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'My worthiness was always questioned': Lehigh students discuss race and academics during First Generation Week

Director Cynthia Martinez attends at Q&A session at Lehigh University as part of First Generation Week at the school.
Micaela Hood
Director Cynthia Martinez attends at Q&A session at Lehigh University as part of First Generation Week at the school.

  • Lehigh University held its First Generation College Student Celebration Week to promote inclusivity
  • Several first-generation students attended a film screening with documentary director Cynthia Martinez
  • Martinez's film "First Voice Generation" tells the story of three Latino high schoolers in Michigan who apply for college while navigating through racial and socio-economical barriers

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — As a student at the Bronx High School of Science, Eldisa Rosario dealt with discrimination from all angles.

The prestigious New York institution is ranked 52nd in the country by U.S. News and Report .

It is also a predominately white school, with an estimated 4% Black and 10% of Latino students enrolled in 2021-22, according to NYSED.Gov.

Director Cynthia Martinez speaks about her documentary at Lehigh University

"My worthiness was always questioned not only because I am a woman but I am also Hispanic, and I have an accent that comes out sometimes. Teachers would often question whether it was my work or if I was copying on someone else," Rosario, a current student of Lehigh University said.

"I was around so many people that were established and a lot of privilege and a lot of access to things that I didn’t have access to and some of my peers automatically assumed they were producing better work than me when that wasn’t the case. It’s ironic because I was always top of my class in elementary and middle and then I get to high school and people are doubting me."

Rosario, who moved in early childhood with her parents to the States from the Dominican Republic, was among a group of students who participated in the school's First Generation College Week, which promotes inclusivity.

As part of the campus-wide events, Lehigh hosted a screening of "First Voice Generation"a documentary by filmmaker Cynthia Martinez.

Cynthia Martinez
Micaela Hood
Director Cynthia Martinez speaks to students during a screening of her film on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Martinez filmed the project in the summer of 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

The insightful documentary tells the story of three Latino High School students as they apply for post-secondary degrees while trying to be the first in their families to attend college.

The students, Nayeli Mora, Angel Ruiz and Gael Figueroa-Enriquez, who are Mexican, hail from Holland, Michigan.

Two of them graduated from Holland High School in Michigan, where Martinez, who is also of Mexican descent, received her diploma in 2000.

"I grew up during a time where you look at me in sports pictures and I am the only brown girl in those photos," Martinez said. "I think that is one of the challenges I had growing up in my community that sense of feeling that I belonged. Not only was it racial differences that I felt, but also socio-economic."

While Martinez notes that the Latino population in Holland High has doubled since she was a teen, students still face challenges.

It's something that the trio of college-bound Latinos discussed in length on camera.

"In freshman AP class, I was one of two or three minority students. I just felt like our school doesn't encourage minority students to go and take [AP] classes," Mora, a graduate of West Ottawa High School, said midway through the film. "Many of the students come from a background where their parents aren't able to help or their parents didn't have the same education."

'Racial challenges'

In 2021, while she was in the editing and in the post-production process, Martinez was awarded an $8,000 grant from Women of Color Give, a BIPOC charity that invests in community-driven endeavors.

Martinez initially interviewed seven students for the "First Voice Generation" filmand plans to use that footage at a later date, perhaps consisting of smaller vignettes.

She calls the documentary a "love letter to her younger self" and has become an advocate for educating the public on the immigrant experience.

"When I started the film I was just focusing on educational and financial challenges and then it went where the students were talking about those racial challenges and I thought, ‘wow, they’re still dealing with those issues that I was dealing with 20 years ago,' but they were much more vocal about it,'" Martinez said.

"I’m ashamed to say, but the reality was that I was scared to use my voice and ashamed to use my voice I felt isolated as the only brown one. Now there are a lot more Latinos in these communities and public schools so the students are becoming more vocal."