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Over the course of gathering information for my story on the life of migrant rights activist Roberto Martinez, who died last month, I spoke to many people who knew and loved him. I also realized how difficult it would be to try to measure the extent of his influence because with each interview I was pointed in so many different directions and tipped off to so many others who he’d worked with or helped, either directly or indirectly.
Former journalist Victor Abalos was one of those. I received this letter from Abalos, who got to know Martinez when he was working as a border reporter in the 1980s:
I just discovered he had died and as I sat and read your piece I remembered how I met him and how he helped me as a journalist to understand the increasingly violent place the border was becoming. I grew up on the border in Arizona but when I came to LA more than 24 years ago to work as a producer/reporter for public TV I learned about a far different border. Eventually, the no-man’s-land that Tijuana was becoming then became my border town years later.
It was on nights walking “el bordo” with Roberto more than 20 years ago that I met the teenage coyotes, the terrified pollos, the Mexican cops, the motocross-bike-riding migra, the glue-sniffing orphans, and all the other tragic figures that populated the swamp the border was then; before the wall, before the bright lights, before the intensive media attention.
Roberto put the stories of these people in perspective. The work he did as a champion for people who mainstream San Diego and California wished would go away was the work of a saint. He was always available to talk to me or any other curious reporters … the few of us then who ventured into that dangerous place.
He encouraged me to do the first of several pieces I did for KCET and then the other TV stations I worked for in LA, using a handheld home video recorder to follow the mad dash from Tijuana across the smelly swamp and into the dark alleys of Chula Vista and Imperial Beach. Using contacts and information Roberto helped me obtain I convinced CBS News, another former employer, to let me produce a piece for one of their magazine shows about a female smuggler known as “La Pantera.”
I left TV news many years ago but I kept up with Roberto’s activities. I moved on but Roberto never left the border; never left the important work that had to be done, never gave up on his efforts to give the voiceless hope, never stopped standing up (often alone) to criticize those who exploited and violated the undocumented.
He wasn’t a flashy guy, never given to hyperbole or grandiosity. He was modest, humble, quiet-spoken in those days, but when he shared his carefully researched stories, you heard the concern and the passion in his voice.
I was glad to read he mentored others to follow in his footstep — that the work goes on. But the border lost an important witness who provided critical testimony for us; he told the stories we are too afraid and too ashamed to listen to, much less share. I am proud to have known him and I hope his family knows that he had a profound impact on the lives of many people: the residents of SD, the undocumented who still find ways to slip across in search of something better, their advocates … and one grateful former journalist.