Elizabeth Martínez: “Writer and Activist for Chicano and Feminist Causes”

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Elizabeth Martínez , writer and activist for Chicano and feminist causes, dies at 95”:

Elizabeth Martínez, a writer and editor who took part in the civil rights movement and was best known during a long life of activism as an outspoken advocate for Mexican American and feminist causes, died June 29 in San Francisco.

The cause was vascular dementia, said a friend, Tony Platt, a scholar affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley.

The daughter of a Mexican father and a White American mother, Ms. Martínez did not fit into the conventional racial categories of the 1930s, when she grew up in then-all-White Chevy Chase, Maryland. Because of her darker skin tone, she was told to ride in the back of the bus with Black passengers.

“And the little girl next door whose family was white,” she recalled, “and she was not allowed to play with me because my father was Mexican.”

During the early stages of her career, when she worked for the United Nations, a New York publishing firm and the Nation magazine, Ms. Martínez often went by “Liz Sutherland,” using her middle name. Her name later evolved to Elizabeth Sutherland Martínez and then to Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez.

Throughout her life, Ms. Martínez identified with outsiders and adopted a leftist, even radical political stance….

In 1960, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, Ms. Martínez joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization for young people. She helped edit an illustrated book on civil rights, “The Movement,” with text by playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Martínez went to Mississippi to help register African American voters. She later became the director of the New York office of SNCC and edited “Letters From Mississippi,” a collection of first-person accounts by young civil rights workers.

Gradually she began to feel isolated as a non-Black woman in the civil rights movement. “I am lonely,” she wrote. “It’s time for me to search for my identity and go home to my Mexican-Americans.”

In 1968, she moved to New Mexico, where she took up the cause of Chicanos, or U.S.-born people of Mexican heritage who wished to maintain a distinct culture of their own. She helped found and edit a bilingual newspaper, El Grito del Norte (The Cry of the North), which became an important voice in the Chicano movement. She established a Marxist collective in Albuquerque and helped lead protest marches for the rights of workers and women….

Ms. Martínez also drew attention to sexism and homophobia in the broader Latino culture and wrote an essay, “Colonized Women: The Chicana,” for the influential 1970 feminist anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful.” In 1974, she was the co-author of “Viva La Raza! The Struggle of the Mexican-American People.”

Two years later, she published “450 Years of Chicano History in Pictures,” a bilingual book that was widely used in schools….

After settling in California in 1976, Ms. Martínez sought to redefine racism in the United States as more than a division between Black and White. She helped establish the Institute for MultiRacial Justice, which aimed to build a coalition of Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, feminist, gay and lesbian groups — an idea now known as intersectionality — in a joint fight against what she viewed as an oppressive society built on white supremacy.

In a 1998 essay collection, “De Colores Means All of Us,” she outlined a multicultural manifesto of how she believed Americans could forge a stronger society by understanding the many cultural strands that have shaped the country since its founding.

“Urging a more truthful origin myth, and with it a different national identity,” she wrote, “does not mean Euro-Americans should wallow individually in guilt. It does mean accepting collective responsibility to deal with the implications of a different narrative.”

Elizabeth Sutherland Martínez was born in 1925, in Washington. Her father advanced in his career from being a clerk at the Mexican embassy to teaching Spanish literature at Georgetown University. Her mother was a high school Spanish teacher, and the family often spent summers in Mexico.

Ms. Martínez graduated with honors in 1946 from Swarthmore College. She moved to New York to work at the newly formed United Nations, where she did research on colonialism and its racial implications.

From 1955 to 1957, she was an assistant to Edward Steichen, the noted photographer who was director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. She was a book editor at Simon & Schuster from 1958 to 1964, then spent a year at the Nation magazine as an arts editor. During those years, she also translated books from Spanish and French.

After settling in Oakland, and later in San Francisco, Ms. Martínez became a key figure in the Democratic Workers Party and edited its newspaper. She ran for California governor in 1982 as the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party and won 66,000 votes.

“It seemed like a good opportunity to do educational work,” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “You get a platform rather easily. I could go into a high school in conservative California towns and they sat and listened to me because I was a candidate.”…

In 2008, Ms. Martinez published “500 Years of Chicana Women’s History.” She often attracted a coterie of younger activists as she lectured around the country and conducted workshops on understanding racism.

“She was an elegant presence and a dynamic soul who wore red and purple together like no one else,” photographer Janis Lewin said.

Ms. Martinez also enjoyed a good party and, no matter how bleak the political situation seemed to her, seldom gave in to despair.

“Hey,” she once told Platt, “I just finished watching a documentary about the Donner Party and, believe me, things could be worse.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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