Navajo Teens Make Tough Choices In 'Heartbreak'

Jul 25, 2012
Originally published on July 26, 2012 10:13 am

Like many high school students, Thomas Martinez and Tamara Hardy dreamed of leaving for college and finding their futures away from home. But both grew up on a Navajo reservation and were torn, between those aspirations and their strong ties to their poverty-stricken community.

Martinez struggles to balance the needs of his family with plans to run track in college. Hardy wants to earn an engineering degree away from home, yet like many Native parents, her mother and father are reluctant to see her leave.

In a new documentary, Up Heartbreak Hill, director and producer Erica Scharf follows the two high school seniors as they struggle with the decision of whether to stay close to what they know or leave for new opportunities.

Scharf and Martinez join NPR's Neal Conan to talk about the documentary, which airs in July as part of PBS' POV series.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

When graduation nears, high school students face important decisions about their future, whether to stay close to home amid family and friends or leave their communities for wider opportunities. A new documentary, "Up Heartbreak Hill," follows two Navajos through their senior year of high school, Tamara Hardy and Thomas Martinez.


THOMAS MARTINEZ: Around here, everyone thinks they live in a third-world country. But this is my homeland where I was raised. I guess that's what my motivation is every day, to run hard. I want to make a difference for my nation.

CONAN: Thomas Martinez and producer Erica Scharf join us in just a moment. The documentary begins to air tomorrow night on PBS as part of the "POV" series. If you've struggled with a decision about whether to leave your community, call and tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to Thomas Martinez and Erica Scharf join us from member station KANW in Albuquerque. The film is "Up Heartbreak Hill." And it's nice to have both of you with us today.

ERICA SCHARF: Thank you so much. I'm happy to be here.

MARTINEZ: Thanks for having us.

CONAN: Thomas, I wanted to ask you. We see in the documentary that you have the opportunity to go on to college after you graduate. We see you become a state champion distance runner, so the prospect of scholarships beckon. Can you tell us a little bit about what went through your mind as you made the decision about whether to stay or whether to go on?

MARTINEZ: Well, the first choice I had to make was figuring out which college I was going to go to. I already knew that I wanted to, you know, experience college and I wanted to go, but the real question I had with myself was just figuring out which one was right for me and which one I wanted to go to.

CONAN: And what we're the factors that went into your decision when you made it?

MARTINEZ: Oh, the factor mainly was, you know, how far it was going to be away from home. First of all, how I would get there on the first day of school, but then also, you know, me being a runner, I had to figure out which program I wanted, which one I felt maybe the coach and I, you know, adjusted well with. And then the main thing was, you know, some schools had cross-country, I mean, only cross-country and others had both sports. So that was another factor.

CONAN: So you run cross-country in the fall and track and field in the spring.

MARTINEZ: Correct.

CONAN: And you did both. And as - this is a decision that I think a lot of kids make, but there are obviously special circumstances there on the Navajo reservation.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, pretty much, you know, just leaving the reservation, having a different lifestyle compared to most and then trying to adjust at such a fast rate is one of the unique challenges in this documentary.

CONAN: And as you look back on your decision now, did you make the right one?

MARTINEZ: When I look back and I see this documentary today and the experiences I had so far, I feel I could have made better choices. But, I mean, I don't see them as regrets or anything. It's just if you could do it over again, that's kind of what it would be.

CONAN: I think a lot of us could have made better choices, especially when we were young. I wanted to bring Erica Scharf into the conversation, director and producer of "Up Heartbreak Hill," the references to one of the races that your main characters have participated in and both of them are runners. And I wanted to ask you: as you followed these kids, did you choose subjects who, because of their athletic prowess, would be having opportunities as they face this decision about their community and their future?

SCHARF: Well, I mean, that wasn't the reason that I chose them. Certainly, their running is a huge factor, not only because running is important in Navajo culture but because it did give them an opportunity throughout high school to travel and to see other places that maybe some of their peers didn't. But, of course, it also opened doors to potential scholarships and, you know, different avenues to college.

And so, you know, it certainly did factor in, but I chose them also just because they were well-spoken, intelligent and dynamic. And I felt like they had really interesting stories to tell with regards to their relationships with family, with their community and their goals, generally speaking, with regards to running and beyond that, you know, aspirations in college and in the future.

CONAN: Tamara's family is, at least initially, reluctant to let her go hundreds of miles away, as far as Durango, to go to college.

