Special Report

Guatemalan Transplant Thrives in Cross-Cultural School

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — June 01, 2012 2 min read
Marlyn Martinez, 17, practices the reading she will do later before the start of Sunday Mass at San Carlos Borromeo Catholic Church in San Francisco, where she is a junior minister. Martinez moved to the United States from Guatemala a little over two years ago.
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Marlyn Martinez, 17, moved to San Francisco in 2009, but the groundwork for her arrival was laid long before: Her father, who had been a civil engineer in Guatemala, came to the United States 15 years ago, and had been working nights as a janitor while trying to obtain immigration documents for Martinez and her mother.

When the papers finally came through, the family was reunited. Martinez’s mother now works as a janitor as well, and the teenager began school at San Francisco International High School, part of a New York-based network of public schools designed to serve immigrant students.

Though Martinez has been in the United States for only a few years, that makes her an old hand at San Francisco International, where she is now a junior. Cross-cultural transitions are the norm at the school, which has a college-preparatory focus and enrolls and provides language, academic, and social and emotional support for about 400 immigrant youth. To qualify for enrollment, students must score below a certain level on a test of English-proficiency.

At first, it was easiest for Martinez to befriend other students from Guatemala. Besides the shared language, she says, “when you move to a place, the first thing you miss is people from your country.” But the school has only about a dozen Guatemalan students, so Martinez also found herself spending time with Salvadoran and Mexican students. As time has passed, she has become friends with students from many other countries.

“It is really good to share with new people and learn about their experiences,” she says.

At San Francisco International High, instruction takes place in English, but teachers taught Martinez how to translate words and decode English grammar. The school also runs programs that help students navigate cultural differences.

Because of the school’s special purpose, all of Martinez’s teachers were focused on helping students who were still trying to grasp the language and culture as well as the content in classes. “They could help with homework and with English,” she says.

She still speaks Spanish at home: While her father has learned some English, her mother is more comfortable speaking in Spanish.

Martinez grew up in Guatemala City, that nation’s capital, in a neighborhood she describes as “not very safe.” The ethnically diverse San Francisco neighborhood where she lives is safer, she says.

Unlike many of her classmates, Martinez had visited the United States before moving to San Francisco. She and an uncle visited cities on the East Coast before she returned to Guatemala to finish the school year. She officially moved to San Francisco the summer before 9th grade.

Martinez attended an all-girls Catholic school in Guatemala, so adapting to the demographic diversity of the International School was intimidating at first. But as an 11th grader, Martinez proved just how well she has adjusted to her new educational milieu: She became the only girl on the school’s wrestling team, which went to the state championship. She has also played on the volleyball and soccer teams and serves on the school’s Student Leadership Committee.

Outside of school, Martinez has thrown herself into her church community, where she is a minister.

Martinez still thinks of herself as Guatemalan at heart, and she misses the food, the marimba music, the scenery, and the friendliness of people in her homeland. But she plans to stay in the United States, she says: “I have the opportunity, and I don’t want to waste it.” She plans to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a civil engineer.

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