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Meet Adrienne Martinez of Theory Generator Playground, A Latino Student Research Collective

Today we’d like to introduce you to Adrienne Martinez.

Adrienne, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
When I was growing up, my mom used to paint holiday signs on the windows of storefronts for extra money. She’d paint these elaborate “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Halloween” scenes in tempera paint. I’d go with her and I gradually picked-up the skill. I never saw it as art, I don’t think she did either, just a way to make ends meet. Money was tight and it seemed like she was always starting small seasonal businesses, like making and selling Christmas wreaths by the side of the road, doing beading work and selling it at craft fairs. She taught me to use artistic skill and elbow grease as a way to bridge the gap between the money you need to survive and the money you bring home from a full-time job. I never saw myself as an artist, just someone willing to do art whenever it seemed like a solution to the problem at hand. Have a difficult school assignment? See if they’ll let you write a comic book. Short on money? See if someone wants a mural in their new baby’s room. It was more about hustling than self-expression.

Right out of college, I got a job painting murals for a Hollywood-based company focused on graffiti abatement. I didn’t major in Art in college, so I hadn’t accumulated a portfolio of work. The night before the interview I found moving boxes, cut them into squares and filled the space with as many different “styles” of art that I could think of. I showed up at the interview with my arms full of these giant cardboard squares, some smearing each other because they hadn’t had time to dry. I have no idea why I got the job. When I started at the company, I found out that most of my peers had bachelor’s degrees in Fine Arts, some had master’s degrees in Painting… but none had painted murals in the inner-city environments I called home.

The mural company mostly painted at LAUSD schools and city parks, transforming industrial or just sterile spaces using the most cost-effective approach: got a big, ugly building? Put some paint on it. Kids disrespecting the campus? Paint such a busy, complicated design that their graffiti won’t be obvious. In some ways, the mural-based approach to improving school environments does just that- it tries to paint over problems when there is a gap in funding between what you need to create a healthy educational environment and what you actually get from the city/county/state to create and support this environment. This company combined mural painting with some arts exposure and education for the K-12 kids. For many of the kids, it was their first time talking to an adult who wasn’t a teacher who had gone to college. As a first-generation college student, I enjoyed connecting with these kids, hearing about their lives and dreams, assuring them that there were many possible futures open to them if they did their best to stay connected to their education. I enjoyed interacting with the teens almost as much as the painting itself, so when I heard about a job at a local hospital for an Art Therapy Assistant, I applied.

Growing up, we didn’t have access to great healthcare. I’d had so few interactions with the healthcare system that I was unaware of all the clinical roles and specialties that existed in a hospital. I had no idea what a Registered Nurse was or what they did. To me, everyone in a hospital was categorized as a “doctor” or “not a doctor”. Working at the hospital (a locked inpatient psychiatric facility) opened my eyes to the distinct work each field covers. I learned about occupational therapists, and physical therapists, social workers, dietary specialists and dietitians, and I learned about nurses and Nursing.

While I painted murals at the hospital, with the help of patients and staff, I talked to the workers and heard their stories about the paths they took to their licensure. I listened to the patients about how they had fallen through the cracks and had been impacted by prejudice and government policies. My art skills got better, and so did my clinical skills. I started to paint for pleasure and had art shows in the community. I entered a licensed vocational nursing program at East LA Occupational Center. At every step, my growth flowed along these two paths and I would soon learn that Nursing was a field open to creativity as a way of connecting to our patients and better understanding the realities of their lives.

But, applying for a spot to be a Registered Nurse is intense. At every level there is a shortage of teachers, so competition to get admitted is high. Getting lower than an “A” grade in any pre-requisite course almost guarantees you will not make the cut for an interview. So my art (and social) activities got pushed to the back burner. I was accepted to a Master-Entry Program (for those with Bachelor’s Degrees in other fields) at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU). The academic curriculum is intense, the clinical hours long, so while I was becoming a nurse the artist in me fell silent for the most part.

Then, during my master’s program, I found a way to combine art and clinical in a satisfying way: conference posters. Research seemed a way to explore an interesting topic, create a large piece of art (poster) describing your project and allows you to display it in front of a large group of people… plus you get to travel?… and you get to talk to people about things you find fascinating while they look at your art? I was hooked.

