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Friday, May 2, 2008

Unifying Chicana Matriarch Visits Michigan

Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez Continues to Blaze Trails

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

"From work for decolonization at the United Nations, to the Civil Rights Movement, to pioneering the women's liberation movement, to local organizing in New Mexico and California, to top-rate journalism and political theory, Betita continues to blaze trails and create priceless legacies, mentoring countless social activists, young and old, male and female, people of all colors, gay and straight, always with astonishing patience and intelligence."--Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz

Thursday, April 17, 2008 Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez arrived in Michigan for the first of a three day visit. It was her first visit to Michigan State University (MSU).

Betita was brought to Michigan by Dr. Sheila Contreras, Associate Professor at Michigan State University (MSU), where she teaches American Studies and Chicano/Latino Studies. Dr. Contreras is also author of the forthcoming book, Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism and Chicana/o Literature. She brought Betita to Michigan on behalf of the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies Department, with the help of MEXA de MSU.

While in the state Betita spoke to various community and university groups. She delivered her message of solidarity and empowerment across the state during her presentations and captivated her audience members. She attracted people of all ages and races as she conveyed in
valuable lessons and experience from years of progressive activism.

During her presentations Betita showed a slide show of photos from her new book, 500 Years of Chicana Women's History/500 Años de la Mujer Chicana. She spoke about the women in the photos displayed and explained their important role as subjects, and not mere objects, in the struggle for social justice. Her presentation was an abbreviated oral account of the years of work she spent documenting the stories contained in her book.

Betita returned to do a book signing at the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies Department on Saturday, April 19, 2008 to promote 500 Years of Chicana Women's History/500 Años de la Mujer Chicana.

According to Rutger's University Press, "The history of Mexican Americans spans more than five centuries and varies from region to region across the United States. Yet most of our history books devote at most a chapter to Chicano history, with even less attention to the story of Chicanas. 500 Years of Chicana Women's History offers a powerful antidote to this omission with a vivid, pictorial account of struggle and survival, resilience and achievement, discrimination and identity."

A Chicana activist, author, and educator, Betita has published six books and many articles on social movement in the Americas. Her best-known work is 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, a bilingual history that subsequently became the basis for an educational video she co-directed titled ¡Viva la Causa! 500 Years of Chicano History. Other books she has authored include De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century, Letters from Mississippi and The Youngest Revolution: A Personal Report on Cuba.

Betita has traveled extensively across the United States speaking on college campuses and in classrooms about race, class, gender issues and organizing. She has received many awards from student, community, and academic organizations, including Scholar of the Year 2000 by the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies.

I first learned about Betita's work in 1999 when I read an article she wrote in the newspaper about Mumia Abu Jamal's wrongful conviction. After conducting research about Betita, and learning about her long history in the struggle for social justice, I contacted her.

I shared the story of my wrongful incarceration with Betita and invited her to help me increase awareness about the issues of wrongful convictions, the imposition of life without parole sentences on children, and other examples of injustices against members of the Chicano/Latino community. She responded to my letter, agreed to assist my campaign, and we have remained in contact ever since.

Thursday evening I had the opportunity to speak with Betita on the phone while she was having dinner at Troppos in Lansing with Dr. Contreras and seven other women. Among the group were professors and students in the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program, a visiting lecturer, a member of the TIME Committee, and respected community organizers.

Betita and I spoke for approximately 30 minutes. We were both delighted to speak to one another. During our conversation we exchanged stories and experiences in our lives. Among the things I shared with Betita were my campaign for justice, the work I do to increase social consciousness, and stories of historical relevance.

Among Betita's stories were the work she is currently doing teaching youth to build greater understanding, respect, and solidarity between people of color. She also talked about her experience in Cuba only a few months after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the profound impact it had on her life.

Betita mentioned Yanga and the need for people to understand the historic role of this Mexican national hero. She said she would like to see a good book written about Yanga during her lifetime. Yanga was a member of the royal family of Gabon, Africa before being kidnaped and placed in the Middle Passage to the new world. He became the head of a group of revolting slaves near Veracruz, Mexico around 1570. Later he and his people built a small free colony and officially established the town of Yanga in 1630.

