Martina Ramirez is Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, as well as Professor of Biology here at Loyola Marymount. She grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in the predominantly segregated city of Pomona, California. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Loyola Marymount in 1981, and then went on to earn her Ph.D. in biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The reason I chose to interview Martina was to connect on issues that we both have in common in being transgender, as well to better understand who she is as a person. In this oral history report, I will discuss the various topics we talked about regarding how she grew up in a White controlled environment that didn’t want her to succeed, getting into STEM as a Latinx woman, and as someone who has moved through the world as a transgender woman.
GROWING UP IN A DIFFICULT ENVIRONMENT
Martina’s first bout with inequality started when her adoptive father was framed for embezzlement and was sent to prison, due to his Mexican American ancestry. In Pomona, as she describes it, the environment was heavily segregated between the White and Latinx communities. Positions of power, such as the City Council, were largely dominated by White men, and any minority group trying to make its way in would be perceived as a threat and shut down. Martina grew up and saw the extent of racism with White, male patriarchy and its efforts to maintain its own privilege. As Martina grew up, she became aware of the hegemonic view that anyone non-white was set up to fail.
I was very much trying to not become a statistic – for example, some classmates from my 8th-grade class were later incarcerated, while others had kids out of wedlock. In Pomona, if you became anything outstanding career-wise, it was like “wow you made it!”. The attitude of White people towards us in town was “you’re the roadkill on the highway of life”. SoI didn’t want to become a statistic – I saw my dad taken down and destroyed and I didn’t want to be next.
This served as a major point of contention for Martina as she did not want to follow the traditional narrative put on her by society. Likewise, the traditional views she lived with at home concerning masculinity were also something she didn’t want to follow.
As I said, my family was Catholic and ex-military, since my dad had been a Master Sargeant in the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II. So growing up for me was like boot camp. And of course, there was also the machismo culture – “women do this, and they serve us” – but I was never into that.
For Martina as well, the issue of struggling to hide her transgender identity became noticeable early on., Being able to address that aspect of her life was something that wasn’t possible.. Growing up in a Catholic, ex-military household and without having medical coverage meant she couldn’t transition. Both of these realities meant she had to repress a key part of herself for a good portion of her life.
My gender awareness started in elementary school. But in my conservative, ex-military, Republican household, I never opened up concerning the fact that I was different.
This oppression from society and its expectations relates a lot to what Vivyan Adair talks about regarding how WoC bodies are perceived. As she states, “The bodies of poor women and children, scarred and mutilated by state-mandated material deprivation and public exhibition, work as spectacles, as patrolling images socializing and controlling bodies within the body politic” (Adair, 461). The body politic Adair mentions here is how bodies are seen as “texts” for others, something that tells you about someone from a glance. And in Martina’s case, being brown or black labeled you with certain status-quo stories, such as being seen as poor because of one’s living conditions. But the WCMP (White, cis, male patriarchy) is the result of this, creating this cycle of putting anyone labeled different down and keeping that label because they are put down. It was a label that was placed on Martina by society that she would be set up to fail, and it’s a label that she has tried to shake for most of her life.
STEM’s LACK OF DIVERSITY
Martina’s drive to major in biology came from eagerness and a love of nature which started early in her life when she spent time in her mother’s garden, and later when she would go on hikes with her first 35mm camera. Although her father wanted her to become a lawyer in order to seek justice for what had happened to him, Martina decided to pursue a career in biology. However, STEM was and still is an institutionally White, male-dominated field. For women, and especially WoC like Martina, there is an ever-greater need to be better than their White, male counterparts in order to compete. And the underrepresentation only served as a continuation of this prejudice.
When I came to LMU, I got plugged into the Jesuit ethos – being men and women for others, and so forth. While I was here, I only had one woman professor in the College of Science and Engineering over four years. There were perhaps 2 or 3 female faculty members out of 70 to 80 total. And you also didn’t see much faculty ethnic diversity either.
Martina’s early experiences within STEM and in the field of biology were also one of wide-scale underrepresentation for anyone who wasn’t White or male. For women and people of color during this time, the system was so largely set up for White males that getting into the system was an uphill battle from, again, a dominant group that didn’t see anyone other than people in its own system succeeding. And for many of these women and people of color, facing this deterrent led many to pursue other majors. For Martina, however, she had a far greater desire to make it, and not be the same statistic that was always expected for a woman of color. As she states:
[For other ethnically diverse groups of men and women in her biology cohort] they often changed their majors, or in a few cases, they left LMU. Hence, I got the idea that the only way those numbers were going to change was if the faculty lineup looked different. During my years at LMU, there were occasional student protests given that the faculty diversity didn’t match the student diversity. So I thought, “one way to solve this problem is by becoming part of the ‘system’”. Basically, seeing one woman professor and the attrition by ethnicity of my biology peers were the two things that set my mission in life, which is to change those numbers…because the atmosphere if you weren’t white and male was pretty chilling.
