IES Abroad: You were born in New Jersey to Dominican parents and spent many years of your childhood in Santo Domingo. What led you to study abroad in Madrid, and how was it different than your previous international experiences?
Erika Martinez: To me, going to the Dominican Republic was going to visit family. In a sense, it was going home. It wasn’t an adventure. I’d longed to go to Europe ever since I began studying languages. In seventh grade I started studying Spanish, in eighth grade, French, and in college, Italian. I wanted to visit the places mentioned in my language textbooks. In high school, I saw students return from spring-break trips to Europe, and I always wanted to do what my friends were doing but could never afford to. Flying to Europe, staying in hotels, and taking educational tours was much more expensive then flying to the Caribbean and staying with family.
When I went to Ithaca College, I enrolled as a Spanish major with French and Italian minors so that I could work as an interpreter. I’ve been translating and interpreting for my mother since I was a child. I told myself that I would do a semester in each country; studying abroad would be a way to satisfy the longing I’d had since I’d begun studying languages. But I had to figure out how to do that financially since I couldn’t afford a semester in three different countries. I went to France as an au pair the summer before my junior year. Then I worked as an RA my fall semester, which allowed me to use my full Stafford loan for a spring semester of study abroad in Madrid. I didn’t get a term in Italy, but studying abroad in Madrid allowed me to visit a lot of other places in Europe.
IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad help you explore your own identity?
EM: Living in Madrid changed how I saw myself in the world. I’d wanted to go not only because my peers had been there, but also because every time I saw my aunt in the Dominican Republic she referred to Spain as the motherland. On each of my visits to the island, she took me to the colonial zone in Santo Domingo, and had me take a tour of the Alcázar Colón. She wanted me to feel a connection to Spanish colonial history. But I had a difficult experience in Madrid. One day I was using a public phone and someone was waiting for it. I was talking to my friend who was studying abroad in Granada, but I had to end my call because this guy kept telling me to get off the phone. He cursed at me and said, “You and your damn black race.” I was stunned. That moment reminded me that people saw me as black. Spaniards didn’t see me as someone with any tie to their country because of language. That was really difficult.
I also had the opportunity to connect with a cousin who was working in Spain. In 1994, before Spain had become part of the EU, there were a lot of immigration issues with Dominicans in Madrid. My cousin told me I should always walk around with my passport because the police could pick me up. If I didn’t have my passport, they would think I was an undocumented worker from the Dominican Republic. My cousin’s advice made me think about my place in Madrid. I wasn’t just a college student abroad. I had to be careful because of my race and because of my Dominican heritage. This wasn’t something I talked about with my peers, but it was always in the back of my mind. It was scary to think that I could be picked up at any time, and if I didn’t have the right documents on hand, I wasn’t sure where I would end up.
IES Abroad: When you studied abroad, did you have any career goals in mind? Did the experience influence your decision to pursue writing professionally in any way?
EM: Studying abroad sparked my passion for literature. When I went to college to study languages, my end goal was to be an interpreter. I loved languages. I loved learning about other countries. I loved traveling. But the classes that I took in Madrid really opened me up. I took a class called La Generación del ‘27 (The Generation of ‘27) with Marcos Rocca. His passion for poetry was amazing. Before his class, I did not like poetry. But being in class with him changed everything. He recited poems to us. He asked us to read verses aloud, and I fell in love with it. I realized that poetry was meant to be read out loud. I also took a Latin American novel class; I was devouring literature all the time. I had been an avid reader before I went to Madrid, but never as part of my school work. I remember exchanging letters with someone who had studied at IES Abroad Madrid the previous year, and he had had the same experience. He said, “Don’t you just love literature now? Don’t you wish you could write this way, too? I wish I could write like the authors we read.” I wanted to write, but I didn’t think I could. I realized that I could continue studying literature, get a Masters and, perhaps, teach literature.
IES Abroad: After receiving your MFA from Mills College, you were awarded a Fulbright to conduct research in literature and teach creative writing in the Dominican Republic. In what ways did your study abroad help prepare you for this experience?
EM: My IES Abroad experience was a big part of my foundation for the Fulbright. Receiving the grant allowed me to continue pursuing my passion. This is what I should be doing, I reminded myself when I faced challenges throughout that year, and coming back to that again and again was helpful. Fulbright fellows, receive the grant and are expected to work independently. In the beginning, the State Department issues all the warnings and then tells fellows to get out there and make connections. It’s not at all a study abroad program. I had to navigate the literary world in ways that I didn’t know how to, but I learned every day by doing it. In a lot of ways, I replicated for myself the experience that I had had in Spain. In Madrid, I learned that it was important to hear poetry read aloud the way Marcos Rocca recited poems from La Generación del ‘27, so when I was in Santo Domingo I went to readings and I went to the theater. These weren’t assignments. IES Abroad had also programmed many cultural activities outside of the classroom, so I did that for myself during my Fulbright year. I took educational trips. I wanted to learn about the trees and the wildlife because those details needed to be in my writing so I joined a birdwatching group, and I joined a spelunking group. I shaped my experience in the Dominican Republic using my IES Abroad semester as a model.
