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Pueblo activist Rita Martinez posthumously honored at Denver gala

9NEWS takes a look into the life of Rita Martinez, a well-known activist for Chicano and Indigenous communities in Pueblo, Colorado.

PUEBLO, Colo. —


In December 2020, COVID-19 took the life of a well-known community activist in Pueblo. Rita Martinez is remembered by many as a fighter for social justice in Chicano and Indigenous communities.

Her daughter, Neva Martinez Ortega, said it was a Chicano Studies course at the University of Southern Colorado-Pueblo (now known as CSU Pueblo) sparked her passion for activism. Martinez Ortega said that was when her mother "started her realizing that a lot of the history that she was taught growing up wasn’t accurate." 

"She started doing her own research, she started questioning things, and really started thinking critically about a lot of the things that she’s been told," Martinez Ortega said. 

Shortly after, she began working with a local newspaper called "La Cucaracha." Martinez was heavily involved in "El Moviemiento" (The Movement) at the height of the Chicano Movement in the 1970s. She began organizing against police brutality issues, and decades later, continued to ensure the stories of other Chicano and Indigenous activists were told. 

Martinez worked with CSU's Colorado Chicano Movement Archives to help preserve the pivotal moments in this civil rights movement. 

Credit: Martinez Ortega Family
Rita Martinez photographed after being inducted as a Corn Mother: Inspiring Women of the Southwest

Martinez was also part of a decades-long fight calling for the end of the recognition of the Columbus Day holiday. 

"She would always say this wouldn’t happen in her lifetime, so I’m so glad she was able to see that," Martinez Ortega said. 

In March 2020, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1031 into law, officially replacing Columbus Day with a new state holiday in Colorado known as Cabrini Day.

She continued to fight to remove the Christopher Columbus monument that still stands in the Mesa Junction neighborhood in Pueblo. 

"She has been fighting the Columbus holiday and statue in Pueblo, Colorado since 1992," Martinez Ortega said. "Now what’s left is that statue that still needs to come down."

"She planted seeds in all of us"

Credit: Martinez Ortega Family
From left to right: Vicente, Neva, Rita, and Tomas Martinez Ortega

To many in Pueblo, Martinez was known as "a cornerstone in the movement." Her daughter said she was also known as the cornerstone of their family and was the glue that kept them together. 

"We have a very large family, extended cousins, all of the holidays were at my grandma's house, and she really kept those traditions alive," Martinez Ortega said. 

Martinez was as silly as she was serious and as warm and loving as she was fierce, her daughter said. 

"Those two pieces of her were never really separate," she said. 

Her mother's activism didn't end in the community but was also instilled in her children at home. 

"We were all on the steps of the Capitol or in a meeting or at a protest a few months after being born," Martinez Ortega said. 

The Martinez family were heavily involved in protests and cultural pride events like the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration at Bessemer Park in Pueblo.

The shirts in the photo below are committee shirts for those who volunteered during the Cinco de Mayo celebrations. 

Credit: Martinez Ortega Family

"We were all a part of the committee," Martinez Ortega said. "My nephew, the youngest one, the year before didn't get a shirt, and so he always asked my mom like ‘grandma, when am I gonna be able to get a shirt?' She said 'well, you’re gonna have to volunteer, you’re gonna have to set up tables, chairs.' So he earned his shirt that year."

Saying goodbye during a pandemic

Credit: Martinez Ortega Family

Even without the restrictions and precautions brought on by the pandemic, losing Martinez was already a devastating, hard loss for her family and the community. 

With limited attendance, social distancing, and mask-wearing, her family was still able to honor the life of Martinez in the way she deserved.

"We did a caravan around town and drove my mom by all of the places that were important to her, so that included the Zaragosa Hall in Pueblo, where we had a lot of family functions, and a lot of organizing happened there," Martinez Ortega said. 

They also drove past Bessemer Park, where the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration was held, past their family church, and past the Columbus statue that Martinez has fought to be taken down. 

"At all these different locations either handing out information about not just my mom, but about the issue, because she wouldn’t have it any other way but to continue to organize and to continue to educate on a day like that," Martinez Ortega said.

Overall, Martinez Ortega said they were proud of what they could accomplish in honoring her mother's life. 

The legacy she leaves behind

Credit: Martinez Ortega Family

Those seeds she planted in the community and in her family did not stop growing after Martinez's passing. Her daughter said she inspired hundreds of people in Pueblo and across Colorado. 

"Everyone is blossoming, and the best thing that happened is that she multiplied," Martinez Ortega said.

Her children, Neva, Tomas and Vicente, all grew up in activism, continuing in their adult lives. Neva is a behavioral health therapist for the state's largest Latino-serving nonprofit. Tomas works in child welfare in human services in Pueblo, and Vicente dedicates time to health equity work and is now running for city council in Pueblo. 

"We’ve all found our path in the way that we can make change, but even beyond that we really try to do work in the community as much as we can," Martinez Ortega said. "It’s also continuing the family traditions that she instilled in me and instilled in our family, and the cultural things that were so important to her and our family."

In the community, Martinez continues to receive awards and recognitions for her decades-long commitment to her community. Martinez Ortega said many acknowledgments had been awarded to her mother since her passing, and more are planned for next year.

Friday, Martinez was honored at the 8th annual Servicios De La Raza Raices Latinas gala. The executive director of the state's largest Latino-focus nonprofit, Rudy Gonzales, said, "Ms. Rita Martinez was chosen to receive the inaugural “Spirit of Servicios” award to recognize and celebrate her lifetime commitment to leadership in the Chicano/Mexicano/Latino Indigenous struggle for justice, equity, and peace in Pueblo, in Colorado and throughout our Nation."

Martinez Ortega said her mom had a few of her own quotes that she regularly would recite. One of them was "do one thing for the movement a day."

"I think with that, she meant that things can be super overwhelming, but if you can at least--if everyone can do at least one thing for the movement a day, we’ll be in a lot better place," said Martinez Ortega. 

Another one of Martinez's favorite sayings was, "Education is a burden. The more you know about something, the more that you’re handed a choice, and it’s either to act on what you’ve learned or to turn away, but either way it’s a choice."

Her daughter said that quote was something her mother truly lived by, in always choosing to act and do something about the wrongs she had seen. 

"That’s one thing that’s so impactful to me and what I really hope would inspire others," she said.

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