One day over lunch, I sat with Jaime Martinez and ordered a hot dog. He laughed and, noticing my confusion, he explained that it had reminded him of when César Chávez came to San Antonio.
Jaime explained that during this visit, Chávez was insistent in making him a vegetarian. He had bought him a book and shared his philosophy on the subject. Chávez kept on him an entire weekend until finally over lunch, as he ordered a hot dog, Jaime told him, “César, I will march and work for you, but until you can make that salad you have taste like my hot dog, I’m not going to be a vegetarian.”
If you knew Jaime Martinez, chances are you probably have what I call a “Jaime story.” The story usually starts off ordinary, but by the end of it you’d be sitting in a meeting with the Express-News editorial board or in front of the Mayor talking about the merits of renaming a street in honor of César Chávez. Sometimes, you’d be swept up in an action or protest, because in the middle of breakfast with him, he would get a call and had to act. Most of the time, you were just overwhelmed because you understood the faith Jaime had in people and how he empowered others.
I heard a lot of these stories Wednesday night during the celebration of life for Jaime Martinez from a San Antonio councilman, famous musician, union member colleagues, community leaders, and high school friends. They each expressed how he profoundly impacted their lives. There was even a poet who composed an original piece for him. It was a beautiful night of tears, joy, and laughter.
Jaime Martinez was an extraordinary organizer and civil rights leader. During his career as a union organizer with the International Union of Electrical Workers, he organized workers throughout the country and became the first Hispanic to serve on its executive board. After retiring in 2000, he committed himself to the San Antonio community, taking on social justice issues at the grassroots level.
After returning from his longtime friend Chávez’s funeral, he founded and led for over 20 years the annual César Chávez March for Justice in downtown San Antonio. He also founded the César E. Chávez Legacy and Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, in 2004. The foundation supports several events, including the annual march, Thanksgiving and Christmas in the barrio, and a scholarship program for local high school seniors.
Jaime was much more than a union organizer, community activist, or civil rights leader. He was a man of faith, a father, a teacher, and a mentor. He was a man deeply devoted to the service of others.
In a joint letter of tribute to Jaime, César Chávez Foundation President Paul F. Chávez and United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez wrote, “Many decent men and women commit daily acts of charity or kindness in their everyday lives, but only a relative few totally dedicate their lives on behalf of the most needy in the community. In that sense, Jaime Martinez was a true servant.”
I was a young student at St. Mary’s University when I walked into my first community meeting at his invitation. I sat against the wall while the others took seats at the big table where he was. Jaime saw this and waved me over saying, “Irene, you have a place at this table. Make space for her, she’s an activist.”
Those words always stuck with me: You have a place at this table. The following summer, I joined the United Farm Workers and began to really understand those stories Jaime shared about organizing. Returning to San Antonio, I became an activist and received the first scholarship from the César E. Chávez Legacy and Educational Foundation in 1996. That was a true turning point in my life and I will be forever grateful for it.
There was much said in honor of Jaime at his celebration of life. As I sat there amongst friends singing “Amazing Grace,” I was reminded what César Chávez said when eh was asked how he’d like to be remembered. He simply replied, “If you want to remember me, organize.” I’ll work the rest of my life to bring others to that table and to be worthy of my place there.
Rest in Power, Jaime.