The Power of your Story

In my work for the Surge Institute, I find myself reflecting personally on our fellowship program objectives. Recently, none have resonated with me more than the power of one’s personal story.

My story matters and makes me a better leader.

That’s the crux of the objective. For me, this means a journey into my childhood. In the past two months, I have chosen to intentionally proclaim my story as the son of an immigrant.

I am proud to be the son of an immigrant whose parents overstayed their visitor visa. I am proud to be from a family that survived deportation. The 2:00 a.m. immigration knock on my parent’s apartment in Little Italy ended with my mother Josefina and my father Rito in handcuffs, being processed for deportation. My mother, who was seven-months pregnant, found the mercy of the courts and was allowed to stay because of the baby in her belly. My father did not find that same clemency, was deported, and as a result did not witness my birth.

Soon after my birth, we joined my father in Mexico. I treasure the few memories I have of growing up there and am grateful that my first language is Spanish. I am proud that English is my second language. I am proud that my citizenship helped my parents to eventually become residents of this country.

This is my immigrant story.

My identity, strength, and purpose as a leader is intertwined in this story. This story led me to become a teacher and a principal in the very community in which I grew up. When asked why I lead, I am reminded of Cesar Chavez’s words: “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

Every single time I drive through the streets of Chicago and I see my people, in either frigid cold temperatures or suffocating heat, selling tamales, paletas (ice cream), fruit, and cotton candy.  I quietly thank them because their sacrifice reminds me that we both share a similar story and I am grateful. I choose to see their dignity and I acknowledge the strength in our collective narratives.

More recently, familiar elements of my story have taken center stage. The vitriol that currently exist in our country is taking a toll. My heart breaks as a result of the hatred, xenophobia, and racism unleashed toward so many of our immigrant neighbors. This anti-immigrant narrative, full of micro-aggressions, hate, and misinformation has place families, friends and children under the siege of fear and stress. Silence, anonymity, and obscurity is now palpable in many of our communities in Chicago.

And so I proclaim my story.

“The anti-immigrant logic has basically saturated our world. I’m staying, and I’m fighting,” said Junot Diaz. I am fighting by being intentional to share my story as an immigrant in every possible circle, space, and encounter where I can. I have chosen to share, to bring light and to compel others through my story. This is the least I can do. We must create a counter-narrative to the vitriol. We must challenge the current dominate narrative and we must be intentional in our approach.

Let’s continue to tell our stories in power!

Rito Martinez

Vice President of National Programs


The strategy of counter narrative and counter story telling can be one small but intentional strategy of resisting and fighting back. Below is a quote and a resource:

“Counter story-telling stems from critical race theory, which began around the mid-1970s.  Solorzano & Yosso (2002) define counter-storytelling as “a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told” (p. 26).  So, counter-stories can be used to expose, analyze, as well as challenge deeply-entrenched narratives and characterizations of racial privilege, sex, etc.  In this sense, counter-stories can help promote social justice by putting a human face to the experiences of often-marginalized groups.”

Click here to learn more about counter storytelling.