This underrepresentation shows a lot of the White privilege that comes from STEM especially with how it relates to institutionalized racism. In particular, it relates to the similar topic of institutional oppression Patricia Hill Collins brings up when she mentions, “A brief analysis of key American social institutions most controlled by elite White men should convince us of the interlocking nature of race, class, and gender in structuring the institutional dimensions of oppression” (Collins, 78). Collins later goes on to note how even though universities may be seen as places of opportunity, there is an underlying factor of elite White men still controlling many of the higher positions, and Martina saw the extent of that during her time as an undergrad. Which is why her achievements in reaching the status of a higher-up both as Professor of Biology and as Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence are so compelling, because she is trying to dismantle this type of institutional oppression from the inside out.
Hearing Martina talk about trying to be a voice for those who didn’t have it by achieving a high-status position that the White, male patriarchy said she couldn’t have is incredible. It represents her ability to combat this institutionalized racism even with the major disadvantages she’s faced in regard to oppression. As she explained, to be a woman of color in a position of power would help serve as a beacon for other disadvantaged kids like she once was; to help them achieve their goals against this WCMP society.
THE TRANS EXPERIENCE
Lastly, there is the piece that I connect with all too well, and that’s being trans. Going into this interview, I had never met another trans woman in person, and having the chance to talk about something that was very personal for the both of us was something that was very much on my mind going in.
Part of the WCHP is the cisgender aspect of it, and those who don’t fall in line are regarded as freaks. One of the biggest issues in regard to being trans is the feeling of not fitting anywhere, of not being accepted by anyone due to that difference, and Martina has certainly had her fair share as she says:
In 1979, back when I was an undergrad at LMU, a book appeared entitled The Transexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male by Janice Raymond. She essentially argued that trans women were ’male forces invading the female space.’ So supporters of this view look at us like we are some kind of aliens. I’ve been in settings that seemed tinged by that same hatred from 40 years ago. Even today, there are certain spaces where if someone finds out you’re trans, their attitude toward you changes in a bad way.
There is still a negative view by the hegemonic lens of society, not just in the US but around the globe, towards trans people, and Martina is definitely no stranger to the repercussions that come with being transgender. One of the main ideas she talked about during the interview was theidea of resources or being able to afford to transition medically if one wishes to do so. For most of her life, having the necessary means to afford transitioning was simply not possible due to the position she was in.
By reading Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography in 7th or 8th grade, I knew if you had resources you could medically transition. But that wasn’t going to happen for me since we were so poor.
For trans people, and trans women, in particular, the notion of being treated differently in a negative manner, especially after someone knows a person is trans, is a common phenomenon. Katelyn Burns gives a good explanation for this attitude against trans women when she says, “Culturally, people perceived as assigned male at birth (AMAB) who present as female are the butt of constant ridicule. It stems from misogynist notions that women and femininity are inherently inferior, thus making AMAB people who present that way ‘delusional’ or a joke to be mocked” (Burns). The issue lies with how trans women are perceived as “men dressed as women”, yet at the same time are also not considered men due to being seen as “lesser” because they present female.
But for Martina, being trans and fighting back against this oppression is just another part of who she is. As she says in regard to her upcoming biography:
The biography isn’t simply a trans narrative, it’s more like telling the tale of how a person adopted at nine months into challenging circumstances has spent a lifetime fighting back against the forces of evil while helping as many people as she could along the way.
This interview taught me a lot about seeing my own privilege, as well as Keating’s idea of listening with raw openness. Besides being trans, our intersectionalities differ quite a bit. Living as a White male, I was always taught that the world is your oyster and that you can always achieve great things. I was shocked when she first told me about how much society tried to put her and her family down. In contrast, society expects White men to reach for success, and then it helps them get there. When you have privilege, it often times becomes invisible to you. As I listened to Martina, I made sure that all my thoughts were focused on trying to understand her. It was a process of listening and connecting. Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and from the moment she answered my first question, it became apparent of how much more there was to her. Hearing what she had to say about her life meant that I had to completely encapsulate the idea of empathy, of simply focusing and being attentive to what she had to say. It forced me to get rid of all my preconceived notions and change my understanding based on what she was telling me about what she’s gone through. Listening to the struggles and triumphs of Martina, of how society was set up against her, yet she somehow survived, is a testament to who she is as a person. Martina is a strong woman who has shown she can win against the odds, and I am very glad to have conducted this interview.