Sanjuanita Martinez, Cornell Running Star, Protests on the Track

Sam competing in the steeple on the Cornell College team (left). Over the weekend, Sam competing unattached in her black kit (right).
Sam competing in the steeple on the Cornell College team (left). Over the weekend, Sam competing unattached in her black kit (right).

Imagine working for years to be at the top of your sport and finally earning a spot as one of the favorites for an NCAA title. What, beyond a debilitating injury or illness, could possibly inspire you to give up on chasing that once in a lifetime dream?

Sanjuanita (Sam) Martinez, a senior cross-country and track standout at Cornell College in Iowa is a 5-time All-American, one of the top D-III steeplers, and has a serious shot at an NCAA title. Yet, she is choosing to potentially take herself out of contention and that choice has nothing to do with her health. Sam is refusing to run for Cornell College and instead running as an unattached athlete (racing as an individual and not as a part of her school’s track team) and is trading in her Cornell uniform for an all-black kit.

She is using her high-profile position as a star athlete on campus as an act of protest racism on campus. Read on to find out what happened to inspire Sam’s activism, what she hopes to accomplish, and how the school and her team have reacted.

Sam explains what happened to inspire her activism:

On Sunday night [April 10, 2016] students wrote, “Build a Wall/Make it Tall” on the kiosks [public graffiti spots] on campus. I saw this message at 8 am and by noon, since it hadn’t been taken care of, some sorority sisters of mine and I took it upon ourselves to just paint over it. We didn’t write a message or retaliate, we just felt that the wording made many uncomfortable. It wasn’t until 7:58 pm that we got a message from our VP of Student Affairs regarding the incident.

A day later, on Monday, April 11, passengers identified as male Cornell athletes shouted from a car, “Build a wall!” several times at pedestrians from the Latino student center, Union Latina. Then on Wednesday. April 13, Sam noted someone wrote “Trump 2016” and “weak at the borders” in chalk on campus. On Thursday, April 14, masked students spray-painting over a message of unity on the kiosks. Additional graffiti on campus read, “If I could deport you myself I would.”

It wasn’t the acts or words themselves that inspired Sam’s protest, rather it was the actions, or lack of actions, of the school administration and local police force that inspired her. Sam explained that she and others were dissatisfied by the response of the administration, which initially dismissed these events as acceptable free speech. In response to complaints about the anti-Latino graffiti, school officials responded, “Free speech can, at times, cause frustration, anxiety, and fear, especially among groups who have felt marginalized.”

Sam fired back when I asked her about the school’s statement, saying “free speech does not equal hate speech and we as people of color, have not felt marginalized, we are marginalized.”

Stating additionally that she did not feel “included, equal, and safe” on campus, Sam declared her intentions on social media to wear black instead of representing Cornell.

Sam Martinez 's public response on social media to racially-motivated incidents on her college campus.
Sam Martinez ‘s public response on social media to racially-motivated incidents on her college campus.

When asked about the incidents at Cornell that inspired Sam’s protest, Jill Hawk, Public Relations Director for Cornell College, issued the following statement:

Incidents this past week have had an impact on the entire campus. Cornell College respects all of our students’ opinions. Cornell College strives to make sure students feel welcome and valued. Sam Martinez and all of the students are strong contributors to the campus culture. Faculty and staff are working toward erasing any feeling of insecurity. Cornell College believes it has a strong policy on freedom of speech. Administrators, staff and student leaders regularly take part in policy reviews for the entire code of conduct, but at this time there is not a policy review planned based on recent incidents at Cornell College.

Sam is undeterred and not backing down. As long as she’s protesting and running as an unattached athlete and not wearing her team uniform, Sam will not be eligible to defend her conference championship or participate in NCAA competition, where she is ranked number two in the steeplechase. However she feels that fighting for social justice is more important:

In 10 years my record will be broken, in 15 all my records will be gone. In 20 years I will be forgotten and in 30 who knows if I’m even still running. I will forever be a Mexican-American and that will never change. So yes, it is worth it. I owe it to my family, my friends, and most importantly to myself. I am standing up for myself and I want the concerns of our POC to be acknowledged. Another medal or even a national title won’t be anything more than an accolade in the future.

Sam stated that making her stand in the realm of athletics is especially appropriate given that “the majority of the perpetrators on campus have been male athletes, some of whom had already been suspended from their respective programs prior to these incidents. That makes me very uncomfortable not only as an athlete of color, but as a female athlete.”

