When he was a child, it was little more than a line in the sand.
As he got older, he watched it evolve — from a line, to a barbed wire fence, to a wall, and throughout his life, he saw the way it had the power, regardless of its form, to negate his family’s entire history. For Roberto Martinez, that was almost too much to bear.
Although he was a fifth generation U.S. citizen, he could trace his family’s presence in the American Southwest to the days when it was still called Mexico. It was that knowledge of his deep roots in Texas and California that made him tremble with indignation, family members say, when he was detained by border patrol agents whose families were likely more recent arrivals to the region than his own.
As he witnessed, over the years, the harassment, beatings, and murders of Mexicans on the northern side of what he considered an artificial border, his family says his sense of basic human dignity drove him to be a relentless advocate for the migrants he believed to be not on the wrong side of a wall, but on the wrong side of history.
When he died May 20 at age 72, Roberto Martinez had spent the majority of his career as director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, a post from which he was San Diego’s loudest and most influential voice for humane treatment of Mexican immigrants.
Employing lawsuits, the media, and local grassroots networks, he directed public attention to abuses of migrants by law enforcement, and was the inspiration for a generation of activists who now advocate on behalf of San Diego’s marginalized immigrant communities. He retired in 2001, and in 2006 moved with his second wife, Yolanda Martinez, to Las Vegas, where he lived until his death.
Throughout his career he devoted much of his time to the daily grind of collecting, documenting, and memorizing the minutiae of individual complaints of abuse in preparation for legal cases against law enforcement departments.
“He couldn’t remember birthdays, anniversaries, but he knew who got shot, what day they got shot, how many bullets they got, how far away the Border Patrol agent was, the date, if the moon was out, he knew it all,” Yolanda Martinez said.
He was also a key organizer of broader efforts aimed at reforming enforcement practices and empowering San Diego’s Chicano and Mexican populations.
Martinez had grown accustomed to intolerance long before he got his start in organizing. As a student at San Diego High School in the 1950s, he was a frequent target of Immigration and Naturalization Service’s “Operation Wetback,” an effort by the U.S. government to deport more than 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants. He was repeatedly stopped and arrested by police officers as he walked home, and turned over to Border Patrol agents to investigate his legal status.
“[N]othing could have prepared me for the terror and psychological trauma of being arrested and threatened with deportation,” he wrote in a chapter for “Chicano San Diego,” a book edited by San Diego State University professor Ricardo Griswold documenting the Mexican American community’s struggle for justice.
It was a humiliation he would endure in varied iterations well into his life, even after he gained prominence as a local human rights advocate. After being pulled over by agents for driving too close to the border in his old station wagon, he would often reflect on the injustices that the border wall could be used to justify.
“It was just incredible how a line could take away family generations and make like those people were never here, and that’s what would kill him,” his wife said. “He would say, ‘We all came from somewhere.’”
He once wrote: “What this country has done is reduce a natural, human phenomenon, like human migration, to a humiliating, dehumanizing experience. It has also turned a fundamental human right into a crime.”
From a Passion Into a Career
When in 1965 he bought his family a home in the Carleton Hills community of Santee, it was vandalized by an Aryan gang the night before the family was to move in.
As Mexican families trickled slowly into the neighborhood, Martinez left his job at an aerospace assembly plant to focus his efforts on organizing his Mexican community. As an employee of the Catholic diocese, he undertook efforts to have bilingual instruction offered in church classes, and was soon recognized as a local leader.
In 1979, he had an encounter that would change the course of his activist career.
Three mothers knocked on his door. Standing next to them were their badly bruised children, who had been beaten with boards by student members of a Klan association at their high school and then arrested by the sheriff’s department when officers arrived to break up the melee.
Martinez was incensed. He called school administrators and the sheriff’s department to demand a meeting, and when they refused, threatened to hold a press conference in front of the school denouncing their handling of the situation and their fostering of white nationalist student groups on campus. The administrators agreed to a meeting, and afterward disbanded the Klan group. The sheriff’s department agreed to discipline the officers who had been complicit in the beating.
It was the first time Martinez had publicly challenged law enforcement officials for their handling of brutality cases, and it would set the tone for his relationship with police, sheriff’s, and border enforcement departments for the rest of his career.
As word spread of his successful negotiations, he began receiving reports from victims of abuse across the county. He started coordinating with attorneys and activists to file suits against departments accused of abusing and discriminating against Mexicans. In 1983 he was hired to head the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program after applying on the recommendation of his wife.
