Graciela Martinez’ retirement home sits across a small dirt road from the never-ending stream of traffic that is Highway 99 cutting its way north and south along the backbone of California, eventually through Goshen, that fabled area to the east of Eden.
It’s a dark sky-blue house, small, with a pair of arches that cover a stucco porch. It’s the same house where her mother lived the last days of her life, one she shares now with her 85-year-old uncle. The home is being remodeled. Concrete flooring is exposed in the living room, a spot where generations of feet have stood to watch the traffic blare past is worn in the linoleum front of the kitchen sink. Outside the sun is shining, and spring is finally making itself felt.
“I just want a place to be,” Martinez, 71, said. “I’m doing all right. Between my retirement and Social Security, I’m fine.”
Back to Where She Once Belonged
This isn’t the retirement home Martinez envisioned for herself. Until recently, she’d been living on a shared piece of property north of Farmersville, a far more rural and idyllic place than this. Staying there became untenable, and she found herself back in a neighborhood where she’d lived once upon a time.
“See that blue house?” she asked, pointing up the dirt road to where it met the asphalt. “I used to live there. I was a business owner here once.”
This dusty, noisy neighborhood with its wood-and-wire fences and the smell of the freeway, is a unique place, Martinez says, a culture unto itself, full of people caught between two much larger ways of life. Not accepted into either larger social structure, each new generation makes their own, though she thinks none of them can last.
“I’m a USA-born daughter of parents born in Mexico,” she said, pride in her voice apparent. “First generation. We’re the ones who became the cholos, you know the zoot suits. It’s one generation only, the shortest culture. We’re changing. We’re evolving.”
Her parents lived a life not too dissimilar than the ones they would have known in Mexico, though perhaps with more freedom and greater opportunities for themselves and their children. Not so for Martinez. The life she lived is utterly different than what would have been had her family never come north.
There and Back Again
When she retired two years ago, it was after a career that peaked with her directing the efforts of Proyecto Campesino, a branch of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) tasked with advocating for farm labors and addressing human rights issues. It was a progression that grew naturally from her first job at 19, and it took her down an exciting path.
Martinez attended Redwood High School in Visalia, graduating in 1964. She studied journalism and worked on the school newspaper, which turned out to be important later on.
“Little me, I would go up and talk to these big, handsome football players and those popular cheerleaders,” she remembered. “That’s where I lost my embarrassment.”
Talking to her now, it’s hard to imagine she ever had any to lose. She doesn’t need it.
College was apparently not an option, and career paths were few for a Latina starting out in the Central Valley. Fortunately, she met Bard McAllister, an organizer for the AFSC who was in Visalia to start Self Help Enterprises, and he hired her to assist in the effort. The program is still at work in the Valley, helping low-income people find housing, education and jobs, and Martinez has served on its board for the last 20 years.
“I’m thinking of getting off,” she said.
The Great Society
While working with McAllister, Martinez was selected by the AFSC to go to Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965. There, Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists were gathering for a march from Selma to the state’s capital in Montgomery to protest the death at police hands of a fellow activist.
“There were five of us. We traveled in an old station wagon,” Martinez said. “That was some experience. Blacks and Mexicans were at odds, but we were so well taken care of.”
The night before the protest, the crowd gathered to hear King speak at a local church that was far too small to contain the number of people pressing to get inside.
“That church was packed. It was just a little bit bigger than this house,” Martinez recalled. “I made it inside. I feel I breathed the same air [as King].”
King tried to ready them for the hatred they would face during the 54-mile trek over several days.
“He got us prepared.’ Stay in line,’ he said. ‘Don’t respond in negative ways,’” Martinez said. “We set out the next morning.”
During their first attempt to reach Montgomery on March 7, police and state troopers attacked the nonviolent crowd of protesters, beating them with billy clubs, firing tear gas at them as they tried to enter Dallas County. The incident, now known as Bloody Sunday, saw more than 50 people hospitalized.
“The cops, many were siccing the f***ing dogs on people,” Martinez said. “We were pelted with rotten tomatoes and eggs.”
Two days later, King would lead the group toward Montgomery again, stopping again at the Dallas County line. This time, King was abiding a court order, waiting for final approval of the court and protection for his people from the federal government. On March 21, the protest would finally cross the Dallas County line, but Martinez wasn’t with them.
The night of March 9, a young, White minister, James Reeb, who had come to Alabama to join the march, was beaten to death by a group of segregationists.
“The AFSC got scared. What if I got killed? They told us to come home,” Martinez said. “The fire was on and in me already. My mother always told me an injustice to one is an injustice to all.”
There was another activist at that march, a man now taking center stage in our national elections, Bernie Sanders. To Martinez, who is a staunch Sanders supporter, it adds another layer of excitement to the memory and brings it starkly into the present moment.
“I might have been on the same march (as Sanders),” she said.
Back in the Valley
By the time Martinez arrived home, Self Help Enterprises was open for business, and she went back to work with McAllister.
“He’s the first one who introduced me to Cesar [Chavez],” she said. “He [McAllister] actually went out to work with the farmworkers. He found housing was one of the biggest needs. Some farmworkers were living in little more than chicken coops.”
Housing became Self Help’s focus, but Martinez’s passion led her in another direction, into working with AFSC’s Farm Labor Program, which would eventually evolve into Proyecto Campesino. The Proyecto focuses mainly on political organizing and informing immigrants on important issues, such as naturalization, through the media. Outreach funnels immigrants into citizenship classes, where they learn English, civics and US history. Those classes then serve as a recruiting ground for organizations that want to help the newly made citizens’ bring their right for redress of grievance to bear on local issues.
“We have to link arms,” Martinez said. “That’s the only way battles are won.”
It was important work for Martinez, but she’s glad to be done. It will let her change her focus away from administration and back to action.
“That pulled me away from what I am,” she said, “an activist and an organizer.”
A Grim Present,
A Better Tomorrow
When she looks at the America of 2016, Martinez does not like what she sees.
“Everything is broken,” she said.
Our institutions, public and private, have become a system designed to promote failure, she believes.
“Look at our prison system,” she said, picking the first issue that came to her mind. “The high, high number of kids, not just kids of Color, who are in the school-to-prison pipeline.”
It starts, she says, with the urge of overworked parents, teachers and authorities to control the normal but disruptive behavior of children using drugs and the criminal justice system. This wide, industrialized approach seems to her far too impersonal, and it is, she says, clearly ineffective.
“We just don’t take the time,” she said.
That is what Martinez plans to do now that retirement is upon her.
“I love to be out among the people,” she said. “To love, to share, you know, the real love. We’re afraid to say ‘I love you’ or ‘How can I help?’”