Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, author and lifelong champion for the rights of Latinos in the United States and oppressed people worldwide passed away on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 in San Francisco, California at the age of 95.
I first met Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez in March of 1969 at the First Denver Youth Conference, convened in Denver, Colorado. Amid the flurry of conference plenary sessions and sidebar discussions, she was there, tape recorder and notepad in hand to record each days proceedings. The conference was historic in that it brought together young Mexican Americans from throughout the United States to fashion an ideological raison d’etre for the incipient Chicano civil rights movement. More than 1500 Chicanos attended the conference from the major Southwest states and also included Puerto Ricans from Chicago and New York. Betita was there to cover the event for the newspaper she edited and published, El Grito del Norte, a monthly newspaper which she published in Espanola , New Mexico. When Betita saw that I was there with a film crew, we struck up a conversation and, as we got to know each other, she extended an open invitation to visit her in Espanola, New Mexico if I ever got the chance.
One of my memories of Betita at that historic conference was her attending the Women’s Caucus. At a time when the role of Chicanas in the movement was undergoing considerable debate (some argued that women needed have roles equal to men, other women felt this was a misguided copying of the women’s liberation movement). At the conclusion of a heated debate, a majority of the women at the conference voted that they didn’t want to be liberated. They felt their role was to be at the side of and subservient to the male leaders of the Chicano Movement. I remember Betita, who had gotten her start in civil rights as a worker in the offices of the student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and who was thoroughly politicized, was aghast at the outcome. “I can’ believe this,” she told me.
This was the beginning of a life long friendship with Betita.
Two years later, in 1971, I was able to take her up on her offer when my documentary about the Chicano experience, Yo Soy Chicano, got funded through television station KCET. My crew, consisting of cinematographer Barry Nye, soundman Martin Quiroz, and myself as writer/producer, descended on the offices of El Grito Del Norte, a monthly community newspaper which Betita edited and published in Espanola, New Mexico. Betita welcomed us with a buoyant smile and made us feel right at home.
We filmed an interview with her and got shots of her and her staff working to get an issue of the newspaper out. Afterwards, when she learned that we were going to sleep in the van that night before heading out the next morning to interview land grant activist Reies Lopez Tijerina, she insisted that we spend the night there at her office. She hastily put together some bedding for us and the next morning, as we were loading up our equipment and preparing to leave, she and her daughter Tess showed up with coffee and homemade breakfast burritos for us. “I don’t want to send you off without breakfast!”
That was Betita. Always welcoming and always supportive.
I next ran into Betita in September of 1972 at the National Convention of the La Raza Unida political party Again, she was there to cover the event for her newspaper and I was wearing two hats, I was national media coordinator for the convention but also there to cover the event as a filmmaker in what would become the documentary film, La Raza Unida, for KCET. It was great to see her again and this time we wound up collaborating in a way that neither of us could have foreseen or expected.
The convention had been widely publicized and news media from throughout the nation were present, including national news crews from ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. Toward the close of the convention, tensions were high as to who would be voted the national party chairman. As the debates ran into the late hours of the final night, it became clear that no matter the outcome, one side would be sorely disappointed. Elements from both sides were armed and a possible shootout was not out of the question.
As media coordinator for the event I knew that as long as the news cameras were present no one would try anything stupid. And yet, as it got later and later in the evening, I saw that several of the news crews were beginning to pack up and prepare to leave. With all the media gone, who knows what would happen? It was then that I solicited Betita’s help, and that of a few other key journalists, to circulate among the news crews and tell them that the vote was about to happen. The crews unpacked their equipment and set up their cameras again and waited. Sure enough, within a short time, the vote was finally taken shortly thereafter and the outcome announced with no disturbance.
That collaboration further cemented our friendship.
In later years, we kept in touch. I was delighted when she published her 500 Years of Chicano History (1994) and later 500 Years of Chicana History (2008). And we talked extensively when her book De Colores Means All of Us (1998) came out. The book took on not just the invisibility of Latinos in a world where media and politics sees race only in terms of Black and White, but also her coverage of the struggle of immigrants. All issues that continue to this day. In that sense, her book was ahead of its time.
Her life included working for the United Nations where she was a whistle blower for abusive treatment by some colonial powers, a stint in the office of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) working for the empowerment of African Americans, founding and publishing El Grito del Norte for many years, the publication of numerous articles and several books, crowned with a run for Governor of California as a Peace and Freedom Party candidate. Throughout her life Betita tirelessly worked to bring about social justice and equality for all.
I last spent time with Betita in 2013 when I drove to San Francisco with filmmaker Sylvia Morales who was profiling Betita for her film A Crushing Love (2009). I used the opportunity to interview Betita for my website Latinopia As always he was supportive and eager to speak about her life and career as an activist and writer.
Betita Martinez, a pioneering social activist, author and humanitarian. A true Hero for all time.
Copyright 2021 by Jesús Salvador Treviño. Photo of Betita and book cover courtesy of Betita Martinez. All other photos copyright by Barrio Dog Productions Inc.