We talked about the importance of unifying the masses and ending the Black/Brown conflict which has been fueled by the media and those intent on deepening the existing racial and cultural fissures. This is an area that Betita and I have both been working to increase awareness about. I have learned many lessons about this work through reading Betita's books and essays on the subjects.

Betita discussed 500 Years of Chicana Women's History with me and shared her excitement with me about the nearly 800 photographs contained in the book. She told me there were photos of many people and events in our history, and jokingly told me, "The only reason you aren't in it is because you aren't a Chicana [woman]."

I was happy to learn that earlier in the day while Betita spoke at NorthStar Center in Lansing, Michigan, she discussed my wrongful conviction with people and The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee's global campaign to free me and get justice in my case.

She told me my campaign is a strong example of how to generate global support for a seemingly obscure issue at the grassroots level and transform it into an international movement for justice and human rights. She said the success of my campaign is a model for others to emulate.

During our conversation Betita said I am a symbol of human rights abuse against children of color in this country and the need for serious prison reform. She emphasized the need to abolish laws that sentence our children to die in prisons across the USA that are disproportionately targeting youth of color with impunity.

It was through writing to Betita nearly a decade ago that I came into contact with other seminal scholars and leaders in the Chicano/Latino community who have come to support my campaign as well. She was the first prominent figure in the Chicano/Latino community to write me a support letter.

While at NorthStar Center Betita, Dr. Contreras, and others took photographs with my support banner. Betita also made a video expressing her support of my release and her thoughts about our phone calls. The videos are available on YouTube. She also signed a copy of 500 Years of Chicana Women's History and left it with a TIME Committee member for me to read one day.

During our phone calls Betita said, "Wow! I can't believe we are finally talking!" I echoed her sentiments. She went on to say she enjoyed our conversation so much that a trip to Michigan just so we could talk would be worth it. I was obviously very honored and flattered to hear Betita make such a remark.

I was grateful for the opportunity to even speak with Betita considering the busy schedule she was going to have during her visit here. I later learned that she would have arranged to visit me if she had more advanced notice that it was an option.

Betita expressed her gratitude to me for reaching out to the world from prison and giving a voice to not only my own injustice, but to other social injustices that plague our community. She said that despite my incarceration, and fighting for my freedom, I have continued helping others with their struggles and that meant a lot to her.

Helping others has helped me cope with the pain and difficulty I have endured for 19 years separated from family, friends, and society. When there have been times that I wasn't seeing progress in my own struggle I have found solace in knowing my contributions were helping advance the struggles of others. It has been a way for me to continually feel and evoke the presence of life.

Understanding coexistence has taught me that by helping others I am also helping myself. It also helps me learn valuable lessons from other struggles and build on my strengths. Through the continued application of knowledge I attain I am able to refine the efficacy and utility of my work.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Contreras for a few minutes during one of our phone calls. I thanked her for bringing Betita to Michigan and for allowing me to join their gathering that evening so I could speak with her. I told her I knew it was a special day for her and those who got to meet and speak with Betita.

Dr. Contreras was very happy that it worked out for Betita to visit the state and share her life and work with us. She added that bringing Betita to Michigan is one of the most important personal accomplishments in her life and career. I could hear how genuinely elated she was that it all worked out.

I also spoke with one of the students in the MSU Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program and told her how proud I am of her and the other students in the program. I reminded her that they are paving the way for the next generation of Chicano/Latino scholars and students to come.

The value of the Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program can not be underscored enough. It is becoming even more important with the rising Chicano/Latino population. While the course work is certainly very arduous, the success of the students who are privileged to be in the historical program will immensely benefit all those in the Chicano/Latino diaspora.

The professors and students in the Chicano/Latino Studies PhD program are an inspiration to young Chicano/Latino youth. They are beacons of light and hope, and reminders that if we don't relent and remain persistent to pursue our dreams, we can achieve them. The students are symbols of dreams waiting to be manifested.