I found a mentor at CDU who had an NIH-funded study of diabetes among older African American women living in South LA. I joined the faculty research committee as a student representative. I started a student research club, I got a small grant to study research methods at UCLA over the Summer. All of these activities put me on the radar of a Bridges to the Doctorate Program, a group that groomed me (as a first-gen, ethnic minority college student) for the application process at one of the country’s top research universities. Largely due to this grooming, I took a well-developed research plan to my interview and was awarded the Dean’s Fellowship. This covered my tuition and living expenses for my PhD. In fact, I received full tuition and living support throughout my doctoral years because the UCLA School of Nursing recognizes and is dedicated to the advancement of underrepresented students of color and the exploration of Latino/a/x topics.

I enjoyed my PhD experience, but I was missing two things: opportunities to artistically express myself, and time with other Latinos/as/x. As a researcher focused on diabetes topics among Latino/a/x populations, I read a lot about Latinos/as/x, but much of my time was spent reviewing literature or at academic meetings or conferences … spaces largely devoid of actual Latino/a/x people. I decided to look at public art interventions, applied for and was awarded an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship that would allow me access to both the things I felt I were missing in my life.

The project that resulted, a series of three publicly-displayed mural pieces, sought to impact the perceived appropriateness of physical exercise among Latina older adult women. In Latino culture, there are certain persistent cultural concepts that can be limiting to what roles women can play in society (or within their own families). Marianistic concepts (the idea that women should be like the Virgin Mary- self-sacrificing and pure) can actually negatively impact diabetes outcomes among these women. If you think of exercise as a primarily self-focused pursuit, then exercising to improve glucose metabolism (that also takes you away from childcare duties) becomes a selfish act. We looked to establish what types of exercise were considered socially appropriate and how we could promote these behaviors by creating art that places these women in venerated positions. The three final mixed-media works combined the artistic participation of graffiti artists and church-goers from the Highland Park community. Photographs of female community members engaging in exercise were superimposed on graffiti that resembled stained glass. In these pieces, the women took the traditional place of saints within art from the Catholic tradition; their positioning symbolized their critical role within the family and their need to be healthy within this role.

From that project, I learned about community organizing, about the state of the science surrounding art interventions to effect change among underserved groups, and I learned about myself as an artist/researcher. Since then I have started working with a charter school in Huntington Park, Aspire Centennial College Preparatory Academy. This school is filled with well-meaning and engaged teachers, but the physical environment is dense, urban-industrial, and often plagued by the smells of a local hog-processing plant and other food producing factories. At Aspire, our research collective is trying to transform the physical environment to improve student and staff well-being measures. We are also looking to insert a lunch-time lecture series that invites people of color from various health care professions to talk to the kids about their personal paths to success in their field. The project will culminate in the children assisting to create a large mural that depicts people of color in some of these healthcare roles. Our belief is that through Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) the kids will see others that look like them and seek to emulate their paths or at least recognize the possibility that they too can achieve these goals.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Being a first-generation college student and a woman of color can be a very isolating experience, especially at the graduate level. In clinical fields this can be compounded by the high levels of competition, with many applicants vying for just a few spots. I can’t count the number of times people made comments about my only getting accepted or getting a scholarship because I am Latina. It was as though all my hard work was dwarfed by their beliefs about my ethnicity.

In my case, my father was a Mexican-American and my mother is Caucasian. My mother was raised on an Indian reservation in the Southwest and ran away when she was 14. So the majority of my cultural exposure is a reflection of spending time with my Mexican-American family and my culturally Native mother and Native Step-Father. Growing up, the people who raised me, the people who loved and supported me were people of color. We went through periods of extreme poverty, and some times of relative success, but always there was this sense that our resources belonged to our larger family and community. This sense of familism meant that you were only ever as successful as your poorest relative- anyone could ask you for money at any time. So, mostly, we lived paycheck to paycheck.

For me, this meant always maintaining a full-time job while being a full-time student. It meant missing certain opportunities for networking and connecting during “off-hours” with faculty that might move your career forward. It meant constant physical, emotional and mental exhaustion from trying to keep up with the demands of a split schedule. It also meant a lot of time spent away from family, which could be read by my close Latino family as my shunning, or disregarding them, or worse, their thinking that I believed that I was too good for them now that I had an education.

