASSING THE BATON

I guess if I could ever hope to teach my kids something, it would be this: Your grandparents gave up everything so we could have the opportunity to do anything we want, and it is my job to make sure that you know what to do with all of that freedom.

My responsibility in life is to learn as much as I can, so that the first generation of the Martinez family that is fully American can have a blank canvas to paint whatever they want.

They will have the option to choose where to live, pursuing whichever career they want, speaking in any language they want, learning to do whatever they want, wherever -- having complete freedom.

I am simply carrying on the family name, trying to prepare to the best of my ability so that my children can learn what this family has been working on for the past decades -- a future.

This is how I begin the process of becoming American.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

My name is Geovanny Martinez and right now I am thinking I should have probably paid more attention in my English classes growing up, maybe school altogether. I now understand that speaking English alone is not enough, pero como decía Celia Cruz: "My English is not very good looking."

I was born in Los Angeles, California, and I was given the biggest gift I could have ever received from my parents. I was given an opportunity. As a son and as a student, I live my life to learn to not only value this gift, but also make sure I pass on this knowledge to future generations. I don't think my parents will ever understand that what they did for me, for our family, is substantially more than they think, or thought. I will be forever grateful to them and I thank them, by making sure that the dream is not only completed, but continued.