Sam’s coach and most of her track teammates have voiced their support for her, even if it means missing their team captain’s contributions on the track.

Many of my teammates … told me they really admired the stand that I was taking. There were a few who were mad and didn’t understand why I was doing it but that’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. There were a few athletes from other teams who said they had heard my story and hoped that things would soon change at Cornell. One in particular gave me a hug and said she would be keeping me and my friends in her prayers.

In addition, Sam hopes her story may have influence outside of the Cornell College community. “I’ve had many athletes from other schools tell me horror stories from their schools, so I feel like it’s definitely not a new issue,” she said after taking 2nd place in the 1500m this weekend at Western Illinois University.

Sam will attend Drake University School of Law in the fall with intent to specialize in international law, working with immigrants and refugees.

Would you forgo your running dreams to take a stand?

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

Leave a Reply

36 comments

  1. The original graffiti “build a wall, make it tall,” crossed the line. Free speech is not absolute, no matter what the haters want you to believe. Cornell’s inaction is shameful.

  2. Stay Strong, Sanjuanita! So proud of your accomplishments and the path you’ve chosen! I’ll share this with my students! You’re a hero!

  3. What exactly is a school supposed to do to someone that yells “build a wall” out their car window? Punish them? Not likely. The “I’d deport you if I could” on the bathroom wall crossed the line as it appears that it may have been directed at Cornell students. But I’m not sure what Martinez would expect the school to do if they don’t know who did it. Besides it’s just a sentence on a bathroom wall. The world is not going to end.

    1. The world also isn’t ending because a woman chose to race unattached as a means of protesting something she believes is wrong. Not sure what point you’re trying to make.

  4. Most of what I just read shows the major problem with RACISM. Most people think it is not a problem when it is so clear to someone like myself who is African American that Ms. Martinez was 100% right in calling the School out on letting such actions take place at an institution of higher learning !!

    1. Most people who don’t experience racism think it’s not a problem, but everyone else KNOWS it is. It’s one of those things that a) people who don’t experience cannot relate to and b) makes those people very uncomfortable to confront. When trying to explain racism to a white person who doesn’t understand why it’s “such a big deal” it’s almost impossible to come up with an example from their own experience or an analogy that can explain it in ways they can understand. Like the “I’d deport you if I could thing.” That’s racist when screamed at Latino people. But a person who has not experienced racism doesn’t get that. They don’t understand what it’s like to be a person in a country who’s government has the power to actually remove you from your home and exile you away from your friends, family, and everything you know and that many of the people with political power in your country support doing so without even hearing what you have to say. What example can you give to a white person that helps them know how this feels?

      It’s frustrating. Here’s an attempt to explain racism to people who can’t relate to it that is one of the most effective things I’ve ever seen and it’s pretty funny (and sad) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw_mRaIHb-M

  5. I’m not really sure what this accomplishes. Refusing to run for your team only punishes yourself and your teammates. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

    1. I can’t speak for Sam, but I believe it had more to do with her feeling uncomfortable representing an institution that seemed to dismiss concerns of POC.

  6. I agree with Cornell on this one. It’s nice to see a college protecting student’s rights to voice their opinions. I didn’t see any statements here that were blatantly racist. The “I’d deport you myself if I could” was borderline, but it wasn’t directed at any individual so I think it’s fine. If a student directed it at an individual legal immigrant student or group of students on the Cornell campus, that would be a different story. But it was written on a free speech wall, presumably directed toward illegal immigration in general, not a specific student on the Cornell campus. Key difference

    1. So a statement to a group of individuals can’t be racist? I’m not sure I completely understand your theory on what is racist and what isn’t racist. Or the difference between blatantly racist and … racist?

      1. I’m just saying that writing “I’d deport you myself if I could” if it’s intended to be directed at illegal immigrants in general, is not racist. It’s like saying “I’d arrest you myself if I could” to somebody that is robbing a bank. They are both breaking the law. If the comment was directed specifically at a legal immigrant and you are attacking them because of their race, then it would be different. But it doesn’t sound like that’s not what happened here

    2. That wasn’t written on the free speech wall, it was graffiti in a bathroom stall– which sheds some light on the individual’s intention who wrote it… They didn’t write it out in the open for a reason. Same reason they wore masks.If you felt like you were just voicing your opinion about immigration in general, why the need to cover your face and graffiti your sentiments rather than using the free speech kiosks? A specific group of students (Latino) is being targeted and intimidated just because of their heritage/appearance, not because of their immigration status.