SCHARF: Right, absolutely. You know, Tamara's family is very close-knit. They are, you know, very prominent in the community, and I think that they felt some real trepidation about her leaving and potentially not returning. And so I think that for them, that was a huge process toward, you know, allowing her to go because the alternative, you know, staying close to home at UNM Gallup meant that she wouldn't be able to run with a team. And that was really important to her.

And so, ultimately, they did make the decision to, you know, allow her to go. But I think that was something that they really struggled with throughout her senior year. And, you know, I think there were some concerns about how she would fare in a different community, away from the reservation, away from her family, you know, with a mix of kids that she wasn't used to interacting with on an everyday basis.

CONAN: And, Thomas Martinez, I wanted to ask you. As you - we hear you in that little clip that we played earlier on say most people think of this as a third-world country, talking about the Navajo reservation. Obviously, it's home to you. It's home to everything you've known. Your family is there, your roots are there, your culture is there. And did you plan when, upon leaving for college, to go back to the reservation to bring whatever you would learn home with you?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, pretty much. I knew that when I left the reservation that I would want to return, but I wanted to return as a - like to have more knowledge as an individual and to share my experiences with kids because mainly I want to come back and work with younger youth. And that's my motivation to, you know, excel in life and to come back and be a prime example, to be that person that I wish I had in my life.

CONAN: That person you wish you had in your life. You didn't have many role models?

MARTINEZ: No. I didn't have most - I didn't have a whole lot of role models growing up just because I wasn't exposed to anything outside of the reservation, you know. The people I looked up to was my grandmother, who I lost at the age of seven. But, I mean, I didn't have like my father to be that prime example of who I should be or who he wanted me to be because, you know, he struggled with his own personal issues, and most of the time, he would be there and most times, he wouldn't. So it was just more like struggling, trying to figure out, you know, try to figure myself out on my own.

CONAN: There's a poignant moment in the film, Erica Scharf, where Thomas has just won the state championship. I don't want to - spoiler alert - but, OK, he wins the race and he is sitting there admiring a newspaper article at a picnic table, and a man who looks drunk comes over and says is that you, and wants his autograph. And there's almost a moment where a version of Thomas' future sitting there next to him.

SCHARF: Right. I mean, I think it is a really poignant moment. And, I mean, you know, it's funny in some ways, and viewers always laugh when that scene plays, but it's also, you know, it is sort of like glimpsing what the future could be if these kids don't, you know, stay in school and make smart decisions. And it's sort of, you know, this really heartbreaking example of somebody who was a runner, who clearly had a lot of talent in his youth and maybe made some bad decisions for whatever reasons, whatever factors in his life led to that path and who now, you know, obviously, has fallen far from the runner he says he once was.

And, so you know, it is sort of this poignant moment where you're contrasting, like, Thomas, who is so successful and has just won this race and has his whole future ahead of him and this man who's, you know, quite a bit older and obviously has taken an unfortunate detour in his life.

CONAN: We're talking with Erica Scharf, the director and producer of "Up Heartbreak Hill," which starts airing tonight as part of the POV series on PBS. Also with us, one of the men characterized in the film, Thomas Martinez, one of the subjects of the documentary, a former cross country and track star at Navajo Pine High School in Navajo, New Mexico. And let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We like to hear from those of you who struggled with the decision about whether to leave your community or not: 800-989-8255. Email us: J.D. is on the line with us from Athens, Ohio.

J.D.: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, J.D. Go ahead.

J.D.: Well, I grew up in a rural community around Glouster, Ohio, and my family had a feed and farm supply business there. And I was very comfortable in that business. My, you know, my dad was running that with my mom. And I found growing up that I got really interested in chemistry and biochemistry. And it - I was torn as to whether or not I should leave the business and go off and do this thing.

It turned out it worked for me, but it was a very long, long process to get back to the community. I went off to graduate school, and got my degree at Harvard and become a molecular biologist. And just last year, after 20 years of being away, I returned back home and now I have a small biotech business in Athens that's starting to sort of develop biotechnology back in the hills. And it's been an amazing process.

CONAN: So you can go home again?

J.D.: You can. You have to be well equipped.


J.D.: I brought West Coast contracts with me. But the point is that it was actually easier than I feared. You know, I thought, well, you know, if I go back, what would be that be like?

CONAN: It's interesting, Erica Scharf, the other principal character in your film, a young woman, decides pretty much the same thing as our caller did. She wanted to go get an engineering degree and come back and put that to use on the reservation.

