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Leadership, Listening, and Changing Course: J.R. Martinez Speaks at Rose Hill

J.R. Martinez is a burn survivor, Army veteran, actor, New York Times best-selling author, winner of Dancing with the Stars, and former student at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies. In his current role as a motivational speaker and advocate, Martinez came to Fordham’s Rose Hill campus on Sept. 18 to speak to students as the Fall Leadership Speaker, an event sponsored by the Leadership Initiatives Committee club and the Office for Student Involvement.

A Mom Who Listens

Speaking to a crowd of about 50 students, Martinez recalled how his mother, who had emigrated from El Salvador, gave him a simple task to do while she worked the night shift: he was to record her telenovelas. He remembers the high-pitched drama of the actors. Watching the shows later became their bonding time, he said. He told her that one day he was going to be a soap opera star.

“She listened, and there’s a difference between listening and hearing,” he said. “My mom would actually listen.”

In 2008, Martinez joined the cast of All My Children, playing a character who had served in Iraq and returned with injuries. It was a role that was very familiar to him; he had served as an infantryman in the Army, and returned from Iraq in 2003 after surviving a roadside explosion. Producers signed the unknown and untested actor for a three-month run, which eventually became a three-year run.

Martinez prefaced his trajectory from burn survivor and veteran to television star by mapping out lessons he learned along the way—including before his accident. Even then, he still faced challenges. He stressed that while his current challenges may seem extreme to some, everyone faces difficult times.

“Adversity will come to every single person in this room, it’s just going to come in different ways,” he said. “But you have the skills, you have the people, and you have the experiences to adapt too. Most important, to overcome.”

He acknowledged that many of the challenges students face are academic. But he suggested that they look beyond the assigned syllabi for answers.

“What’s also important is to sometimes get your head out of that book, get your head out of that device, take in the air, look around,” he said. “Look at the people among you, listen to the people around you, listen to their stories, their experiences, what their life is like.”

A Modest Start

Outside of hosting a great watermelon festival and being Bill Clinton’s birthplace, Hope, Arkansas, had little to offer the young Martinez. He was picked on for a number of reasons, from being the new kid to having a purportedly feminine middle name: Rene. But then he found football, which he began to see a way out. He played well, but in that small town of 7,500, college recruitment opportunities were limited. He began to notice guys drop off the team and end up hanging out on the street.

He set his sights on moving near family friends in Georgia, an audacious plan considering he’d have to convince his mom to move. He asked: if he could land a job would she consider it? Once again, she listened. At 18, with a bus ticket in hand, he went to Georgia, got a job, moved his mother out there, and readied for college. But as always, he hit a snag. He’d have to fulfill two years of academics before he could play football for one of the state universities. His mother did not have the money, and he didn’t qualify for scholarships. So he didn’t go. But this sort of shifting script is normal, he said. It’s responding with the right attitude that matters.

“When you get out into the world you’ll see a lot of people who are stuck in a box, but you are the one who is in charge, so I changed my attitude,” he said.

A New Venture

In 2002, Martinez decided that the Army presented a better option than going straight to college. He planned to serve three years, get money for a big school, and play for a big team. It seemed like a simple proposal. His mother wasn’t happy about it, but she listened—and supported his decision.

A few months later he was in a Humvee joking with his fellow infantrymen when his car hit an IED. He woke at a medical center in Germany. He’d suffered smoke inhalation and burns covering 34% of his body. His buddies had suffered very little physical damage, though he was quick to point out that each suffers from post-traumatic stress.

Later, at a burn center in San Antonio, Texas, he looked in a mirror.

“I saw my face and my body; my identity was taken away,” he said. “They told me I couldn’t stay in the Army because of my injuries. I was angry and upset at the world.”

His mother, of course, listened.

“I don’t know why this happened to us,” she said. “All I’m asking you to do is have a little bit of faith and be positive.”

He began to write out three new goals for each day and then executed them.

“It allowed me to hold on,” he said.

Adapting Again, and Again

His continuous adaptability, coupled with the faith and positive attitude prescribed by his mother, took him to television and fame. But even here, he warned, nothing is permanent. He said the fame was fleeting and one day the phone just stopped ringing.

“I was crowned champion of Season 13 [of Dancing with the Stars]. I beat a Kardashian! I write a New York Times bestseller, then three years later it’s over,” he said.

He soon started yet another chapter as a Fordham student. But with nationwide speaking engagements and his desire to start a family in a less hectic town, Martinez left New York for Austin, Texas. In 2018, he married his wife Diana, and shortly after they had their daughter Anabelle. Today, he continues to be a much-sought motivational speaker.

He said people now refer to him as a leader, which leaves him a bit miffed.

“What’s a leader? That’s every single one of you in this room,” he said. “You can have an impact. You’re going to show up every day. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not capable.”

He closed by echoing his mother’s actions.

“To be a great leader, what does that mean? Well to me that means, to be an individual who actually believes in listening, to listen to the people on your team, to listen to the people that you work with, to truly listen, not just hear.”




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