Friday, May 22, 2009

Human Rights Activist Never Gave Up on Justice for Borderland Region

“The Creator’s finger touched him, and he slept.”
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Roberto Martinez (72), a lifelong civil and human rights advocate and past director of AFSC’s San Diego-based, US-Mexico Border Program passed away this past Wednesday surrounded by his immediate family and friends. A fifth-generation Chicano, Roberto worked to end the blatant discrimination and racial intolerance he witnessed and that he also challenged. His grandfather was a farm worker who settled in Carlsbad, California in 1915 after leaving Texas.

He became an advocate for immigrant communities and dedicated his life to challenge law enforcement abuse, racial profiling and violations committed against border residents and communities. He also experienced harassment, was apprehended various times in the 50s, and was once scheduled to be deported until U.S. border officers realized that he had difficulties speaking Spanish.

From 1983 until 2001, when he retired, Roberto served as director of the US-Mexico Border Program. During his tenure he developed methods for documenting human rights violations and reached out to churches, local residents and community partners to challenge the abuses taking place along the border.

Roberto was creative in his use of the media to bring attention to increased anti-immigrant actions, vigilantism and shootings occurring at the border. He became part of groups that challenged Operation Gatekeeper, a federal program that tightened the rim of security in the border area but also led to more deaths as undocumented workers sought to seek other ways of crossing the border.

Active in highlighting the plight of border residents, he also sought opportunities to bring together communities throughout California, to mentor young people, and to engage them in human rights work. He found time to support or help start groups such as the Ecumenical Migrant Outreach Project, an effort founded after several Latino men were beaten by high school students in the North County’s Rancho Penasquitos community.

“Roberto was a model leader, who often risked his personal safety and never lost his sense of integrity and hope. He had a quiet dignity that belied his willingness to confront hatred and to challenge abuses that occurred in the border communities,” observed Christian Ramirez, AFSC’s national base building coordinator for Project Voice, AFSC's immigrant and refugee rights initiative.

An organizer and passionate thinker at heart, Roberto participated in countless national and international forums and panel presentations. He also appeared before the U.S. Congress and spoke on Border Patrol violence and the ongoing militarization of the region. His modesty, low-key but firm approach, and his humble spirit revealed his approach to conflict. Indeed, upon learning of his passing, a former adversary commented that, "Roberto was always a gentleman. He will be missed."

Never one to seek recognition for his work, his efforts however, were recognized by other institutions and he humbly accepted these awards on behalf of his community and his work partners. Among these awards were the International Human Rights Monitor by Human Rights Watch for his pioneering human rights border advocacy; the Ohtli Award presented by the Mexican government (this award is the highest honor granted to a non-Mexican national for their service to Mexicans abroad); and the Quetzalcoatl Award presented by the Mexican National Commission for Human Rights.

Before closing his eyes one final time Roberto requested that those attending his mass and service wear white (his favorite color), to remember immigrants who have died crossing the border, and the historic marches throughout the country urging justice for immigrants.

Roberto is survived by his wife (Yolanda), nine children, 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. To make a contribution or to send your sympathy wishes to the family please direct your correspondence to: Ms. Y. Martinez c/o AFSC - PO Box 126147, San Diego CA 92112.

For additional reading on Roberto Martinez visit: