Most people haven’t understood Richard Martinez III’s dreams.
As a teenager, his friends asked why he wanted to throw his life away when he told them he planned to join the U.S. Army after high school. They couldn’t fathom why a stellar student and athlete who won top national awards for Academic Decathlon and wrestling would trade a college ticket for a gun on a battlefield.
A few years later while serving as an Army infantryman in Iraq, his fellow soldiers laughed when he said he planned to go to Harvard University one day. They couldn’t imagine a soldier also being a scholar. Martinez never doubted that he could be both.
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“Ivy League or bust,” the 21-year-old says happily. “You can put that in quotation marks.”
His academic dream is about to come true: Martinez will begin his Harvard education in the fall, studying the classics. He plans to use that education in the humanities to bolster his passion for singing.
“A lot of people make that joke, ‘Jack of all trades but master of none.’ I’ve never bought into that.”
Another thing he’s never bought into: That a Mexican-American Army veteran from humble beginnings in west Fresno couldn’t go to Harvard. Martinez says lots of kids in his neighborhood have never heard of Harvard, and those who have don’t believe such an education is an option.
“They don’t believe they can because 99 percent of society is telling them they can’t. … No one should have to feel or think that they cannot accomplish or do something.”
Something to prove
Martinez’s path to success might be summed up with a sports metaphor that his father, also named Richard Martinez, passed along to him as a child: “No one is ever expecting you to hit a home run. You might as well swing for the fences anyway, and if you miss, you miss.”
“I had something to prove,” Martinez says, “definitely, for the majority of my life.”
Martinez’s parents, who both grew up in the area and put themselves through college, worked hard to better themselves and their family. Martinez’s father is a management consultant and former teacher, and his mother is a teaching association president. Both encouraged him to follow his dreams and to work hard.
“I didn’t wake up and say, ‘I want to be a very well-rounded person,’ ” Martinez says. “I just had these things that I wanted to do and to a certain degree, I was encouraged by my parents and others to do them.”
We have no one.
Richard Martinez III about a lack of Hispanic role models
His greatest passion is singing. The tenor enjoys an eclectic mix of music, what he describes as “more bluesy Motown kind of R&B (rhythm and blues) stuff.” His dream of becoming a professional singer is largely because he wants a bigger platform to share inspiring messages. Martinez says there aren’t enough well-known role models of Mexican descent, and he wants to help change that.
He’s already seen too many young people from his neighborhood abandon their dreams. “Find something you’re passionate about and don’t let go of it, despite what anybody else tells you or says you cannot do.”
‘Still I am learning’
Why spend so much time and money on classical studies at Harvard if the goal is to become a singer? Martinez switches to a form of Latin that preceded Italian to answer the question: “Still I am learning.” That’s a quote from Michelangelo, he adds, the renowned 16th century Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet.
“Once the human race decides they know everything, they are truly lost.”
In many ways, Martinez is a kind of Renaissance man himself, exploring a wide variety of interests. His high school Academic Decathlon adviser, Sean Canfield, described him as such in a recommendation letter to Harvard.
“He’s someone who can appreciate a Beethoven symphony and also wrestle and do all sorts of activities that you don’t normally associate with someone who is, say, very heavily involved in athletics. … There aren’t very many people that are well-versed in all those areas,” Canfield says.
I used the title, ‘Renaissance man.’ He’s very well-rounded. That’s something that’s unique and rather refreshing.
Sean Canfield, University High School Academic Decathlon team coach
Education has been the fuel for Martinez’s dreams. The boy who always had a book in his hand decided in middle school that he would someday attend an Ivy League college. To get closer to that goal, he entered University High School in northeast Fresno as a freshman because he wanted to join its award-winning Academic Decathlon team. He helped the team win more top awards, reaching the pinnacle in his junior and senior years when University High swept what’s considered the “trifecta” – first place in the county, small-school state, and small-school online national competitions.
Entering University High was one of the hardest decisions that he and his family, who have deep roots in west Fresno and are proud of its people, ever made.
They could have moved to more affluent neighborhoods years ago, but they stayed. Martinez’s father describes why: “We’re not the wealthiest side of town but there are good people who work hard – blue collar – and lots of talent mentally and physically. … I’m more in love with the potential of what our students can be and where we can go. We’re not there yet.”
It would have been easy for Martinez to head straight to college after his academic and athletic success in high school, but he instead enlisted in the Army, reaching another longtime goal. He’s among an estimated 100 members of his family to serve in the military since the early 1900s. Still, the young man says he never felt pressured to enlist. He decided on his own that military service is a “moral prerequisite for any young man.”
“People think that you go into the military because you’re poor or you’re stupid. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”
He was a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and helped teach Iraqi troops how to fight. As a veteran, GI Bill funds will help pay for his college tuition, as will financial aid from Harvard.
Mario Moreno, 17, is among the many who are proud of Martinez’s acceptance to Harvard. Moreno is one of a number of boys that Martinez has been coaching in wrestling several days a week at Edison High School in southwest Fresno since he was honorably discharged from the Army earlier this year. Martinez will also be wrestling for Harvard.
A leader is someone who inspires others to become their best self.
Richard Martinez III
Moreno says that Martinez not only helped him excel as a wrestler but also inspired him to be more respectful, kind and giving, and trained him to become mentally stronger and “not to give up, even though life’s hard.”
“I want to follow in his footsteps,” Moreno says.
Martinez has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good leader and decided it boils down to this: “A leader is someone who inspires others to become their best self.”