Finding identity

December 1, 2019 - 12:00am -- Living City

Finding identity
By James Filipelli

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latino (or Hispanic) children are one of the fastest growing groups in U.S. schools today. There are schools of excellence among those serving Latino children, but the majority of these children are considered “at risk” by schools and community institutions unable to build on the cultural, personal and linguistic strengths these children are likely to bring with them to school. Schools serving Latino students need programs based on high-quality research, capable of being replicated and adapted to local circumstances and needs. The arts have provided the foundation for many successes in the Latino community.

In his book Jose, Can You See? Latinos on and off Broadway, Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez analyzes the history of Latino theater. From case studies of West Side Story and the career of Broadway actress Carmen Miranda, in which he finds examples of negative stereotypes, he happily turns to contemporary playwrights as they revisit, revision, and reimagine the history of Latino diaspora, exile, and nostalgia to articulate and construct new hybrid identities on the stage.

There is a new middle-class perspective, one that is rooted in the urban experience and shaped by college education and the professionalization of Latinos and Latinas. In her review of this book, English professor and dean Rena Fraden says that nationalist and ethnic labels are no longer capable of completely representing or defining identities that are in flux. At this moment, U.S. Latinos, through theater, can articulate new forms of identity that are both sources of and models for agency and empowerment.

Arts curriculum in higher education

In higher education, there is a need for the arts; specifically, fine arts, music, dance, and theater. A strong arts curriculum would allow students to be successful in any field, as has been the case been for one Latino student who attended a private liberal-arts college located in Rockland County, New York. Notwithstanding the humble beginnings of this individual, his story reveals that with the right support, one can be successful in higher education.

Edward Martinez was born and raised in Bronx, New York to a working-class family who instilled a work-ethic of professionalism, determination and perseverance. He was enrolled in a gymnastics class at age four and quickly became noticed by the dance studio director; subsequently, he was recruited to enroll in dance classes. At times, the family struggled to make ends meet, but education was first and foremost.

As an undergraduate student, Martinez excelled in the arts and increased the energy within the student body. His vivacity and enthusiasm served as an example for others. As the Student Government President, he chaired the activity fairs, conducted student retention seminars, executed countless talent shows, organized special events to honor boards of trustees and worked closely with the Vice-President of Student Development.

He then proceeded to perform and choreograph all of the main-stage musical productions as a student, then later as a paid staff. The students looked to him for guidance, professionalism and energy, which resulted in a stellar outcome for the entire college community. The musical productions excelled from year to year, and his choreography is what made each one “shine.”

Onward and upward

Upon graduation, Martinez was offered the position of Director of Student Activities. The Vice-President served as a mentor, assisting him in his personal and professional development. In his first year on the job he increased student involvement in campus activities by 30%. Two outstanding events that still remain today are the DC Talent Show and Etiquette Dinner. These two events, branded with Martinez’ mark of excellence, have always drawn a huge attendance.

As a result of aforementioned, subsequent years reflected a steady increase of student attendance and retention. This success was due to Martinez’s unwavering commitment to the educational experience of each student. The performing arts remained a constant beacon within his life as Director of Student Activities.

Then Martinez pursued higher learning and obtained a Master’s Degree from Long Island University in counseling and development. He utilized his artistic skills and education to enhance the environment of the college community, while maintaining his first and foremost passion — the arts. Martinez still managed to choreograph all of the main-stage productions.

During his tenure as Director of Residential Life, Martinez began teaching a college-level freshman seminar class and founded new student organizations, including the college’s first Latino Heritage Club. His continued focus on student life while completing his Master’s Degree and choreographing musicals for the college exemplified professionalism, determination and perseverance. Martinez continued to choreograph and set up the main-stage musical productions for the college. He enjoyed dancing; moreover, he would instill in all students the need to “make the part your own.”

Doctoral work

Martinez maintained high standards throughout his studies, and was determined to complete his doctorate. His dissertation centered on the direct correlations between student-affairs professionals and the educational outcomes in and out of classroom environments. In 2012 he co-authored an article in the Journal of Financial Aid titled: “To Work or Not to Work: Student Employment, Resiliency, and Institutional Engagement of Low-Income, First-Generation College Students.”

In 2015, he co-authored through the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, which was ultimately selected as one of 150 commitments to action. Additionally, in 2016, he delivered two national presentations on Latino issues: Latino family dynamics in pursuing degrees, and current issues impacting the success of Latino students in community colleges.

Always looking to advance the Latino agenda in higher education, in 2017, he was appointed Chair of NASPA’s Community College Division-Latino Task Force. He currently serves on the Leadership team for the Latino Knowledge Community through NASPA. His service was once again acknowledged in 2017, when he received the Student Affairs Professional Excellence award by the Long Island Council of Student Personnel Association.

As clearly evidenced, Martinez has brought a sense of pride to the Latino community wherever he has served. As higher education demographics continue to change we must be cognizant of the fact that Latinos can achieve success, as demonstrated by Martinez’s accomplishments. In each and every opportunity Martinez rose to the occasion. His family, mentors, associates and colleagues witnessed his exceptional leadership potential becoming leadership reality. It is essential to develop and implement not only state policies, but programs in higher education that support Latino student success; starting with the arts, where it all began for Martinez.


James Filippelli, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the Dominican College of Blauvelt in Orangeburg, New York.

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