Neva Martinez Ortega was fighting injustice even before she was born. The explanation for that seemingly incongruous characterization is simple. Her mother, Pueblo Chicano activist and social justice advocate, Rita Martinez, was washed in the blood of political and social change even as she carried a baby daughter in pregnancy.
“She deeply cared about her community…and was not able to stand by when she saw that something was wrong,” said Martinez Ortega of her late mother who died from COVID-19 on December 10th. “She had a lot of courage,” said Martinez Ortega.
Martinez was well-known in Pueblo and southern Colorado for her activism and social conscience. She was also well known to local authorities who regularly crossed paths with her, often in the heart of the Mesa Junction, a historic part of Pueblo’s business community. One big reason? The Junction, as locals call it, is where a monument honoring Christopher Columbus has stood for more than a century.
The monument was erected in 1905 by the city’s Italian-American community, who settled in the city and region. They had come to Colorado in the 19th century flood of European immigrants hoping to find a new life. Jobs in steel and coal mining---abundant in the area---drew them and kept them.
But Martinez, said her daughter, saw the Columbus monument differently; not as a symbol of pride but as one of oppression. Columbus, she felt, was a brutal and inhumane tyrant who caused the deaths and suffering of untold numbers of indigenous people. That view pitted her against Pueblo’s deeply-rooted Italian-American community. Following her death, the Columbus memorial was covered in a shroud by Martinez friends and supporters. Against their wishes, it was ordered removed by authorities the day of her funeral.
Despite finding herself in a decades-long battle for social justice, Martinez never saw authorities as enemies. And, despite the resources expended for the many marches and protests Martinez spearheaded, there was a respect that they gave her. “Rita Martinez was a relentless fighter for social justice and equity in Pueblo,” the city’s Mayor, Nick Gradisar on her passing.
Martinez Ortega said her mother’s commitment to social justice and compassion for people ran deep and long. It’s a history that began with a long ago Chicano Studies class that unfurled to her a documented legacy of institutional brutality and inequity against Mexican-Americans and others across the southwest. The class would ignite a flame that burned until her death.
Despite having some health issues “that made her a much higher risk” for COVID, said Martinez Ortega, she was never unavailable in offering a hand. Her mother was a prime organizer for Pueblo’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration and also a tireless advocate for children who were often overlooked or simply forgotten in their schools.
She was also a loving mother and caretaker, said Martinez Ortega. Her mother, she said, took care of both of her own parents until their deaths. But she also nurtured her children, steeled in them the purpose and necessity for social justice and, as important, showed them love and affection. “I owe my entire life to her,” said Martinez Ortega. “She was the best mother, just as silly as she was serious, fun as she was fierce.”
Martinez respect for others was on display when she went to work. She was a career Licensed Practical Nurse. Those for whom she provided care were treated with respect, dignity, and kindness, said Martinez Ortega. They were the same qualities she had for everyone and they were reciprocated by those whose lives she touched. “She was a mother to the community…she mentored people as activists and all those seeds are blooming. She inspired so many.”
During Martinez hospitalization, her family, like others, was not allowed to visit. Only after her death were two sons allowed inside the hospital to retrieve her things. It was their last and saddest visit.
What they saw, said Martinez Ortega, is something that would have rallied her mother to speak up about. “There was a list of names on a chart; my mom’s name was on there,” she said. “A majority of them were Spanish surnames.” The names represent “a microcosm of what is happening in the country,” an over representation of minority deaths caused by COVID. “Fighting health inequities,” said Martinez, “is something she also fought against for so long.”
Mayor Gradisar reads. “Rita Martinez was a relentless fighter for social justice and equity in Pueblo.