I sometimes think that no matter how well-meaning academic administration can be, they often don’t understand how to support students of color (or even what questions to ask) and they may unintentionally contribute to an uncomfortable environment or one that is unwelcoming. For example, the unspoken need to attend expensive out-of-state conferences and after-school events (that also take time away from family or disrupt a work schedule) means that students of color (who are less likely to have access to financial resources) are either excluded from these spaces, or must actively compete against each other for a few, precious, funded spots. It gives us the impression that we are in competition with the other people like us that we should be turning to for support. It also makes us feel like we must constantly be high achievers, not “just as good as everyone else” but “better than everyone else” just to maintain our position in the program.

I am happy to see that some university departments are actively confronting these issues. Recently a UCLA department decided to bar students from providing snacks for faculty at meetings or dissertation defenses. Bringing snacks for your committee is a tradition in academia and snack spreads have gotten increasingly elaborate and expensive, which is disproportionately burdensome to students of color. More efforts that look critically at the intersection of race and class among students and how this affects their academic achievement are really needed.

Theory Generator Playground, A Latino Student Research Collective – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Theory Generator Playground is a Latino student research collective that I founded during my doctoral education to meet my deep need to spend time with other Latinos/as/x while I was confronting challenges in academia.

The collective tries to connect and support Latino/a/x students interested in breaking into healthcare at any level. We do research and volunteer projects and networking. We act as peer-mentors and emotional support. We also give community talks on health topics and issues disproportionately impacting Latinos/as/x in Southern California. We maintain Facebook and YouTube pages with student resources and scholarship opportunities.

As a nurse researcher, I work with my affiliate university (UCLA) and am supported by the National Clinician Scholars Program (NCSP). This is a two-year, post-residency or post-doctoral training initiative with early-career physicians and nurses who conduct priority research in community settings to directly benefit the health of Southern California residents.

The NCSP also exposes us to health services research methods, including theory, study design and data analysis; fundamentals in health policy; biostatistics; scientific writing; implementation science; and the application of these skills to conduct original research and to change health policy. In short, the NCSP is designed to equip us to become change-makers at the local, state and national level.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Honestly, my proudest moment was being there for my dad during his final weeks. My dad had diabetes and end-stage renal disease and was on dialysis for 18 years. He had endured many amputations due to the slow wound healing associated with his diabetes and had gone completely blind. He struggled and suffered for many years. His deteriorating condition coincided with my advancement through my nursing education, so I was increasingly able to advocate for him as a Medi-Medi patient in largely under-resourced hospitals. He was gruff but loving and I felt honored to stand-up and be his mouthpiece when he was no longer able to advocate for himself. While I was emotionally devastated by his passing, I was able to take comfort in my belief that his death reflected what he would have wanted under the circumstances. I believe he still monitors my achievements from above and is with me as I get better and better at advocating for the underserved and for people of color.

Contact Info:

  • Email:
  • Facebook: @TGplayground
  • Other: YouTube: Theory Generator Playground

Image Credit:

Adrienne Martinez working on the Aspire Mural Project at Aspire Centennial College Preparatory Academy, Huntington Park, CA. Albert Schweitzer Fellows, Adrienne Martinez, PhD, RN, PHN, Jacqueline Hernandez, B.A., Lizett M. Leandro, RN, Jovita Murillo, MA, Adrienne Martinez and Joseph Carroll; The West Hollywood Elementary Mural Project, sponsored by the Hollywood Beautification team, Adrienne Martinez, Lead Artist.; Original Artwork “La Scientista” by Adrienne Martinez; Murals from The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship: Latina Women’s Diabetes Health Mural Project; Adrienne Martinez Presenting the Latina Women’s Diabetes Health Mural Project at the University of Pennsylvania; Aspire Mural Project Volunteers: Joseph Carroll, Lizett M. Leandro, Julio Roldan, Adrienne Martinez, Cecilia Sandoval and Zoe Hollingsworth; Adrienne Martinez (headshot)

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