IES Abroad: Your newly published book, Daring to Write: Contemporary Narratives by Dominican Women, brings together stories written by Dominican women and women of Dominican decent living in the U.S. What was the inspiration behind the book?
EM: My Latin American Novel class in Madrid didn’t include a Dominican author, and when I lived in Argentina and took Latin American literature, I didn’t study a Dominican novelist either. I also took a poetry class in Mexico, but again I didn’t study any Dominicans. Every time I traveled, I didn’t find Dominican authors being taught, and when I went to bookstores, I didn’t find Dominican books. I had been searching for a long time, so when I finished my MFA, I realized that I wanted to go back to the Dominican Republic because that was the only place I was going to study Dominican literature and that’s where I was going to find those books. That was when I realized that I wanted to work on a book that would be available here in the United States that contained Dominican authors, and I wanted to focus specifically on women authors. Since I had worked with an all-female theater company I knew how important it was to have a female-only space in order to express our experiences, and not have our voices silenced, especially because of the machismo culture in the Dominican Republic and in the Latino community, in general.
The idea had been germinating for a long time, but not until I finished graduate school and decided to figure out how to finance a year of study in the Dominican Republic did it begin to unfold. In fact, a mentor of mine at Mills College was the one who suggested I edit an anthology, and I lit up at the idea. That year, I had an essay published in a women’s anthology called Homeland: Women’s Journeys across Race, Place, and Time. My essay explored the experiences I’d had in Madrid, including my incident in the phone booth and the time I spent with my cousin. Working with the Homeland anthology editors, who were two peers from my MFA program, made me think that I could take on a project like that one day. I never imagined it would be that soon, but I embarked on the process.
IES Abroad: In addition to writing, you are passionate about teaching writing. You served first as a fellow and are now a staff member at the National Writing Project in New Hampshire. How did you get involved and what is your role today?
EM: When I was in Santo Domingo, I met the other Fulbrighters. One was Meg Petersen, who is the director at the National Writing Project in New Hampshire. She was there to start a writing project, and we began collaborating. I participated in one of the institutes that she gave at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, and she served on the reading committee for my anthology. From the beginning, we talked about the need for creative writing classes that taught the writing process in Santo Domingo. Halfway through the year we teamed up with local author Frank Baez to co-teach a creative writing class. The work generated in the class was very engaging. I was even more inspired to write and to continue teaching. Since I loved the theory and research we conducted to develop our lesson plans, Meg suggested that I apply for their Invitational Summer Writing Institute. I applied for 2010, then went as a returning fellow the following year, and then went back as a staff member. I’ve been through the institute for five times. I didn’t go last year, and I won’t go this year, because of the birth of my daughter, but I am still very connected with the National Writing Project. I serve as a judge on their Scholastic Awards Committee. Then, I edit the anthology of the winners. I also edit the Invitational Summer Writing Institute anthology. Since 2008 I’ve also remained involved in the establishment of the writing project in the Dominican Republic. We finally have a director there, who was one of the writers included in the Daring to Write anthology, and this year we will have our first Invitational Summer Writing Institute in Santo Domingo.
IES Abroad: Why do you feel study abroad is important for students today?
EM: Studying abroad is a way to help us understand the world first-hand. And we live in a more global world now. The internet has brought us very far. When I was in college, the internet was just emerging. I remember our French teacher giving us detailed instructions to go to the World Wide Web to look up French culture. Today, there is endless information at our fingertips. Virtually we are more connected, but we tend to be more disconnected at a personal level. At home in our daily rhythm, we tend to engage only with whom we come into direct contact at work or at school. And we disconnect even more, now, because we walk around looking down at our cell phones all the time. I remember when the switch happened—I’d been abroad. And when I returned to the U.S., I noticed BART riders were looking down at their phones instead of looking out and up. I loved living abroad because it helped me look at everything around me. Look up at the buildings. Look around at the parks and engage with people. I felt more alive. I think travel abroad can be an awakening. It makes you come more into your body because you have new sensory experiences. It is so important for our writing. For writers and people, in general, traveling helps open us up. When you are going through new experiences and meet new people daily, you start realizing what you like and what you don’t like, or you notice what types of situations bring out your different characteristics. You get to know yourself more, and you get to know other people in the world. That is so important in order to figure out how to live your best life and how to live it to the fullest.