Award-winning Holland documentary to get hometown premiere

The award-winning documentary “First Voice Generation,” which was filmed in Holland, will finally have its hometown premiere this week. And that’s exciting for filmmaker Cynthia Martinez and the three Latino students featured in the documentary, who are all Holland residents. 

“I'm excited for the impact the film is making, especially on our young people,” Martinez says of the documentary that will be shown Wednesday and Thursday (Oct. 4 and 5) at Hope College’s Knickerbocker Theatre in downtown Holland. The second night is a fundraiser for the film, and tickets that night are $10. Students have free admission. The Wednesday showing is at 6 p.m., and Thursday is at 6:30 p.m.

The documentary is about then-Holland-area high school students –  Nayeli Mora, Angel Ruiz and Gael Figueroa-Enriquez – struggling with identity and belonging as children of Mexican immigrants. They dream of being the first in their family to attend college, but the global pandemic exacerbates the challenges they already are facing as first-generation college students.

“The film is very much a piece of history for the West Michigan community because the film highlights what the students were going through during the pandemic,” Martinez says. “We see what has happened in our community and in our state and nationally, how the pandemic impacted our education system and our students.”

Martinez believes that the pathway out of poverty is often through education. She hopes the film inspires better representation of Latino teachers and school leaders in West Michigan as its Latino population in the region continues to grow. 

Prize-winning work

The film’s showings are among several campus screenings across Michigan during Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Earlier, it was shown at Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University and Ferris State University. It will be shown Oct. 7 at 3 p.m. at Western Michigan University.
"First Voice Generation" promotional poster
The film has been making the circuit of film festivals and colleges.The film won Best Independent Feature Documentary at its premiere at Central Michigan University’s International Film Festival, and Martinez won Best Director at the Mexican-American Film & Television Festival.

She’s managed to promote the film while completing another major project: the birth of her daughter. Now, 10 months old, she has accompanied her mom to several film festivals – making an adorable plus one.

Martinez’s ultimate goal is for the documentary to be screened at the White House to bring awareness to first-generation students like herself and the students featured in the documentary.

“I think the work of making college more accessible and affordable can be done at the national level, meaning legislation can be put into place to help first-gen students,” Martinez says. “I also feel that it starts with the institutions, with colleges, with universities, recognizing those challenges and how they can work with getting students into the colleges and then keeping them.”

In 2020, nearly 22% of U.S. undergraduate college students were Latinos, the second largest ethnic group enrolled at the undergraduate level. While Latinos outpace other ethnic groups as first-generation college students (44%), compared to Black (34%), Asian (29%) and white (22%) students, they lag behind in receiving financial aid, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute

Personal stories

Martinez understands the struggles of generational poverty all too well. She’s the granddaughter of Mexican migrant farm workers and the daughter of two teenage parents who had a rough start, she says. She graduated from West Ottawa High School, then earned her bachelor’s from Western Michigan University and a master’s from Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Filming of the documentary film, "First Voice Generation."

She credits the TRIO Upward Bound program at Hope College as the bridge for her path to college, showing her how to navigate a path that was unfamiliar to her family. The pre-college preparatory program works with students in grades 8–12 who are interested in pursuing an educational program beyond high school. The three students featured in the documentary also participated in the program.

This week’s showings will be followed by a panel discussion with two of the students featured in the documentary: Nayeli Mora, a West Ottawa High School graduate who attends GVSU, and Gael Figueroa-Enriquez, a former Holland High student who attends Hope College. The third student, Angel Ruiz, a Holland High School grad now at Kalamazoo College, is studying abroad in Italy.

“I think it'll create great discussion, and the audience will be able to meet the people featured in the film,” Martinez says. 

The Wednesday screening at the Knickerbocker is free. The Thursday evening screening is a fundraiser, and tickets are $10. The money raised will be used to cover the remaining costs for the film. Most of the funding for the film came from a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $51,000 in 30 days. 

Any additional funds that will be given to the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holland, which has been partnering with Martinez on the project. Any donation above the $10 is tax deductible. 

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.