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Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martínez: A Chicana Icon Who Brought Joy to Protest

Dear Betita,

“Que Viva Betita!” we proclaim as we celebrate you, Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, our beloved Chicana revolutionary ancestor. Throughout Mesoamerica, our Indigenous ancestors’ cosmologies venerate the departed through rituals that call them into life. I’m writing to you in that tradition because I know we remain connected in spirit, and I want to share with you a reflection on your impact not only on the Chicana and Chicano movements and the broader fight for justice, but on the lives of so many activists and scholars like me. What a joy it was to travel the road of rebeldía (rebellion) by your side.

Betita, you leave a legacy so alive with the spirit of social transformation. From your time at the United Nations, researching the conditions of life in colonial territories, to your days as a young journalist in New York, documenting the Civil Rights struggle and publishing Letters from Mississippi, informed by your experience in the Freedom Summer; to your time as director of the New York City office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and your run for governor of California, your life is an arc that moved the course of social justice history in the Americas. You not only were a foundational writer, organizer and educator in the Chicana and Chicano movement, but you connected that effort with the broader fight against oppression throughout this country and the world.

Personally, I am so grateful we were able to share a camaraderie. You taught so many young activists you mentored, including me, that so long as injustice roams, the people will prevail in the struggle for freedom because, in your words, “The heart just insists on it.”

Born on Dec. 12, 1925, the day our community celebrates the Mesoamerican goddesses, Guadalupe and Tonantzin, you were always filled with love, Betita — for your people, for all people, for mujeres (women), for everyone living under the barrel of an imperialist gun. To fight for justice alongside you was to connect to a lineage of nearly a century of revolutionary struggle. Your many trips to Cuba during the early revolutionary period led to your book The Youngest Revolution and inspired your commitment to internationalism, socialism and the belief that radical social transformation is possible.

At the dawn of the Chicano Movement in New México in the 1960s, you created the activist newspaper El Grito del Norte, where you wrote and published early feminist writings that shaped the birth of Chicana consciousness and studies. In 1968, you spoke at the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War in Los Angeles. The L.A. Sheriff’s Department descended on the marchers, beating them with imperial batons, stamping out los voceros (the voices) of the people and killing Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar. Yet, you persevered with such grace and gravitas.

Your indomitable spirit had declared, in the manifesto you wrote at age 16, that it was your “sacred duty … to destroy hatred and prejudice.” By 80, you still weren’t mincing words or histories. You called out the “hocus pocus” denial of a brutal colonialist history, like the U.S. plan to expand slavery through the military invasion of Mexico and takeover of Southwestern territories — the travesty of the Mexican-American War of 1846.

To feed your followers’ revolutionary fervor, you left us your writing, particularly 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures and 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History. These books testified in photographs to the great determination and fighting spirit of our elders, of Chicanas who struggle daily for a better life for everybody. You reminded us that our people have always resisted oppression. And your seminal article “Viva la Chicana and All Brave Women of La Causa” mapped the genealogy of Mexicana and Chicana resistance, calling it and so many of us into existence; I was literally born the year you wrote it.

Indeed, who would I be were it not for your imprint on the history of our people? Do you remember our first organizing stint together at the old Victoria Theater on 16th Street in San Francisco, the city that was lucky enough to have you call it home? It was 2001, and the Institute for MultiRacial Justice, the organization you helped found to build alliances among people of color, was hosting director Lourdes Portillo’s mesmerizing film Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman). At the time, I was 29 and dedicated to the fight against gender violence in my graduate studies, teaching and organizing. The subject of the film was daunting — feminicide — and it left the audience stunned. When the house lights went on, you called me to join you on the stage, handed me a mic, and we started an impromptu organizing session about what we could do to help end the killing of women on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Then came Latinos Contra la Guerra, the antiwar group you helmed during the George W. Bush administration. In the early 2000s, many of us in the group could be found on the corner of 24th and Mission, where we gathered weekly with Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Poder and all the raza (the people) demanding an end to the war on terror. Remember that “Pinche Bush” (“Scoundrel Bush”) pin you made me wear there? You reveled in the streets, the frontline of protest, where your joy and laughter were contagious, and helped to fuel our struggle for justice.

We had quieter moments together, too. I fondly remember visits with you in your home and garden with your beloved canine companion, Xochitl, and our walks along 24th Street, with a stop at your favorite panadería Salvadoreña and of course Café la Boheme. You were la queen boheme — an institution in the Mission. I barely registered that you were nearly 50 years my senior because you moved with the determination of a spirited youthful corazón (heart).

In 2001, we found each other organizing side by side in Durban, South Africa, at the World Conference Against Racism. I recall your conviction to bring the struggle of Chicanas and our people into joint struggle with movements against racism and sexism in the United States and worldwide. This was the essence of your work and your legacy. Thirty years earlier, you had prophesied, “We should learn about our sisters around the world, because someday we shall together form a force that nothing can stop.” How right you were.

En solidaridad y amor revolucionario,
Clarissa.

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