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From Guatemala to Roanoke Catholic School: the story of Isabel Martinez


This past weekend the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a beloved celebration especially for Latino Catholic families. In honor of the feast day, we honor our own Isabel Martinez, Roanoke Catholic’s Segura Advocate, who recently shared her life story with Our Lady of Nazareth … 


Roanoke Catholic Isabel MartinezMy name is Isabel Martinez. I am a member of Our Lady of Nazareth since 2007. I was recently asked by Father Joe if I would write a history of my involvement with Roanoke Catholic School. Since my decision to send my children to Roanoke Catholic School is based on my faith I would like to give a brief description of my own personal Catholic journey.

I was born in rural Guatemala in 1971. I was the eighth of eleven children. My family was “mestizo.” That is, we were not Mayan, or purely Amerindian or Spanish. Mestizos are a mix of ethnicities and are usually associated with a rural farming life.

As a child growing up in Guatemala in the 1970s, my life was very primitive, or “rustico,” compared to that of people of my own age who grew up in the United States. In my home we had no electricity or running water. We washed our clothes in the river, carried water to our house for cooking, drinking and cleaning, and used an outhouse as our bathroom. My father was a farmer and made his living by cultivating coffee, beans, rice, avocados and other fruits and vegetables. He never owned a tractor or mechanized equipment. My parents have never owned a car.

I gladly say that I had a wonderful childhood. I always had plenty of food to eat and a comfortable, loving home to live in with my family. And I always had my Catholic faith which sustained and guided my parents, my siblings and myself.

From my earliest memories the Catholic Church has been at the center of my life and my family’s life. My mother and father and all of my brothers and sisters went to church every Sunday. We all dressed up and my family always looked very nice; always presenting a respectful presence for our Church. It was a big weekly event to go to church and I always loved it.  I loved the messages from the Bible that were passed on to us each Sunday and I loved the music and the community of the other Catholic families. My faith gave me a strong sense of comfort and mutual support from our Catholic community, and I believed deeply that if I lived my life according to my Catholic principles that my life would be secure, strong, enriched and happy.

I went to public school starting in the first grade when I was 7 years old. Our school year ran from January to the end of October. In June of my third grade year my father took me out of school so that I could help cook for his staff of workers that cultivated his fields in a new farm he had acquired some distance from our home and the school. I was 9. I woke every morning at 2 a.m. to start cooking breakfast with the assistance of my older brother after we all said our morning prayers. In between meals I worked in the fields with everyone else.

The following January I went back to school to begin my third grade year one more time. That year my father took me out of school in July to repeat what I had done the year before. Again, in January I started third grade for the third time. I was the oldest one in my class! I began to feel that I was going to spend the rest of my life in the third grade!

My father did not believe that a girl needed more than a second grade education. My older sister and my teachers finally were able to intervene and convince my father that I was a good student, and as I loved school and learning, I should have an opportunity to continue my education. I always loved my father very much but his ways and methods of life were cultural for him. In the United States you would say he was “Old School!”

When I returned to school I was given an opportunity from my local Catholic Church to do clerical work on Saturdays to help pay for my school supplies and continue my education in the public school. Our community was too small to have its own Catholic School so I never went to a parochial school. Also, in exchange for being allowed to go back to school my mother went to work in the far off fields of my father’s farm and I had to take over the home chores of feeding and caring for my younger brothers and sisters. I was working for my family, or going to school, all day long throughout the week.

Going to church on Sunday was such a beautiful and meditative time. I absolutely cherished those quiet moments when I could absorb the lessons of the Mass and be so thankful for all that I was able to accomplish. The Mass brought such meaning and comfort to my life and sustained me throughout the week as I continued my education.

My life was good. My family was strong and although we all worked hard we had all that we needed. Our Catholic faith gave us this wonderful comfort and strength that I knew I would want to pass on to my own children one day.

I went further in school than anyone else in my family had ever gone. I finished high school and continued on to college: Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala; the fourth university founded in the Americas (formerly the Colegio de Santo Tomas de Aquino; founded in 1562, and the first and only institution of higher learning in Guatemala until 1954). I graduated from the University in 1997 with a degree in Spanish, my native language. My faith provided me with the confidence, motivation and strength to achieve my goals and I have relied on that faith that I was taught in the Catholic Church for my entire life.

And so now you know why I have desired to have my own children continue with the Catholic faith that I was brought up with. Foremost, I wanted my children to have a strong exposure to the teachings of my church and to be instilled with the lifelong beliefs, disciplines and values of my Catholic faith. I believe these religious principles will help them to navigate the often difficult times that we all go through in our lives, and to be good, responsible and contributing members of their communities.

As well as the strong religious foundation that Roanoke Catholic School offers my children, I also feel that they are getting the best education that I am able to provide for them here in the Roanoke Valley. The classrooms are small. The teachers, the students and the parents all know one another to a great extent. It is a relatively small community, and with that size my children have a sense of belonging to a supportive group that they might not have an opportunity to receive in a larger public school. It is a community that emphasizes and reinforces their religious and spiritual upbringing. That is so important to me. It is my huge goal as a parent.

I sent my son George to Roanoke Catholic preschool when he was 4 and he has been going to school there ever since. He is now in the 7th grade. His whole school life has been at Roanoke Catholic. My daughter Natalie started school there in her kindergarten year. My husband and I sacrificed financially to send our children to Roanoke Catholic School but it has been worth every penny we have invested.

When my husband’s career began to go through difficult times we found that we were eligible to receive financial aid through Roanoke Catholic School. I also started volunteering at the school as an advocate for the Segura program. The Segura program is a nationwide program to attract Latino families to stay in or come back to the Catholic Church by offering these families financial aid so their children can attend Catholic schools. I now have a part time paid position to help recruit and enroll the children of Latino families into Roanoke Catholic School. When my husband passed away three years ago I was able to apply for financial assistance through both Roanoke Catholic School and the Segura program to assist my children with their tuition at the school. These programs are extremely helpful and important to me, to the other Segura families, and to the church itself, by providing a way for parents to receive an exemplary education for their children within a strong Catholic religious framework.

I believe that Roanoke Catholic School is the best place for my children to receive their education. I have enjoyed the benefits of the school community and my children will reap the benefits of the school’s excellent religious and academic program for the rest of their lives. Roanoke Catholic has been wonderful for my children and myself. I am so thankful to the Catholic community, both locally and at large, for the possibilities they have provided for my children’s education.