Yessica Martinez ’15 along the U.S.-Mexico border last summer on a research trip for her thesis.
Yessica Martinez ’15 along the U.S.-Mexico border last summer on a research trip for her thesis.
Courtesy Yessica Martinez ’15

Yessica Martinez ’15 spent last summer doing research for her thesis — not in a library, but in migrant shelters, detention facilities, and courtrooms along the U.S.-Mexico border — on how U.S. government policies affected the lives of undocumented immigrants.

The topic resonated powerfully with Martinez: Before she became co-winner of the Pyne Honor Prize, awarded at Alumni Day Feb. 21 (see story, page 36), she arrived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant herself.

Jean Wang ’16
Jean Wang ’16
Tongqing Wang

“Who I am, where I’ve grown up, my family, and my sense of community, too, are very influential in the way I think about my academic work,” Martinez said. She currently has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, which provided the freedom to travel for her thesis project. She spoke to PAW a few days after a judge temporarily blocked President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

Conducting research in Texas, Arizona, and California, Martinez said, she was struck by the migrants’ stories of vulnerability and uncertainty — the underpinnings of her creative poetry thesis, which focuses on what it means “to live in a world that is marked by destruction, and by pain and suffering.” Her co-adviser, creative writing professor Tracy K. Smith, called her work “morally charged and lyrically devastating.”

Martinez’s family moved from Medellín, Colombia, to Queens, N.Y., when she was 10, seeking educational opportunities and an escape from violence. She spoke no English. After a rough start in school in Queens, she first visited Princeton as part of the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America program, which brings talented low-income students to the University for summer courses and offers college guidance.

Once on campus, Martinez became active in groups ranging from the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund to the University’s Priorities Committee. She is co-director of the Princeton DREAM Team, a student group that supports undocumented immigrants and immigration reform, and mentors students at a Trenton high school.

She said she was inspired by Class of ’06 salutatorian Dan-el Padilla Peralta — an undocumented student who is now a fellow at Columbia University — and hopes her story will prompt younger immigrants to realize that they can succeed as well.

“Princeton taught me what it means to build a community and engage with people that are different from you,” Martinez said. “I hope that sharing my story doesn’t stop people from raising difficult questions, because immigration is a difficult issue.”