They understand, "We must do more than merely dismantle the ideological, behavioral and physical structures of domination. We must repair that which has been in ruins. We must knit ourselves back together again. We must be whole." (Baffour Amankwatia II/Asa G. Hilliard III)

While in Detroit on Friday, April 18, 2008, Betita spoke at Mexican Town Center. She was joined by Rosa Morales, MSU Professor of Journalism; Diana Rivera, MSU Chicano Studies/Ethnic Studies Bibliographer; Elena Herrada, Centro Obrero director; Gloria House (Aneb Kgositsile), University of Michigan-Dearborn, Director of the African and African American Studies Program; Dr. Contreras, and others.

And, like at the Lansing gatherings the previous day, Betita attracted people from all races and walks of life. There were professors, students, poets, activists, visual artists and various others eager to absorb the wisdom conveyed to them by one of the preeminent leaders of the Chicano/Latino social justice struggle.

According to Elena Herrada, "Betita was in fine form. People enjoyed wonderful conversations with her and being in her company. There were lots of people from the community who came in and enjoyed the talk. I saw people that I had not seen in years. It was so rich."

Betita's determination to preserve the legacy of Chicano/Latino history is admirable. It is evidence that our story can be memorialized, and that our resilient spirit is impervious to domination. It also teaches us that we don't have to lie dormant in the periphery waiting for our story to be told by others. We have a powerful voice that can crumble any barrier designed to silence us and render us impotent.

Betita's visit was also a reminder of the necessity for those in academe to be directly involved in the community. Too often we witness educators insulating themselves from the masses. This results in their detachment from the needs and reality of the people.

During Betita's life she has often taught at universities. She also always dedicated a lot of time organizing and shaping the social consciousness of ordinary people that didn't attend institutions of higher learning. She took the university to the community and never lost sight of her roots.

Betita has used her knowledge and skills to reach those who have needed them the most. She has strived to make education accessible and never given it the semblance of being elitist. She has long understood that ideas are the substance of behavior and a key to transforming the human experience.

Neglecting the needs of our people compels them to seek solutions to existing problems by looking to others to rescue them, i.e., making them dependent. This exacerbates the existing confusion and further disempowers members of our community.

What we also witness occurring as a consequence of this unnatural dependence on others is people experiencing despair. It leads to the deterioration of the human spirit and causes people to adopt the feeling that they can not escape what they come to accept is an inextricable condition.

They begin "denying our communality and epitomizing our individuality." (Wade W. Nobles) In a number of instances throughout history people enduring these conditions — feeling abandoned and hopeless — have begun deifying their rescuers and dehumanizing members of their own community. This is what desperation can lead to in some people who feel they are impotent to create change.

Betita also understands that to produce competent leadership it is necessary to be and live the model you are seeking to create in others. Without this students have a poor example to pattern their own lives after. The result is often a perpetuity of ineffective leadership and a disconnection between members of the community and those in academe.

This occurs due to members of their community feeling abandoned or their views rendered insignificant. If the masses know nothing else they know that power lies in galvanizing the people, not in creating dichotomies or stratifications.

We are beings of perpetual veneration. Our ability to influence the world through our commitment to producing eminently sound pedagogy is without measure. We simply have to seek to attain our goals. The only thing preventing us from achieving our potential is our unwillingness to do so.

We will continue illuminating the world by shining our light into the darkness. We will dispel falsities with truth, and ignorance with knowledge. Betita's life is a testament to this. Her youthful exuberance is more vibrant than ever and her fervor to maintain a symbiosis with others is unyielding.

The flame from our torch will never be extinguished. Our collective spirit fuels that flame and sustains its life. And, our spirits are, eternal. Keep the flame burning Betita, and keep working to increase the sentience of our beloved gente.■

To learn more about
Efrén Paredes, Jr. you can visit To watch two videos that Betita created in support of Efrén you are invited to watch the videos which appear below.

Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez Support Video 1

Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez Support Video 2