Remembering Elizabeth Martinez, the Voice of the Chicana Movement

Elizabeth Martinez BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Before social media existed, Elizabeth Martinez was openly debating the identity terminology of the Latino community. Before the term, “Latinx” even occurred to us, “Betita” refused to use the term “Hispanic,” calling it Eurocentric and colonialist.

“‘Hispanic’ denies our indigenous or Indian roots,” Martinez used to say, “It also denies our African roots, from the thousands of slaves that were brought to Latin America. Hispanics’ are a unique people made up of at least three different populations. For many of us, the term ‘Latino/Latina’ is better than Hispanic.'”

But for Elizabeth Martinez, Latino identity was much more than an appellation.

Born in Washington in 1925 to a Mexican father and Anglo mother, Martinez struggled for decades with her identity.

As the New York Times recalls, when Martinez was a typist beginning her professional life in Manhattan, she called herself Liz Sutherland, adopting her mother’s Scottish middle name as her last name and passing herself off as Anglo.

“Only in middle age, after she had moved to the Southwest, did she embrace her Mexican heritage,” the Times remembers. “In an act of self-empowerment, she called herself Chicana, a word previously considered pejorative. She reclaimed her surname and helped define an emergent Chicana movement, seeking rights and pride for people, especially women, who were often exploited in the labor market and oppressed by Chicano men.”

The paradox of an idealistic young woman

Having made peace with her heritage, Elizabeth Martinez began her political work in New York at the United Nations Secretariat as a researcher on colonialism and decolonization in Africa.

At the time, her mission as an idealistic teenager was immovable: “to destroy hatred and prejudice.”

During her “high-flying life” in Manhattan, she worked at the Museum of Modern Art, where she assisted photographer Edward Steichen, the museum’s director of photography; then at Simon & Schuster, where she was a book editor; and then at The Nation magazine, where she was a books and arts editor.

As the Times recalls, Martinez attended elegant soirees on Fifth Avenue and hobnobbed with artists and writers. She also wrote film reviews; translated a French novel; traveled to Cuba, where she declared herself a socialist (and drew the attention of the FBI); and visited Moscow to interview leading Russian poets.

“During this period, Liz had one foot in the world of upwardly mobile diplomats and the scribbling class, the other in the demimonde of outsiders, leftists, and Lower East Side rebels,” Tony Platt, a longtime friend, told the newspaper.

Activism begins with the written word

During the 1960s, Elizabeth Martinez worked full-time in the Civil Rights Movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South and as coordinator of its New York office. 

Martinez edited the photographic history book, The Movement, which raised funds for SNCC, being one of only two Latinas to work for the committee. In 1968, she moved to New Mexico to found a newspaper in support of the Federal Mercedes Alliance.

Martinez also called attention to sexism and homophobia in Latino culture in general and wrote an essay, “Colonized Women: The Chicana,” for the influential 1970 feminist anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful.

Along with attorney Beverly Axelrod, Martinez founded the movement’s bilingual newspaper El Grito del Norte, where she worked for five years. In 1973, she co-founded and directed the Chicano Communications Center, a neighborhood-based organizing and education project. 

Martinez edited the bilingual pictorial volume 500 Years of Chicano History, which influenced his video ¡Viva la Causa! that has been screened at film festivals and in classrooms across the country.

“By the year 2050, there will no longer be a white majority,” she wrote. “I think the white people are more freaked out about that than we hear. That’s one reason for the anti-immigrant hysteria. This country is heading for a collective nervous breakdown.”

Elizabeth Martinez Studio BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of the L.A. Times.

Not everything is black and white

After settling in California in 1976, Elizabeth Martinez sought to redefine racism in America as more than a black-white divide. 

As the Washington Post recalls, Martinez helped create the Institute for Multiracial Justice, whose goal was to create a coalition of black, Latino, Asian, Native American, feminist, gay, and lesbian groups — an idea now known as intersectionality — in a joint struggle against what she saw as an oppressive society built on white supremacy.

For activist and scholar Angela Davis, Martinez’s work was a cornerstone in the civil rights movement.

“From civil rights and Black liberation to women’s rights and prison abolition,” Professor Davis wrote in her foreword to Martinez’s book De Colores Means All of Us (1998). “I can practically narrate the story of my political life using Betita’s work as anchoring points.” 

A Mature Struggle

Even as the Chicano movement fractured over internal differences, for Elizabeth Martinez, the struggle had to be transformed.

It was clear to the activist that the lack of clarity in the movement’s goals and strategies had to be the argument for her determination to continue fighting for social justice. Then Martinez moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she joined the Democratic Workers Party, which she said she had chosen because it was the only Marxist party led by a woman (“a white woman, but a very working-class white woman”).

Martinez immersed herself in community organizing, teaching women’s studies, leading anti-racist workshops, and mentoring young activists. She even ran for governor of California in 1982 for the Peace and Freedom Party, the Times continues.

She also helped found the Institute for Multiracial Justice, a San Francisco organization that sought to build cross-racial alliances around issues such as police brutality, immigration, and incarceration.

Elizabeth Martinez was lecturing and writing into her 80s and attending demonstrations until she moved to a residential care facility in San Francisco in 2012.

In 2004, she served on the advisory board of the group 2004 Racism Watch. She was also an advisor to the Catalyst Project, an anti-racist political education organization focused on white communities.

Martinez passed away in San Francisco at age 95 from vascular dementia.