      1. Oh ok well in that case it’s not good. I wouldn’t condone vandalism, and the details you gave make it sound like it had malicious intent. Still sounds like kind of a silly thing to throw a senior track season away for though. I personally would have just ignored it and moved on and not punished myself and my teammates, but I guess that’s her decision to make

  7. Free speech should absolutely be protected, and having those kiosks sounds like a way to attempt to have intelligent discourse because it allows a place for opinions to be voiced/debated out in the open. Once the messages (more overtly racist) appeared in bathroom stalls, sprayed under the cover of darkness, and yelled in front of the Latino student center the line from free speech to harassment and intimidation was crossed. Sam sounds like a remarkable and strong woman for standing up.

  8. Sam is an inspiration. Her comments about being a Mexican American vs star athlete are so mature and rationale. While I agree with the right to free speech, it does have its limits (inciting violence or shouting fire in a crowded event). “If I could deport you myself, I would” was the comment that tipped the balance for me. This is anti-Latino, hateful and not reflective of what our institutions of higher learning should tolerate.

    Sam is right to take a stand because it appears Cornell is using free speech to avoid a political issue. I’m white American because my eastern European great grandparents were fortunate enough to come to America when we were open to immigrants. We need a better immigration policy and we need more tolerance to POC. It’s great to see so many Latino athletes competing at such elite levels here in the US and I hope that it inspires the next generation to participate.

    Sam, you have my support.
    Cornell, you are an embarrassment to the Ivy League.

      1. Ah, that explains it even more. I’m not saying red states are Inherently racist but I’m not sure they even understand they are that way or what defines racism. Same way many men think talking about a women’s body isn’t sexist because they are “complimenting” it.

          1. Greg you could have made your point in a far more respectful way. I trust if you make any more comments here, you’ll take that advice to heart.

  9. Voicing support for enforcement of our country’s immigration laws is not racism. The school is doing the right thing protecting the free speech of its students. This student is not on scholarship and has every right to protest if she wants, but other students have the right to share their opinions on immigration laws. However, I would encourage people to do this in a respectful and productive way.

    1. Of course people have the right to make statements about their opinions on immigration laws, but they don’t have the right to intimidate people. If Cornell College wants to be a beacon of free speech, perhaps they should have a town hall on immigration laws so these students with their well-researched and informed positions on immigration policy can voice them in that respectful and productive way.

      1. Yeah, I agree a townhall would be nice if the students wanted to organize that. I just think people need to learn to be more respectful of opinions that are different from theirs and not be so quick to dismiss it as “racism.”

        1. If the speakers wanted to be taken seriously for their political opinions then I would say it’s on them to take more care in how they communicate those statements.

          1. Agreed. People can have very strong opinions on things and a lot of times they communicate that in a way that isn’t intended to persuade, but rather is intended to provoke. It’s kind of human instinct and it goes for both sides of the political spectrum. But Martinez didn’t exactly help things when she spray painted over someone’s message “Build a wall/make it tall” on the free speech wall because it hadn’t yet “been taken care of.” There was nothing wrong with that message. At the same time, it wasn’t nice of the other students to yell those things at the Latino students.

    2. Yeah I agree with you–respectful and productive talk about controversial issues is important and is totally free speech and should be protected. Drunk-screaming at people from the passenger window of a car and anonymous threatening graffiti isn’t respectful or productive, it’s harassment, in this case harassment that is directed at people of a particular race. Hey, that sounds familiar. Probably because it’s a pretty obvious example of racism.

      In my opinion, Cornell has a duty to uphold the rights of students to not be harassed just as much as it has a duty to uphold the rights of students to have respectful discourse. These jerks who are harassing other people need to be “taken care of,” with serious consequences by the school. Their opinions aren’t the issue, their behavior is.

  10. I’m also a Cornell alum and also saddened by recent events. Hate speech is NOT ok and should not be respected no matter what. I hope you have helped inspire others on campus to take a stand

  11. I am a Cornell graduate class of 1988. I ran the steeplechase. I am African American. I have run the Boston Marathon 3 times. I am with you Ms. Martinez.

  12. Way to go, Sam. I am a Cornell Alum and am so saddened to hear what is happening there. I “stand” with you! Stay strong!

  13. Proud of your accomplishments…I was your Moms ESL teacher in Bowie and remember meeting you and finding you to be a positive inspiration for all Latinos. Good luck…