I knew Roberto Martinez through his thousand acts of courage, kindness, and commitment, he in San Diego and I in Orange County - fighting the same fight against the systemic injustices of the U.S. Immigration Service and the Border Patrol. To be completely honest, I did not envy his role being directly on the spot of the border abuses, deaths, and daily horror and tragedies that went with the position that he assumed with the American Friends Service Committee. I could only imagine the daily stress that he was under, as well as his family, and there is no doubt in my mind that this had an eventual debilitating effect on his health. He was the David in the biblical battle with the Goliath of LA MIGRA, but the results of his work were not always victorious - although certainly not due to any shortcomings in his work. On the various occasions when we met I observed him as the consummate humble servant and advocate - with a soft-spoken demeanor, but rock-solid tenacity. I admired his work from afar as a fellow-traveler on the sojourn for truth, fairness and justice as such relate to immigrants. Roberto will be missed.
Roberto Martinez - PRESENTE!
National President of MAPA
Latino activist had 'keen sense of justice'
Helped immigrants fight discrimination
By Norma de la Vega Enlace Staff Writer , Blanca Gonzalez Union-Tribune Staff Writer
May 21, 2009
When Roberto Martinez was growing up in San Diego, he was harassed by law enforcement and threatened with deportation, even though he was a fifth- generation Mexican-American.
He was a native English speaker who didn't learn Spanish until he was an adult, and the injustices he saw in the local immigrant community spurred him to a life of activism for human rights. Mr. Martinez, considered a pioneer in defending immigrants against discrimination and racial intolerance, died yesterday at home after a long illness. He was 72.
After working more than 20 years at a factory that manufactured airplane engines and rising through the ranks to become a supervisor, Mr. Martinez left the job in 1977 to work in the Latino community. He eventually became director of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego.
"He never sought to be a public figure or a leader, but he had a keen sense of justice," said Christian Ramirez, national coordinator of the American Friends group, a Quaker-sponsored human-rights organization.
"He was a pioneer in defending immigrants in a very difficult era, when that cause enjoyed no political or economic support."
"He was a warrior for human rights," said David Valladolid, a local activist and president of the Parent Institute for Quality Education. "And the best part was the humility and modesty with which he handled his entire life."
Mr. Ramirez, who grew up in Sherman Heights, was stopped many times by immigration authorities in the 1950s because of his Latino appearance. "When you grow up in a time and place with a lot of oppression, you don't question it, you accept it, you resign yourself to it, you feel as if it were natural," he said in a recent interview.
In the 1970s, however, Mr. Martinez realized that "something must be done" after two Latino boys knocked on his door and told him they had been attacked at school by white youths armed with baseball bats and wooden clubs.
He reported the attack and demanded better protection from school authorities and law enforcement. From then on, immigrants began to seek his help in cases of police abuse.
When Mr. Martinez left his factory job, he began working for the Roman Catholic Diocese in San Diego. He later worked with the Chicano Federation and in 1983 was chosen to head a border project for the American Friends Service Committee.
Critics said he exaggerated claims and sought to create tensions, but many people in the region revered him.
"He always said his work was almost like a ministry," Ramirez said. "It was a calling for him."
Mr. Martinez's work had risks. In 1991, a man from Point Loma was sentenced to more than three years in prison for mailing threatening letters to Mr. Martinez and to Morris Dees, a civil rights attorney and head of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"He's the one who started getting attention for the deaths from Operation Gatekeeper," longtime friend and fellow immigration-rights activist Enrique Morones said in reference to the federal push in the 1990s to strengthen border fences in San Diego. Opponents say the move pushed illegal crossings east into harsh terrain, where many people died.
"He changed his life to get involved," Morones said. "He was a quiet leader who never sought the limelight. He's the one who inspired a lot of us."
Mr. Martinez was the first U.S. citizen honored by Human Rights Watch when the international group gave him an award in 1992. He was one of about a dozen activists who were named "human rights monitors" around the world.
Roberto Martinez was born Jan. 21, 1937, in San Diego to John and Mary Martinez. He grew up poor, the youngest son of a carpet-layer and a homemaker.
He attended San Diego High School. Although Mr. Martinez dropped out, he later completed his education and earned a commercial art degree at San Diego City College.
He and his first wife, Mary Alice, were married 24 years and had five children before divorcing. He would later attribute the divorce to his work.
He married the former Yolanda Gonzales in 1983 and raised her four children as his own. They also raised a niece and nephew. Mr. Martinez is survived by his wife, Yolanda; five children, John of Florida, Yolanda Lewis of Lakeside, Robert of North Hollywood, Linda of Lakeside and David of Santee; four stepchildren, Carmen Matthews of San Diego, Andrea Moreno of Spring Valley, Monica Morales of Chula Vista and Peter Gonzales of Las Vegas; a niece and nephew he raised, Yvonne Gonzalez of Las Vegas and Miguel Gonzalez of Chula Vista; a sister, Maryann Real of Santee; a brother, Charles of El Cajon; 23 grandchildren and nine great- grandchildren.
A rosary will be said at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Humphrey Mortuary in Chula Vista, with visitation from 5 to 9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Jude Shrine of the West Church in the Southcrest area of San Diego..