Latina Activist Betita Martinez’s Wisdom for Young Organizers

A trailblazing activist, Betita Martinez reflects on everything from motherhood to Occupy Wall Street.

By Yvonne Yen Liu Oct 20, 2011

Activist Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez once wrote in an essay that "there is no separating my life from history." And it’s true: her life is like a thread weaving through the movements for self-determination and justice.  Born in 1925, she has lived more than nine lives: as a member of New York’s heady literati in the 1940s and 50s, a link between the Black Power and Chicano movements in the 1960s, a feminist critic of the sexism and homophobia within Third World solidarity groups here in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, and a respected public intellectual in the left throughout her entire career. 

In March 2000, Betita authored an essay for Colorlines that asked "Where Was the Color in Seattle?" engaging a new generation of organizers of color, wanting to make the link between global capitalism abroad and austerity measures impacting communities of color, here at home.  Connections, wrote Betita, "absolutely crucial if we are to make Seattle’s promise of a new, international movement against imperialist globalization come true."  It was through this essay that I first came into contact with Betita and her ideas, as a young organizer of color both influenced by the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), yet also critical of a movement that was largely comprised of white, middle class males.  Her words helped me think about how inclusion figured in other struggles, such as the antiwar movement and, more recently, Occupy Wall Street. 

It was with these questions in mind that I had the privilege to engage both Betita and her old friend Olga Talamante in dialogue this past Sunday.  The two have a friendship going back more than 35 years. They first met when Olga was released from prison in Argentina, where she was incarcerated for one year as a political prisoner, and was tortured at the hands of the right-wing Peronist dictatorship.  Now, Olga heads the Chicana/Latina Foundation, which develops the leadership of young Latinas, and is active with local LGBT advocacy groups. 

Olga and I visited Betita in an assisted living home in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury area, where she was recently moved, bearing ice cream and chocolate (she has a sweet tooth).  Betita suffered from a stroke three years ago.  Since then, her cognitive functions and memory have been slipping away, a tragedy for a life so rich with experiences.  Her friends have rallied to support her, starting a Betita Martinez Fan Club, to organize support and monetary contributions for her care. 

But here are snippets of the conversation we got to have: I want to preface this by saying that we at Colorlines approached you to honor as a part of Latino heritage month.  But, we also have complicated feelings about it and my colleagues and I thought that you would too. So, my first question to you is what do you think of Latino heritage month? 

Olga Talamante: The media and corporations celebrate one month as Latino heritage month.  But, it’s much more complicated than that.

Betita Martinez: Frozen symbols.  Even Latina heritage is a frozen symbol already, frozen in its definition of what Latina means and what heritage means.  We have to be careful of encouraging it, the symbolization, this point cannot be emphasized enough.

CL: You have played an important role at the intersections of many important movements. [For example, you ran the New York office of SNCC in the 1960s as a Latina.] How did you develop this intersectional analysis?

BM: That has been a wonderful opportunity, to be at those intersections.  The intersections have always been there, people were waiting to see that the intersections were being made.  I was just lucky, I happened to come along during those moments. 

OT: You articulated what many of us felt in those times.  You said it.

BM: That’s a big honor.  I am happy when people saw the connections before I even made them.  I didn’t want to be ahead, I wanted to be with the people in the moment.  But, you end up being ahead because you’re different.  That’s the irony of it.

CL: What made you different?  Why did you change your name from Liz Sutherland [an Anglicized version, using your mother’s maiden name] to Betita Martinez?

BM: My mother played a role in that, even indirectly, because her mother’s name is Phillips.  And, she was a very Phillips kind of person born from Tacoma Park, Maryland.  She married my father who worked at the Mexican embassy, while she worked at the Swedish embassy.  So, her mind was already working in multi-directions.  So, it helped me to have a multiple sense of reality and identity, right there.  It made a lot of difference to me: I couldn’t be a simple two-dimensions; I had to be multi-dimensional.

CL: What inspired you to link the Black Panthers with the UFW [who were organizing migrant farmworkers]?

BM: The connections between people and their cultures are very important.  When we make those links, we strengthen those capacities to be human, in the best sense.  [She started to cry with emotion.]  It’s always there, hiding in the rocks, we have to give it a chance to grow.  A big chance.

OT: That’s what the occupiers of Wall Street are doing right now. Lots of people, workers and students, the young and the old.  It’s an evolving movement, changing every day.  New ones are springing up in cities across the country.

BM: [Occupy] is a real place for people to talk, to blossom.  How beautiful, how exciting!  

CL: Your essay Where’s the Color in Seattle is inspiring many organizers of color to ask similar questions about the #Occupy movement: Where are the people of color?  

OT: I’m excited some people of color are participating, but we should be the majority.  [Occupy] should be led by people of color. We’re the ones suffering from unemployment, from the recession, and from banks being bailed out. 

BM: I hope that I’ve been an inspiration for young women and young women of color activists.  I don’t think about my work in the way that you talked about.  It’s an honor, it’s a legacy to maintain.

CL: What advice would you give to young women of color organizers today, on how to sustain themselves in the movement, as mothers?  [Betita wrote in her essay Neither Black nor White in a Black-White World that she "deeply regrets neglecting another identity: being the mother of a young daughter who needed much more attention than she received in those years."]

BM: We don’t think about this.  It’s an issue we have to think about.  Women do both, raise a family and participate in the struggle, we have to make them connect. 

OT: It’s an issue when you were doing this work and continues today.  I work with young Latina college students.  This is a key issue because many of them work and go to school.  Many are activists; many are mothers.  They are doing all three things.  I don’t have one formula except to say that it has to be part of the discussion, otherwise it’s your problem, you have to balance everything, you have to be superwoman.  We have to make it not the individual’s problem, but the movement’s.  We have to setup time and resources that can help women be a part of the movement, because if being a mother or working prevents you from being part of the movement, then it’s not working. 

BM: Amen.

To read more about Betita’s life and work, see Tony Platt’s essay The Heart Just Insists.