Friday, May 22, 2009
Roberto Martinez: Presente
Helped immigrants fight discrimination
By Norma de la Vega Enlace Staff Writer , Blanca Gonzalez Union-Tribune Staff Writer 2:00 a.m. 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
"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.
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.