Meet Monica Ayala-Martinez, Denison Professor

Professor Martinez

Many students know that the transition to college can be a little rough. It is leaving an old life and starting a new one. That feeling is what Professor Monica Ayala-Martinez felt when she moved to the United States from Colombia.

Professor Martinez is a Spanish and Portuguese instructor at Denison. Although she now speaks English, it was not a language she learned in Colombia. This made the transition to America even more difficult.

In order to escape violence and earn a master’s degree, Professor Martinez took advantage of a program through West Virginia University. She recalls the move being very difficult due to her lack of English.

“I was afraid to speak and make mistakes. I remember I ate nachos for a week because I did not dare to go anywhere else in the cafeteria than the taco place,” said Martinez. “It was not fun at all. But resilience becomes your best ally and you keep working towards your goal.”

Martinez grew up in a large, bi-racial family near the coast of Colombia. Many view Colombia as a drug hot spot, due to large drug rings causing terror among the citizens. Professor Martinez lived in Colombia during most of narco-terrorist, Pablo Escobar’s ‘reign.’

Martinez recalls the act that would put the Colombian citizens in the crossfire of this narco-terrorism. She mentioned how bombs were exploding in cities constantly, there were strict curfews and that massacres in small towns and cities all over the country became daily occurrences. This violence became the language people were using to communicate.

“[If I could do anything] I would join efforts to work for world peace. I regret not being able to more actively participate in the peace process in Colombia, for example.”

Despite leaving her family, Professor Martinez knew she had to further her education and protect her life by studying in America. She discovered her passion for learning and teaching, especially languages.

She is currently doing research on Lebanese migration to Brazil, Cuba and Colombia, as well as editing a text on zombies as they are represented in countries different from the US and England. Professor Martinez has also been a large influence in expanding the Portuguese program here at Denison. There were only six students in her first class and now there are two sections for students to learn the language and culture of Portuguese.

Martinez  lives in Granville with her husband and son. She loves her life here at Denison and is very happy, but there are still problems that plague her mind.

As an American citizen who came to this country as an immigrant, the past few weeks have been very difficult for Martinez. Although she speaks different languages, she feels she gets lost in translation on a cultural level. Although continuing this new life has been beautiful for her, Martinez also thinks the process can be quite painful.

“You have to build and rebuild a home in a land far from your native land. These past weeks have made me face again the question of location and dislocation and my sense of belonging. It has certainly not been easy. But resilience continues to be key,” Martinez said.

Many of Professor Martinez’s colleagues and students had nothing but kind words to say about her.

“Martinez is a very encouraging professor. She understands that students’ lives are complex and encourages us to keep studying even when things get tough,” said Kaila Russell ‘19, an anthropology and sociology and women and gender studies double major

While Martinez looks forward to making a difference in America, there is still a lot she misses about home.

“The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez once said that he had a dream, he dreamed that he had died, and all of his friends were there with him. After a while, his friends began to leave and when they all had left he realized he was actually dead,” said Martinez. “My family and friends are what I miss the most. People and their “cariño” is what I miss the most. Also, every time I go back to Colombia and I see the landscape, I realize how much those mountains and that ocean talk to me and how much they mean to me.”

If there is anything Martinez wants students at Denison to know, it is to embrace yourself and embrace others.

Martinez said, “A university is a place to embrace difference. We all should feel safe to be who we are and to express what we think. Negotiating difference is not easy. You need to learn the skills and it takes time and practice but it is certainly worth doing it. The world is diverse. Diversity is not a goal anymore, it is a reality, our reality.”

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