Little Ilda stayed in Oaxaca with her grandmother, and learned to speak the indigenous Mixteco language. When she was two, Martinez returned to the Plant City area to her parents. They enrolled her in RCMA’s Dover Child Development Center, where she learned her second language, Spanish, and her third, English. She is fluent in all three today.
Her father, a middle-school dropout, made sure that his first child knew the value of getting an education – and the consequences of lacking one. From age 8 to age 15, Ilda spent summers in the fields in Michigan and North Carolina. She remembers carrying buckets, heavy with blueberries; rising at 4:30 on cold mornings to prepare lunches; and working until 10 p.m. as the summer sun lingered on the horizon. “If you don’t want to wind up where we are,” warned her father, “then you need to study.” “I’ve always been a good student,” Martinez said.
She graduated from Polk State Collegiate High School with a grade-point average of 3.9. Along the way, Martinez balanced a dizzying array of activities. She played on the soccer team, performed with the orchestra and sang in the chorus. She helped migrant families and served on a United Way education group that studied problems among students who, like Martinez, were handicapped by low-income lives.
Martinez has accomplished all this while functioning as a surrogate mother to a younger sister and brother. Her family returned to Mexico when Martinez was 14 because her grandmother had become gravely ill. Soon, Martinez’ parents decided that their three oldest children would return to the U.S., to live with an aunt and uncle and their five children. The rest of the family would remain in Oaxaca. As her father bid the three children goodbye, his last words for Ilda were: “Always remember, you are the only thing they will have now.” From her school USF, she Skypes and texts them nearly every day.
The successes have made her ambitions more tangible, accessible and concrete. Martinez wants to help children, especially those separated from their parents by the turmoil of immigration. Last winter, she decided to test her dreams against first-hand experience. She took a part-time job teaching 2-year-olds at RCMA’s Mulberry Child Development Center. She loved it, and shed tears as the children left for the summer.
Now, she is a Gates Millennial Scholar which means extensive study, and few other obstacles, stand between Martinez and a PhD in early-childhood education and child psychology. Martinez can maintain a good academic record and simply renew the scholarship from year to year.
After four years away, Martinez’ father, Jose Martinez, returned to Florida soon after his daughter received her life-changing news of the scholarship. He arrived in time to see her graduate from both high school and Polk State College.