Tenacious senior overcomes vision loss to lead high school marching band


IDEA student Natalia Martinez-Sanchez wrote this article on her fellow classmate, Rafael Martinez.

Henry David Thoreau once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Thoreau’s commentary on the difference between eyesight and vision is Rafael Martinez’s reality. Martinez is a tenacious senior at Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship Academy who first learned about tenacity on his eleventh birthday when he was diagnosed with Stargardt, an eye disorder that causes vision loss. Despite Rafael’s condition, he has managed to pursue his musical goals and perform in an advanced marching band.

The journey to achieving this dream is one Martinez hopes inspires others who believe their circumstances define their destiny. He shares his story as a testimony to one of his core beliefs: WE define our circumstances.

As he reflects on his initial diagnosis, Martinez recalls how the issue was first brought to his attention during elementary school. A vision test was given to the students, and he realized he was struggling to read the letters. After meeting with multiple opticians, he received no clear answer to his vision issue, and instead he was referred to an eye specialist.

“When I was diagnosed with Stargardt, I was sad and felt like crying. The doctor explained my condition as if there were little dots and a hole in the back of my eye. There are no treatments or a cure,” Martinez said.

This rare condition severely affects Rafael’s central vision. Thankfully, his peripheral vision is stronger.

“When I am looking forward, it seems as it I am looking to the side. My vision is not blurry, but objects and letters are too small,” Martinez said. “I usually have to adjust everything to make the font larger.”

Despite the adjustments he’s had to make, or perhaps because of them, Martinez is the school’s drum major, a position that relies heavily on the ability to see clearly. Using the music beats and timing, he must count and remember what needs to be done.

“I listen to the song and based on it, I remember what steps are next and where I need to be positioned,” Martinez said. “It’s all a memory and counting game.”

His music interest began when he entered the sixth-grade. When selecting classes for his schedule, he glanced over the word “BAND” and thought to himself, “Huh, let’s give this class a try.” The first instrument he learned to play was the saxophone.

While most of his classmates struggled to get the gist of things, he quickly learned to read music and continued with advanced level music. To this day, he still remembers the first song he learned on the saxophone: “Honor Roll March.” After learning to play the saxophone, he continued with a new instrument. During his eighth-grade year, he taught himself to play the trumpet. He later continued with the French horn, piano, guitar, and drums. Although he has mastered multiple instruments, he still continues to practice multiple days of the week.

As a senior, he received the opportunity to play with the Wilmer-Hutchins High School band program. Along with two of his friends, Rafael auditioned for the chance to pursue the next level of his musical dreams.

After the spring break of his junior year, they would practice multiple days of the week to get in shape for drum major tryouts. All of that hard work paid off when he received the news.

“When I got the position, it was like winning the lottery,” Martinez gushed.

Many of Rafael’s peers wonder what inspires him to juggle the task of attending one school while leading the band at another school. As it turns out, Rafael drew his inspiration from watching shows like August Rush and The Simpsons. Lisa Simpson’s talent caught his eye as she ran around playing the saxophone.

“I wondered if I could also learn to play such an instrument,” Martinez shared. “It’s almost like how some guys love football or soccer; it’s similar, but with music.”

When asked whether he ever considered giving up, Martinez continued to impress.

“I have an eye condition, but honestly, it has never been something that has stopped me from moving forward,” Martinez said It’s not something that will hold me back, and it’s not stopping me from doing something that is good.

Martinez plans to attend Jackson State University to study music education and march in the Sonic Boom of the South.

“I would like to teach high school. if not college, and also be a music producer like Jay Z and work with big-named artists.”

Rafael finished this interview with “I will turn my dreams into reality.” I believe he will.

To find out more about IDEA, visit www.dallasisd.org/idea