As a funeral procession of cars and motorcycles bearing U.S. and United Farm Workers flags drove slowly through the Westside on Thursday, friends and activists mourning the passing of civil rights leader Jaime Martinez sang, chanted, and released red and black balloons in his honor.
Martinez, who died Sunday at age 70 after a long battle with cancer, was a lifelong activist who worked to advance civil rights and workers’ rights, founding the César E. Chávez Legacy and Educational Foundation (CECLEF). He is survived by his wife, Maria Guadalupe Martinez, his two sons Ernest and Christopher Martinez, and his daughter Sarah Martinez.
Martinez also is known for his mentor-friend relationship with labor leader and UFW co-founder César Chávez, and he organized an annual local march in Chavez’s honor that just celebrated its 21st year.
“This is a celebration of a great man,” said Henry Rodriguez, president of the Concilio Zapatista de LULAC located at Lanier High School. Rodriguez attended Lanier alongside Martinez when they were teenagers. “Yes, it’s a sad, emotional time but finally – after so much labor and all these long years – he’s finally getting well-deserved rest, therefore we can only celebrate.”
Rodriguez joined around 70 other people chanting, “¡Se ve, se siente, Jaime está presente!” which means, “You see it, you feel it, Jaime is present!” Friends, colleagues, and activists wore the colors and the Black Eagle insignia of the UFW as they lined up on the edge of South Cibolo Street and Jaime P. Martinez Place, a street the City of San Antonio renamed after Martinez in 2015. The street was formerly Alta Vista Alley.
“This street will always be very symbolic to us, and we will come and celebrate again,” Rodriguez said. “This was the beginning of something beautiful and great. This was where Jaime grew up and went to school.”
Martinez played the trumpet at school and then went on to play with groups such as the Deltones and the Sunglows, Rodriguez said, but he always thought about helping others.
“I know that the family feels very satisfied that their dad did something for humanity, and they’ll always carry that with them and pass it on to other people,” Rodriguez said. “We will always remember Jaime and celebrate him every chance we get.”
Martinez’s activist journey spans more than 45 years, with a career that began at Friedrich Refrigeration, where he joined the International Union of Electrical Workers. He also was an organizer of the 1996 Latino Civil Rights March, which drew more than 200,000 attendees in Washington, D.C.
“During this time he was being pushed by the anti-immigrant wave that was about to begin – there was a rise in anti-immigrant fervor,” said Gabriel Quintero Velasquez, coordinator of the César Chávez march. “When Jaime came back from the march he came back with the commitment to do something for César Chávez. Jaime took the lead of the scholarship fund and the march itself.”
In 2016, CECLEF awarded $27,000 in scholarships for students in financial need that demonstrated success in the classroom and expressed a desire to serve and lead in their community.
Jesus Ramirez, who attended the procession Thursday, received one of those scholarships in his early 20s.
“He helped out young students as well, and he helped me out as far as scholarships when I was a college student,” Ramirez said of Martinez. “He would host fundraisers and help people when they needed it. Every year at the scholarship dinner he would call people [and] politicians to help support college students, so he was a good community leader and we’re going to miss him.”
Those who knew Martinez described him as a “fighter,” even during his last days and through chemotherapy treatment, and someone who never stopped organizing, even at the hospital.
“He would be lying down in the hospital but was still working and calling people on the phone to organize,” said Rose Lopez, member of CECLEF and the League of United Latin American Citizens. “He would never give up. He was a very giving and loving person.”
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) told the Rivard Report that Martinez was recently in Austin fighting against Senate Bill 4, known as the “sanctuary cities” law, and also in Washington fighting anti-immigration legislation.
“What I believe is so important about Jaime’s legacy is not just that he was this labor organizer and a civil rights leader, but that he never gave up,” she said. “After so many years, the struggle continues and the issues still continue. I’m so proud that in his lifetime he never lost faith, he never lost the cause, and he stayed with it until his last dying day. It’s a legacy that we can all learn from. We have to keep fighting.”
Quintero, who will now serve as chairman of CECLEF in Martinez’s place, said that Martinez’s most important contribution was made to the working person.
“… He ran the race and delivered the baton,” Quintero said. “He didn’t … drop it and in this cause you have to take it, so we take that torch and use his memory as power and inspiration to not quit.”