Remembering Benny Martinez, the Mexican American Civil Rights Leader Who Found a Seat for Latinos in Politics

Benny-Martinez BELatina

In the history of the world, there are struggles that seem never to end. Civil rights, women’s rights, human rights… all seem to be implicit until life reminds us that they are not so.

That’s why it’s essential to always remember the struggle of historical figures like Benny Martinez, the man who achieved the first meeting between a U.S. president and a group for the rights of Latinos in the United States, back in 1963.

Born in Goliad, Texas, Martinez attended segregated schools, but once his father moved the family to Houston so his sons “wouldn’t have to pick cotton for a living” the young man joined the Army where he served 18 months as a medic during the Korean War, the Associated Press recalled.

Once back in the country, Martinez joined a strong movement paired with the civil rights movement, which sought recognition of Latinos in the United States as full citizens: the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

Established in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, by a group of Hispanic veterans of World War I, LULAC began a struggle to improve the community’s economic conditions in the country, and to ensure its access to education and political debate.

During much of the 1930s, the organization focused on voter registration and repealing the poll tax imposed in several states against Latinos, which reduced community participation in national elections.

One of LULAC’s historical milestones was the precedent set by the Del Rio v. Salvatierra case of 1930, in which the organization sued the Del Rio Independent School District for segregating Mexican Americans due to their race. Although the organization did not win the case, this was one of the first precedents for the struggle that would follow.

Martinez joined that fight, asserting as a veteran in an interview in 2013,[We] served in World War II and in Korea, and deserved to be treated with respect. The time for silence was over.”

But the moment that would inscribe his name forever in the history of the Hispanic community in the country was when, as a registered nurse, Martinez joined civil rights attorney John J. Herrera to organize a special LULAC gala for Kennedy during his 1963 trip to Texas, the AP recalled.

This would be the first time a U.S. president met with members of a pro-Latino civil rights organization.

On the night of November 21, 1963, hours before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy, along with his wife and vice president, entered a Houston ballroom, where a formal dinner was being held by LULAC, “to show their appreciation for the Mexican-American votes that had helped the young president carry Texas in the 1960 election,” NPR recalls.

After telling the audience that “Latin America was not just a friend, but a partner in the peace and prosperity he hoped the entire hemisphere would come to enjoy,” Kennedy asked his wife to say a few words.

Jacqueline Kennedy opened her speech in Spanish, saying “Estoy muy contenta…” a well-deserved thank you to the hundreds of thousands of Hispanics who not only voted for her husband but shouted at the top of their lungs: “Viva Kennedy! And Viva Jackie!”

All of them, like Martinez, had put their lives on the line for the country, had served the ideals of a flag that embraced them all and made them a target for enemies on the frontline flag that, however, did not seem to be worthy of being carried as their own once they were back in the country.

But history is doomed to repeat itself.

Martinez died last Sunday at age 85, and his fight could be lost on the shelves under a president who is now threatening to deport hundreds of Hispanics who have served the country but do not seem to deserve to be called Americans.

Again, it’s a fight for rights that seems never to end.