Adriana Mendez Martinez
Jewelry Designer I March 9, 2017
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When Venezuelan-born Adriana first came to the United States at the age of 16, she did not plan on staying in the country long-term. A recent high school graduate, Adriana came to America with the support of her family in order to complete an educational program that was to last no more than a year. After completing the program and returning to Venezuela, Adriana began to wonder about a more permanent life in the States.
“The first day I started college back in Venezuela, I almost got robbed. This guy was following me and I had to run away. When I got home I slammed the door and realized that I didn’t want this for my life. So I talked to my parents.”
Though the prospect of parting with her friends and family made the decision more difficult, the loved ones in Adriana’s life were all supportive of her desire to live abroad.
"They felt like there was something in me that always wanted more. I always wanted to explore. For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to travel. I always wanted to see what’s outside.”
Adriana’s parents encouraged her to pursue opportunities in Chicago, as she had a cousin living in the city who was eager to help with the adjustment to American life. In 2008, Adriana seized her opportunity by enrolling to study at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago.
“It’s like that thing about a train people always tell you,” Adriana explained, “This train was going to pass and I had one chance to jump on it. I’m really glad I did.”
Despite her positive outlook now, Adriana encountered a number of difficulties in her initial transition into American life. Though she had received a qualifying score on her TOEFL examinations and was a proficient English speaker, she still couldn’t help but feel she was in some ways lacking something.
“I had a really hard time connecting with Americans when I came here. I always thought they looked down on me for being from another place or for speaking with an accent. I was very self-conscious, so I stayed quiet and tried to hang out with the Latino kids.”
Under the wing of her cousin, though, Adriana began to navigate the city and become more comfortable in her new home. In those first few months, Adriana says her cousin took on a role that was more akin to a big sister, serving as a mentor to her throughout her transition.
“She tested me,” Adriana recalled through bursts of laughter, “the language was a struggle for me, and for my final test she had me do a complicated order at a McDonald’s. That’s when I knew I had made it.”
After her first year, Adriana’s situation continued to improve. She applied and was accepted to Columbia College Chicago, which had been her original choice prior to leaving Venezuela. However, her time at Illinois Institute of Art still proved to be invaluable, as it was there that she met Enrique, the man who eventually became her husband.
“My life is just a romantic comedy,” Adriana said with a beaming smile, “On Valentine’s Day, I sat in front of him in class and I turned around and the first thing I said to him was ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’ How could you not have a love story when it starts like that?”
“Chicago is an incredible city. The creative energy is great. People are driven to do stuff for themselves as opposed to waiting for things to happen. That proactive attitude reminds me of Puerto Rico, at least as I know it.”
Manu discussed one of his biggest sources of inspiration since coming to Chicago: theBikes 4 Books project, an annual long distance bike ride that raises funds for educational non-profits.
Adriana and her husband Enrique
Once she had transferred to Columbia College, Adriana felt a surge of creativity reinvigorated within her. In Venezuela, her family had praised her for her intricate beaded jewelry. Though she had originally considered the craft a hobby, she decided to try selling some of work through her school’s Student Only Shop. Initially, Adriana said that the process made her feel vulnerable, but that she had to learn to let people judge her.
“Every time that I showed it to people, they had nothing but nice things to say. So I realized it was just all in my head and I was the one putting myself down. I had to find that thing inside of me that said ‘You’re good enough’.”
Today, Adriana is selling her jewelry on her own, going to markets and photographing her own products. She admits that she still sometimes feels that vulnerability, but her initial success at Columbia College has endowed her with a new sense of confidence in her own work.
Nearing her 10-year anniversary in the United States, Adriana reflected on how living abroad has changed her life. Coming at such a young age was a tremendous challenge, and it was easy for her to feel overwhelmed in the initial transition. But each and every trial contributed to shaping the person who Adriana has become today.
“When you actually move to a place, you grow up. If anything, I realized I could be on my own. By myself, I was okay. I was able to survive. I felt like I was growing because I put myself outside of my comfort zone.”
Turning to Chicago, Adriana spoke of how her perceptions of American culture have changed over the years. She no longer feels like those around her look down on her or see her as an outsider, and realized that these fears were internal ones. There’s an inherent warmth to people here, once you get to know them better, she says.
As for the future, she hopes to see immigrants continued to be welcomed in Chicago, because the exchange of culture and art is what she feels makes a city great. As a final thought, Adriana shared with us what she thinks is so special about packing up your things, leaving home, and setting out for new and uncharted lands.
“My favorite part of moving to another culture is the not knowing. The unknown. The little excitement you get when you get on a plane and you don’t know where you’re going. What’s going to happen? I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out."