"Most of my teachers told me I would end up dead or in jail,” Caleb Martinez says matter-of-factly. And they were partially right. After his father left the family when he was eight, Caleb lost his foundation. His mother moved them from the Indian reservation they lived on in Arizona to San Diego and as the only breadwinner, she didn’t have much time to watch over them. “My brother and I got involved in gangs. I was in and out of incarceration most of my high school years.”
When he was 17, his girlfriend got pregnant and after Caleb’s daughter was born, she left him with the baby. While that would send most young men his age spiraling out of control, the opposite happened. “I owe a lot to her. I guess I grew up never feeling wanted or loved, feeling like I was a bad guy. I just thought that if she could love me that much, I couldn’t be as bad as everybody thought.” He worked a number of dead-end jobs, because of his record that’s all he could get. “I started noticing that people would get promotions off of ideas that I suggested; ideas they had said were stupid. When my daughter was in kindergarten I decided to go back and get a vocational degree.”
While his earlier teachers thought he wouldn’t last, that wasn’t the case at Grossmont College. One day, Caleb’s humanities teacher asked him what he wanted to do. “She saw something in me. She told me I shouldn’t be a computer technician and asked what I was really interested in.” Caleb told her about his interest in advocating for others and the need for policies to help the poor. “She said I should think about getting a law degree. I never thought that was something I could do, but she told me I could.”
Even with his new path defined, it wasn’t always easy. “As a single parent, I was getting meal cards through the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS). One day I was accused of stealing them from a single mom and told the cards were only for women. I was handcuffed and they checked everything and saw that they were my cards.”
Ready to walk out and give up, Caleb says Divine Intervention stepped in. As part of EOPS, he had one more appointment with his advisor scheduled, but the advisor had to cancel. Instead, he met with the director of the program. “He was my brother’s counselor in juvenile hall and had written letters of support for him.” Jimmy Martinez was murdered when Caleb was 14. “He had told me at my brother’s funeral that if I ever wanted to finish what my brother started to come and see him. By chance, I ended up in his office that day.” Caleb got his AA degree in political science and was asked to be a speaker at the commencement.
He had some challenges adjusting to the academic rigor at Cal at first, but the political atmosphere and activism re-charged him. He is president of the Student Parent Association and involved with the Underground Scholars Initiative, an organization for Berkeley students who were incarcerated.
This semester he was accepted into the UCLA Law Fellows Program. The goal is to prepare diverse students for a career in law and to increase the diversity of students in law schools. “I go to UCLA one weekend a month. We’re learning how to look at and read law cases, and we meet lawyers who come from similar backgrounds as us. A lot of people from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the networking to even know what a lawyer is like. We’ve never spoken to a lawyer unless they’re our lawyer.”
This summer, Caleb will be working on his Miller Scholar’s research project. “I’m going to argue that we need to invest in education not only in low-income areas but also in places such as juvenile hall and prison as an alternative method for rehabilitation. Things like access to financial aid, building networks, and being exposed to knowledge can reduce recidivism. I think the smartest people I’ve ever met are behind bars. There’s a lot of lost potential in the cells and in the graveyards.”