SCHARF: Right. And Tamara makes, you know, I think a very astute observation toward the end of the film where she said, you know, I want to go out there and get the skills, but we need more businesses and, you know, technology here on the reservation. And I think that Tamara realizes that she can go out and get the degree but in order to find employment in her community, she's going to have to also bring some industry with her because as it stands now, you know, I think there are pretty limited opportunities in the town of Navajo for an engineer.

You know, not to say that there aren't any, but I think it's limited. And I think that that's the conundrum that a lot of these kids face, which is they want to bring these fields back. They want to help their community. But how do they do that? Because right now, you know, there's limited opportunities for that.

J.D.: And in my case, you know, I still had - because my family was in the area, I was still known, and people were very, very helpful to me. And in small ways and in big ways, it sort of helped me launched this business. But - and so if you can sort of combine the things that the local area has, it's not a negative. They can actually help strengthen, you know, it actually was easier for me to do this in Athens than it might have been in California, for example. But I had to bring things back with me as well.

CONAN: J.D., good luck to you.

J.D.: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. We're talking about the new documentary, "Up Heartbreak Hill." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we spoke about some of the special challenges in addition to a rural community, the Navajo reservation. I think, Erica Scharf, there's a - one of those graphics at the beginning of the film that suggests that only 30 percent have high school degrees.

SCHARF: That's right. That's not true necessarily for the entire Navajo nation, which is, you know, quite expansive and covers 27,000 square miles. But in the community of Navajo, which goes by the same name, in that small town, at present, 30 percent have high school diplomas.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. And let's go to - OK. Hold on a second. We'll get another caller in on the conversation as soon as I try to master this piece of technology, which is continuing to befuddle me as I - there we go. And now we should be able to get Matthew(ph) on the line. Matthew is with us from Kansas City. I apologize.

MATTHEW: I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

MATTHEW: I can actually empathize with what these kids went through. I, myself, grew up on a Navajo reservation near Shiprock, New Mexico. And, you know, my regrets have been the fact that I have brothers and sisters who never really knew who I really was because I left for college, because our age differences were so different. But at the same time, I could see my future, and I could see what it is I wanted to do with my life.

And I think what was the most heartbreaking for me was the fact that my mother told me that - this is after I graduated my first bachelor's - she cried for four months after I had left, and I never - she never revealed that to me after I left. So, you know, in a sense, I feel regret in the sense I was never - that I felt like I could never be there for my younger siblings, but I could - but in the sense that it's gratifying in the fact that I've went off and did these sort of things. But it's sort of 50-50.


CONAN: Thomas Martinez, I wonder if you - you must have some insight into that, too.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. I mean, like all of us, you know, like we're obligated to family. And in the Navajo culture, there's a really big sense of family, and it's always a big family. You're not just leaving a brother or a sister. You know, you're leaving like you have a really big, like intermediate family. So leaving sometimes, you know, you feel guilty, you know, to leave little ones behind, ones that look up to you, one that you've been there for most of your life for the past 18 years, and now you're about to leave.

But it's also the fact that you leave behind a community that you were raised at. I mean, on the reservation, you know, everybody know everybody. It's well-knit. And the fact that you're leaving a well-known community, something that you're comfortable with for a totally brand-new community, sometimes that scares people. And it's scary to think of that you have redo everything all over. You have to make new friends. You have to find new people that you feel comfortable with that, you know, you can relate to. And that's kind of hard when you come from a reservation.

CONAN: Matthew, do you go home?

MATTHEW: Yes, I do. I try to go home at least four times a year. But being in school and having a job, it's difficult. But I do try to make it home.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, Matthew, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MATTHEW: Mm-hmm. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, Thomas, you did go on to Eastern New Mexico University and run there. Where are you now?

MARTINEZ: Currently I'm not enrolled in college. You know, being in college, it's such like, you know, it's a deadline, (unintelligible) you have to follow. And I'm still trying to find out exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. And I have goals now. You know, taking some time off from school, I've evaluated my life and figured out exactly what I'm really motivated about. So this coming fall, I plan to get back into college and continue from where I left off at Eastern.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you and thanks very much for your time.

MARTINEZ: No problem.

CONAN: And, Erica Scharf, good luck with the movie.

SCHARF: Thank you so much.

CONAN: "Up Heartbreak Hill" premiers tomorrow on PBS. It'll also stream on the POV website starting later this week. You can find that link on our website. Go to Thomas Martinez and Erica Scharf joined us from member station, KANW, in Albuquerque.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.