Commencement 2020 profile: Liliana Martinez

2020 LACAS graduate works to help immigrants

Liliana Martinez ’20 was watching a Spanish news segment on immigration with family members in 2015 when her grandmother said something that would change Martinez’s future.

“When I die, can I give my citizenship to somebody?” her grandmother asked.

“The news was talking about the border crisis and terrorism when my grandma asked that,” Martinez said. “My dad and I looked at each other, because we knew it obviously didn’t work that way, but it was so sweet and selfless of her and somewhat heartbreaking. That’s how I started putting two and two together and realized how Latin American studies is not something I learned much about in high school, but it does impact the immigration crisis. It puzzled me how these good, hard-working people were getting this bad reputation.”

Martinez was a triple major in Latin American and Caribbean area studies (LACAS), philosophy, politics and law (PPL), and Spanish at Binghamton University. She transferred from American University in Washington, D.C., before her sophomore year, after realizing she wanted to focus on Latin American studies. She also liked the sense of community that Binghamton University offered.

As a first-generation college student of Guatemalan and El Salvadoran descent, the topic of deportation has always been close to home for the Port Washington, N.Y., native. Though her parents are now citizens, Martinez wants to use her education to implement a change in government for immigrants who are not as fortunate.

“Thankfully, I did not have to grow up with the fear of my parents being deported and taken away from me,” Martinez said. “I remember when I was little, however, that there were a couple of ICE raids in Port Washington. My dad grew up here in the 1970s, and he remembers my grandfather being so scared when immigration asked him for papers. They had them, so there should have been nothing to worry about, but there was still this fear of ‘what if?’ I’m lucky and have this wonderful opportunity that my parents have given me to go to college and pursue a higher education that I can do something with. I started focusing on seeing if I could do something within the government, using my voice and my presence to try to make a difference.”

One way in which Martinez spread awareness on campus is through events such as the LACAS-sponsored Biennial Undergraduate Conference. This event enabled undergraduates from any school to submit proposals for original research and creative presentations related to issues in Latin America and the Caribbean.

During her first year at Binghamton University, Martinez presented a paper at the conference on the fear of deportation. The focus of her paper was on how deportation separates families, and specifically child citizens from their parents, as well as the lack of aid they receive afterward.

“They do not follow up on the kids to make sure that they’re OK. They’re helpless,” Martinez said. “I also want to talk about areas that people might not know of — spreading awareness to change this narrative. I had a lot of people come to my specific talk, which was really nice.”

The summer before coming to Binghamton, Martinez went to the U.S.-Mexican border in McAllen and El Paso, Texas, to volunteer at respite centers and nonprofits that helped aspiring immigrants who were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol. There, Martinez helped families by giving them clothes and toiletries, and served them warm food. She also played with the children so their parents could rest.

“I’ve seen people who have been affected by ICE,” Martinez said. “Basically, it’s what you see in the media — the cages. It’s some big, windowless warehouse with brick walls and it’s freezing cold. They’re called coolers. They’re allowed to be held there for 72 hours. The conditions are like that because [ICE] tries to push the people who are there to sign their own deportation letters. When they were released, they would come to the respite centers where we would help them.”

Outside of the classroom, Martinez served as an intern at U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s Southern Tier office, an RA in the Hillside Community, and as a member of the National Collegiate Hispanic Honor Society (Sigma Delta Pi), the transfer student honors society (Tau Sigma) and the International Foreign Language Honors Society (Phi Sigma Iota). She also received the 2020 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.

Despite the extensive work she did and honors she received, Martinez said she sometimes fell victim to “imposter syndrome” — feeling unworthy of these accomplishments. This feeling, however, vanished when she visited LACAS on the 11th floor of the Library Tower.

“The LACAS Program is like my home,” Martinez said. “All the stress and imposter syndrome go away. Minority students or first-generation students will basically go into a space where they’ve earned their seats, but they will feel like an imposter, or that they don’t belong, because no one like them is represented in the space. That fear goes out the door when I step out of the elevator. All the professors are so great.”

Martinez plans to attend law school. She hopes she can give back to her loved ones by furthering her education.

“My goal is to validate my parents’ sacrifices, because as immigrants — especially growing up during the time that I’ve grown up — I’ve seen my parents being discriminated against,” she said. “I know the struggles that they’ve gone through to give me everything that I have. Ultimately, I want to get to a point, and that’s only possible by pursuing more education.”

Posted in: Campus News, Harpur