Chalymar Martinez

Words and photographs by Joy Davis Ripley

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in February, I drive across Winona's valley floor and arrive at a house with matching green shutters. Side-stepping the small piles of snow lining the driveway, I knock on the door of Chalymar Martinez's house and wait, hearing the lively clatter of children inside. When Chalymar opens the door and invites me inside, the first things I notice are her welcoming smile and striking hazel eyes.

Chalymar wears many hats in our community. She's a wife and the mother of four young children between the ages of 6 and 9. She's an interpreter and teacher's assistant at Winona Middle School. Trained as an interior designer, she's passionate about education and willingly shares her talents in dancing and painting with our community. And as a native of Puerto Rico, she's a survivor of two devastating hurricanes in 2017.  

A category 5, Hurricane Irma's heavy September rains saturated the ground and badly damaged the island's critical infrastructure. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Maria arrived, severely battering Puerto Rico once again. The effects were immediate and catastrophic. Cascading failures in all systems and sectors, including communications, transportation, and waste-water treatment, led to thousands of people losing their lives. With no way to reach hospitals and clinics for aid, no drinking water, no electricity, and food in severely short supply, rescue operations were severely impeded. Now, 6.5 years later, Puerto Rico still struggles in its recovery.

Against this unimaginable history, Chalymar opens up her home and heart to me. As I settle in at her dining room table, she explains, "This table is very important to me. This table is where I feed my children and nourish my family." A couple of her children wander in, curious about my presence and hungry. Chalymar instructs them to get a small snack.

Puerto Rico, Chalymar resumes, has not recovered from the devastation the hurricanes caused in 2017. Despite the fact that all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, there has been limited help from the U.S. government. Frequent losses of electricity, difficulty in accessing medical care, a severe shortage of doctors and other providers, and continuing shortages of food and other supplies make life on the islands extremely difficult. "If I went back today," Chalymar explains, "I would find a grocery store that was open, but I would have to wait in a long line to go in. Only ten people are allowed in at a time, and for only twenty minutes. Each person is limited in what they can buy, such as two small bags of rice and four small packages of meat. How can whole families be fed on that?"   

When the hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, her neighborhood and her house were destroyed. Her youngest child was a 3-week old infant, her twins were nine months old, and her oldest child was three. Due to the severe restrictions on food and supplies, parents were limited to buying just 12 diapers per day. "The government's restriction did not care that I had three children in diapers," Chalymar says. "I still could not buy more than twelve per day." So every single day, she had to navigate flooded roads in a landscape that had changed significantly due to landslides, and find her way to the closest operating store, stand in line, and wait to buy her 12 diapers. 

"We took a huge risk in moving here the way that we did," Chalymar explains, "with no language, no money, no opportunity. Often families migrate little by little. Maybe the father will leave home first and move to the U.S. and try to earn money before bringing the rest of his family over so that they have a place to live and food to eat. But after the hurricane, we had nothing anyway. We lost everything: there was no running water, no electricity, there wasn't enough food. My husband and I realized that we could start over from zero in the U.S. We had the strength and the opportunity, and we had each other." 

When Chalymar and her husband arrived in Minnesota four years ago with their four young children, they got off the plane with nothing. All they had was each other, so they began again from scratch.

As a teacher's assistant at Winona Middle School, Chalymar works with youth from around the world: Mexican, Cuban, Hmong, African, Afghan, and Syrian children. She knows from her personal experience that moving to a new country is terrifying, and she does what she can to make them feel more comfortable in the classroom. Both Chalymar and her husband Christian (who works as a barber and as a translator for Project Fine) welcome newcomers to our town and help explain how the community here works. Chalymar realizes that many parents feel fear and anxiety about U.S. schools, because the whole world has heard about the school shootings that occur with regularity in the United States. So she offers advice to newcomers and explains how her children are doing in the Winona schools. "We always stay in touch with them and offer our friendship," Chalymar says. "It helps them to hear our stories about our own experiences," Chalymar says, "and that has helped them become more trusting of the school system."

Once settled in Winona, Chalymar began noticing that jobs take up a huge part of people's lives. "Many people here," she says, "just go back and forth between work and home, work and home." She saw a gap for genuine community in Winona. Chalymar decided that she wanted to help fill some of the gaps she noticed by teaching others about her Puerto Rican culture, especially traditional dances and painting. "Some people have the wrong idea about Puerto Rico," she says. "I want to help educate people about my home country, and Project Fine has helped me find the space to hold classes."

