Vanessa Martinez in her office

Vanessa Martinez

Six students are camped out on the floor outside the office of Associate Professor of Anthropology Vanessa Martinez. Another has followed her there from class.

"OK,"she says, surveying the group, "who was here first?"

The scene is typical. The numbers speak to both her popularity and accessibility as a teacher. In 2007, when she applied for the full-time teaching job at HCC, her PhD advisor at the University of Massachusetts warned her not to take it.

"Vanessa," she recalls being told, "you're the type of person who will live in your office with students outside your door. Don't do it."

She didn't listen and laughs now at the accuracy of that prediction. But she's not complaining. Martinez teaches anthropology and sociology at HCC. Her classes look at diversity in both the United States and around the world, examining issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, subordinate and dominant groups. She looks at institutional issues through this prism, such as education and health care, how history and language play a part, and then relates the theories to current events, like Occupy Wall Street.

"The last section is sort of, once you've learned it, once you've acquired this awareness, now what do you do?"

Born in San Sebastian, Puerto Rico, Martinez - a "military brat," she says - moved to the states when she was four but identifies strongly with her Hispanic heritage. "One thing I've been told is that I often serve as a mentor for Latino students who in the past haven't been able to see themselves getting to the point where they're a teacher or have the level of education I have," she says.

In October, Martinez received a "Latino Teaching Excellence Award" from Gov. Deval L. Patrick and was invited to the State House for a ceremony celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

"That was an incredibly humbling experience," she says. "I think I am a pretty good teacher but I was like, wow, this is just amazing."

In her office, every inch of bulletin board space is covered with messages of social justice-bumper stickers, political pins, signs, flyers, newspaper articles:

"Dissent Protects Democracy," "War is Terrorism with a Bigger Budget," "Keep Abortions Legal," "Get Corporations Off Welfare," and one of her favorites, "Juntos Somos Fuertes," which means "Together We are Strong."

There is another her students always laugh at because they think it describes her so well: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

"I always tell my students, I don't expect you to agree with me," Martinez says. "In fact, I encourage them to do their own research. But the thing I care about most is: One, that you understand the anthropology; and two, that you understand why you think the way you do. You can keep whatever ideas you want, but at least know where they came from. "


Holyoke Community College
303 Homestead Ave. Holyoke, MA 01040