Miguel Martinez Jr.’s, 27, goal in life was to help others. He raised his siblings, cared for his friends and became a nurse to serve as a career. When he passed away from COVID-19 in July, his friends and family knew that establishing a scholarship in his honor would be the best way to extend his legacy.
It was with hard work and dedication that Martinez ultimately became a nurse. Getting to college was not an easy task, as his father passed away when he was 14, leaving him as the sole paternal figure looking after his seven siblings.
Martinez worked every year as a migrant farm worker in order to help support his family until he was able to go to college. He was the first of all his siblings and cousins to do so, which was a point of pride for Martinez and an inspiration to his younger siblings and cousins.
Despite the economic and societal barriers in his way, he eventually enrolled at USF, where he met his closest friends and the co-founders of the memorial scholarship.
Patricia Andrade, Luz Caicedo, Javier Cruz, Ivan Garcia and Veronica Victoria are the co-founders of the scholarship along with Martinez’s cousin, Eduardo Salgado, who is also a USF alumnus. The co-founders knew they wanted to do something to memorialize Martinez and after considering other methods, ultimately decided a scholarship would be the best way to honor him.
“Life isn’t the same without him. He was that guy that would come into a room and his conversation or the way he talked and approached everyone would brighten up that room completely,” Cruz said. “So [the six of us] figured Miguel was always very willing to help and contribute, so we figured we owed it to him to help honor his memory and keep his memory alive by contributing to his passion.”
One person each academic year will receive the $1,000 scholarship, and it can be awarded to the same recipient for up to five years. The co-founders wanted to make sure each recipient mirrored Martinez in passion and drive, so the group decided the scholarship should go to a male nursing student who has overcome financial obstacles, with preference for a student with a migrant worker background like Martinez, according to Caicedo.
Martinez was a first-generation Mexican American born in 1993 to migrant farm worker parents, according to Salgado. He was the oldest of eight children. When Martinez was 14, his father lost his battle with cancer and he assumed his place as head of the household.
“His goal always was putting his family and others first,” Salgado said. “Miguel had to grow up and mature a lot faster than most of us had to because he had to take on that father role and be that father figure that his little brothers and sisters needed and he did a great job.”
When his father passed, Martinez began supporting his family financially as well. He went to work in the agricultural fields across the country year-round based on the season, according to Victoria.
“He was picking mostly strawberries while he was here in Florida and then starting in June until the winter months he and his whole family would go to work in Michigan and pick mostly blueberries,” she said. “They didn’t have the best living conditions, it was very much like communal living like communal showers for everybody that worked there like older families that go migrate to work in Michigan.”
Despite helping his mom take care of all his siblings, Martinez still kept up his studies and received good grades. Salgado said before Martinez’s father passed away, he made his son promise to go to college. Martinez worked tirelessly to keep that promise, according to Salgado, and was the first person in their family to go.
Before Martinez attended USF, Salgado had not previously considered going to college. During the latter part of his senior year he asked Martinez for advice on what he should do, and Salgado quickly realized he could follow in Martinez’s footsteps.
“He was a role model that our family needed to look up to and say ‘You know what? There’s other things out there for us besides labor work,’” he said, “Labor work is a very decent job, but it’s heartbreaking, it’s very painful and seeing our parents get up every morning at 5 to get ready to go do the hard labor work was a cycle that we wanted to stop, and we did.”
During his freshman year attending USF, he met his five best friends. He first developed friendships with Victoria, Cruz and Garcia in the College Assistant Migrant Program which assists students who are migratory, seasonal farmworkers or children of such workers enrolled in their first year of undergraduate studies. Eventually, Martinez, Cruz and Garcia rented an apartment together.
Cruz and Garcia brought over their girlfriends, Andrade and Caicedo, respectively, who they are both now married to, and the circle of friends was complete. That apartment became “the place to be,” according to Andrade.
“That apartment was the place to go hang out,” she said. “We were actually laughing about this the other day because Miguel was somewhat clumsy and he was always breaking something. He even ended up breaking the handle to the oven in the apartment so we had to figure out how to open the oven without burning ourselves.”
Aside from being known as a father figure to his family and a klutz to his friends, Martinez was many other things to the group. All of the co-founders agreed he was someone who everyone could go to for help or support. He was a giver to friends, family and patients, according to Garcia. “Miguel was the kind of person that did not view work or his friendships as an obligation,” he said. “He did not meet the bare minimum, he surpassed it. He was the type of person that would try his ultimate best, including helping his friends at his utmost like they were family as well.”
Victoria said Martinez was down to earth, always open-minded and accepted every type of person. He wanted to help people as often as he could, which is why he went into pediatric nursing, but that trait showed throughout the entire time she knew him, according to Victoria.
“One time I was in the car with him, and he saw someone that was pushing their car on the side of the road because it had stopped working,” she said. “He was the one driving and he said ‘Hey, I’m going to go help out that person pushing their car to the gas station’ and he did.
“So, when I say that he would go out of his way to help someone in a big way, I mean he wasn’t just talking, he was action-oriented.”
Martinez was also the life of the party, according to the group. They said he was able to brighten up their days without fail by cracking jokes and playing loud music.
When jokes and music weren’t enough, he was always there to be a shoulder to cry on.
“He was the light and joy in the room, he was light and he was joy and he was love,” Caicedo said. “He was never afraid of being vulnerable, or showing you how he felt, or of comforting you and I think that’s something that we’re all really going to miss in our lives.”
After graduating from USF in 2016, Martinez started working as a nurse at the Golisano Children’s Hospital in Fort Meyers. As a nurse, Martinez’s friends and family said that he was incredibly caring. He excelled at making medical situations more lighthearted than scary, according to Caicedo, and his big heart led him to working with children. She said the nursing program isn’t easy, and Miguel worked hard so that he could ultimately help people in the way that he wanted to.
“We’re hoping to find other people who have that same level of compassion, but who also have that same level of grit to not stop, to not give up, because we do know that nursing is difficult,” she said. “We want to make sure that whoever gets this scholarship is someone who is going to work really hard and really embody that level of dedication that Miguel showed to complete his studies as he was the first in his family to do so.”
The six co-founders are currently raising $25,000 on the USF Foundation website to make the scholarship endowed, so Martinez’s memory lives on and his legacy can continue to help students into the nursing profession. Though they cannot make up for what they lost in Miguel, Cruz said they hope his passion can live on in others.
“I know that Miguel would appreciate what we’re doing,” Cruz said. “[He] would find it very rewarding that we’re contributing back to the USF College of Nursing and long term, helping those individuals that will be the future nurses in the next couple of years.”