When I ask Chalymar what drives her, she says that family comes first. Chalymar's idea of family is deeply rooted in her own experience as a child in Puerto Rico. Her mother abandoned her after she was born, and when her father's neighbors and community realized that he was a single dad, they immediately stepped up and helped him raise her. It was these neighbors and other women from her community who passed on traditions, who taught her how her body works, who taught her to always help others when she sees a need. "Those women," Chalymar says, "taught me who I am, and that's who I remain." She wants to make sure that her own children, and the children in her community, have the same opportunities she had.

Since moving to Minnesota, Chalymar has repeatedly experienced how someone who is not perceived as a "real" American can be treated. Because Chalymar has light skin, she said that she is often mistaken for someone from the contiguous U.S. But when others hear her accent when she speaks, she is immediately pegged as an immigrant, as someone who doesn't "belong" here. 

"Are you legal? Or are you illegal?" she asks me. "These are the questions I'm asked. But how can a human be illegal? It does not matter if I'm legal or not. It's nobody's business. We are all the same under our skin. We all want the same things; we all want what's best for our children."

The question of legality, Chalymar points out, belies a deep ignorance of the way American citizenship works. Because Chalymar was born in Puerto Rico, she automatically became a U.S. citizen upon birth. But many Americans who live in the mainland U.S. do not know the rights of people who live in U.S.-held territories. "How are people who have so many opportunities so uneducated?" she asks, genuinely confused. "Why are they not being taught their own history?"

As a child, Chalymar studied the history of Puerto Rico in relation to all the countries and continents around it, including Canada, Africa, and Western Europe. That teaching strategy gave her a much better understanding of herself as a world citizen. 

The way children here in the U.S. are educated in school, Chalymar points out, "continues the bubble they live in with their parents, who don't realize that the whites in their bubble haven't always been white." She pauses, searching for the right words. "They think that they and their family have always been white," Chalymar says. "Their skin may be light, and they may pass for white, but that wasn't always the case, and they just don't realize it because they don't know their own history."

"We all need each other," Chalymar continues, "even if we don't understand how important others are to us." When her children struggle in school, Chalymar tells them that others are going through harder things. "Anything that is happening can be resolved," she says. "But your lifetime happens only once. You can choose to make changes; you can choose to make a difference." As her older daughter leans against her, hugging her, Chalymar says, "I tell my children that they can be the person who helps to make a difference. I tell them to stand up for who they are because what they went through before does not define their future. There's always an opportunity to learn and grow."

Chalymar wraps her daughter in a hug. "I didn't have a mother because my mother didn't want me. After I was born, she left me with my father. But there were people close to me — neighbors, other women in my community — who wanted me more than my own mother did. This is what makes me who I am. I made what was bad in my life into something good. Now I have my own children, and I want them to know that life is hard, but we are family, and we look for the good. We help others, and we share what we can with them. You always have the opportunity to help others."

As she helps her older daughter into a traditional Puerto Rican skirt, Chalymar tells me that the frog pictured on the skirt is called a coqui ("coh-kee") and is native only to Puerto Rico and nowhere else in the world. With a body made from the Puerto Rican flag, the coqui pictured on the skirt is a symbol of national pride for people from the island. Chalymar explains how tourists from Hawaii have captured coqui in Puerto Rico and smuggled them back to Hawaii, where the local coqui population has exploded. Because the frogs are vocal at night and interrupt sleep, there's a movement in Hawaii to kill all coqui. But Puerto Ricans are trying to start a movement to trap the frogs and return them to Puerto Rico. As Chalymar speaks, I see a parallel between the plight of the coqui and her own family. The coqui in Hawaii are simply trying to survive and thrive in a new land.

While Chalymar helps her daughter with the waistband of the skirt, I ask her what keeps her moving forward. "It doesn't matter what is going on with me," she responds. "I want to be the best that I can be. I look for ways to educate others and help make my community stronger and more connected."

Chalymar encourages her daughter to strike a traditional dance pose for me, and she does, holding her skirt out at the sides and bowing slightly. "I have always believed that everything happens for a reason," Chalymar continues. "We lost everything we had in the hurricanes, and then we got off the plane in Minnesota, and we still had nothing. We couldn't accept that our own children were homeless. We said to each other then that we will always do our best to find the positive in what has happened. If we had stayed in Puerto Rico, we would still be dealing with food shortages and the loss of electricity." 

"We have worked very hard for what we have here in Winona." Chalymar pauses, stressing each word. "I'm not talking just about material stuff. We have worked very hard to keep our family together."

"And we have succeeded," she says proudly. "We are together."

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Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.