In that role he transformed the department from being merely a reporting-and-investigation operation to the preeminent actor in the burgeoning local migrant human rights movement.
The work consumed him. He documented hate crimes and murders of migrants, and as he witnessed police and border agents’ heavy-handed, often deadly tactics, his determination to advocate for marginalized migrant communities deepened, his wife said.
He would never turn down a case, and to each one he devoted careful, often painstaking attention.
The work took a toll on his family life, his wife said, because it was always a priority. If he received a notice of an attack or murder, he was out the door.
Although he often funneled the tremendous emotion that welled up inside of him toward increased intensity of work, he was, on occasion, unable to contain it. Once, his wife said, when they visited a farm in Otay, he was moved to tears by a young boy he encountered with a large gash on his forehead.
The boy, because he was deaf, could not speak. Two Texas Border Patrol agents had approached him and asked for his immigration papers, but because he was mute, he instead articulated indiscernible sounds. The agents, believing he was mocking them, had beat him across the head and offered him no medical treatment.
“I’ve seen my husband close to tears a couple of times, but those were tears of anger, he was just so upset,” Yolanda Martniez said. “He took everything so personally.”
Still, despite the tremendous emotional burdens of his job, he was able, at times, to find humor in his work. As he made a name for himself within San Diego’s immigration rights community, he was recognized by face by many of the city’s law enforcement officials.
One afternoon, when he and his wife were sitting on the porch outside of their downtown home, a group of roughly fifteen Mexican men were passing on the sidewalk in front of the house.
They easily identified them as recent migrants, Yolanda Martinez said, because, not having yet let down their guard in their new environment, they were walking, awkwardly, in a perfect single file line.
A police officer driving by, and noticing the Martinezes on their porch, turned on his loudspeaker and asked, “What is this, a Cinco de Mayo parade?” Roberto Martinez let out a hearty laugh.
More often, though, his encounters with officers on the streets were tense ones.
Noticing a Mexican man being chased by a Border Patrol agent downtown, Martinez took chase also. The man, running into Salazar’s Restaurant, was followed by the officer, and by Martinez closely behind. When the officer encountered a hostile crowd in the restaurant, he retreated, and Martinez, satisfied that the man he was chasing was safe, simply walked away.
“He really wanted to let people know that it’s humiliating to be stopped by the border patrol or the police if you haven’t done anything,” Yolanda Martinez said.
‘He Was Everybody’s Hero’
In 1992, Martinez became the first American citizen commended by Human Rights Watch for his human rights work on the border.
Ellen Lutz, the director of the organization’s California office in Los Angeles at the time, said she was comforted by the knowledge that Martinez, as such an authoritative figure in his field, offered himself as a sounding board and guide for the research she was conducting on border issues.
“He was always the best informant, the person you most wanted to put your trust in when you were doing things that were tough and scary,” she said. “He was everybody’s hero, and I just thought he was an amazing human being. He would take me around and show me things and gave me my first real understanding of the circumstances there.”
Jose Gonzalez, a budding organizer of the Mexican indigenous community in Oceanside who now directs the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, focused most of his efforts on local church and civic projects.
“Roberto Martinez taught us and showed us that if we don’t get organized, if we don’t know what our human rights are, this would continue, and we strongly believe that Roberto Martinez was the reason we grew,” he said.
Martinez was the principal mentor to Enrique Morones, one of San Diego’s most active migrant rights activists today. Morones, who runs the Border Angels project and sets out water and other supplies at desert stations for migrants trekking across it, said that without the guidance of Martinez, much of the human rights work being done in San Diego today would never have gotten its start.
“He had an influence on every person in San Diego who works along the border,” Morones said.
In the early 1980s, as Congress prepared to pass a national amnesty law, Martinez and his wife fanned out across the region to register eligible farmworkers.
“It was exciting to see this hope in so many people’s eyes,” she said. Not only Mexicans came out. Arab, Asian, and African farm workers sought the Martinezes’ help as well. It was a surprise to Yolanda Martinez, whose work at the Chicano Federation had focused so closely on advocacy for Mexicans.
But for her husband, she said, there were few surprises. He understood and sympathized with the experience of migrants across nationalities.
“I’m so narrow-minded,” his wife said, speaking about him in the present tense. “Roberto just opened the world for me. I’m good at what I do, but he knows how to open the doors.”
Correction: The original version of this story referred to Ricardo Griswold as Roberto Griswold. We regret the error.