- Associated Press - Sunday, October 28, 2018

DALLAS (AP) - Anita N. Martinez may be 92 years old, but she’s not ready to slow down.

The Dallas Morning News reports she visits her namesake studio, dressed in bright pink from head to toe, on a recent day. New and returning dancers are auditioning for a spot in the group.

“It’s so good to see you,” she says and smiles at one child and her mother. She offers hugs, connecting with parents in Spanglish.

These days, one of her sons, Al Martinez, helps her get to events, holding her hand as she gets out of the car and goes up the stairs of a more than century-old former fire station, which was remodeled into a dance studio.

She used to run the practices and day-to-day operations of the group, but stepped down as executive director about 20 years ago. Many people have heard her name associated with the group. They might even know a city recreation center is named in her honor.

But her impact on Dallas history isn’t widely known among younger generations. Some don’t know the trailblazer’s story of being the first Hispanic on Dallas City Council and her years of national and local service that eventually led to the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico.

Nearly five decades after that groundbreaking City Council election, she stays active in city life by encouraging the growing number of Latino arts group in North Texas. She doesn’t want competition for arts donations to cause friction.

“I welcome it. Let’s make (the community) rich, outstanding. I love it when I see it,” she said.

Her life of activism began in Dallas‘ Little Mexico neighborhood on the northern edge of downtown, where she grew up in a tight-knit Mexican-American family.

As a teenager, Martinez cleaned houses with her sister during the summer to help support her family after her father died. That’s when she saw how Dallas‘ other half lived.

In her neighborhood, the streets were unpaved. Many homes only had outhouses.

But when she’d take the streetcar to Oak Cliff for her housekeeping work, she entered a world that was predominantly white and affluent, before the days of integration.

“I would see their streets paved. That stuck in my head. Why don’t we?” she remembers thinking.

At 14, she walked the mile from Little Mexico to Dallas City Hall looking for answers. She organized a petition to get her neighborhood streets paved.

Martinez said she knocked on doors in her neighborhood until she got the signatures. Then she submitted the petition to the city.

“It took a while, but I sat on their coattails,” she said, with a laugh.

Martinez was the first in her family to graduate from high school and she took some college classes at night at Southern Methodist University’s downtown location. She fell in love and married Alfred Martinez, whose family owned the popular El Fenix restaurant in Dallas. Alfred worked while Anita stayed at home with their four kids.

But she wanted to continue contributing to her community.

Martinez described a “macho” era when it was frowned upon if a wife had to work, so she quit her secretarial job. She took on volunteer roles at schools and with women’s auxiliary and restaurant organizations in the city.

When her children were older, and at a friend’s urging, she told her husband she wanted to run for City Council.

“Are you nuts? Don’t you have enough to do?” she remembers him saying at the time.

“I can do more from there,” she said.

In 1969, council elections were at-large, meaning all residents could vote on a candidate. The Citizens Charter Association, a group made up of influential people from business and society, endorsed Martinez. The support gave her momentum in the race.

Her win made her the first Hispanic to ever hold a position on the Dallas City Council. Juanita Nañez, a member of the Dallas Mexican Historical League, said Martinez’s win against her competitor, Frank Hernandez, was a big moment for women and Latinos.

“She gave people confidence and courage by getting people to be involved and stay involved,” Nañez said.

Martinez advocated for West Dallas in the early 1970s. She motivated residents to get involved civically and go to City Council meetings. She zeroed in on neighborhoods like La Bajada, a low-lying area near the Trinity River, where many poor and working-class Latinos lived.

Her impeccable upswept hairdos and fashionable blazers and dresses, as well as the backing of the Citizens Charter Association, gave some the impression that Martinez was too elite for the Latino community.

But her appearance was not her story.

“I came straight from the barrio,” Martinez said.

In speeches, she promised resources to tackle poverty and crime. After she was heckled by a Latino activist, Pete Martinez, she befriended him.

“I was her first enemy. I questioned her loud and clear,” said Pete Martinez, now 83 and no relation. “To me, all politicians were liars. But she got us together.”

Pete Martinez said he learned from Anita Martinez how to take his passion for equality in the community and turn it into action.

“I was wild, until Anita. I’ve always been a defender,” he said, remembering how he’d shout “Viva La Raza,” a Chicano rallying cry.

“She told me it’s not viva la raza (long live the race). It’s que la raza sea viva (let the race live). It’s true. No matter how much you holler or stomp, you have to use common sense,” he said.

In 1972, a bond project vote became a big moment.

When the initial bond package didn’t allocate funds for West Dallas and Little Mexico improvements, Martinez decided it would be a battle she’d fight publicly. She typically chose to handle her disagreements in private, as a sign of respect.

But not that day.

“I will not work with this bond program,” Martinez said in the meeting. She grabbed her things and walked out of the room.

“It made me feel mad and sad,” Martinez said of council members who she felt disregarded that area. “I was talking about a place that had nothing.”

The following week, her proposal for a recreation center for West Dallas was added. It was later named in her honor. Other funding helped improve Pike Park in Little Mexico.

“If they thought she was going to be a rubber-stamp woman, they were wrong,” son Al Martinez said of his mother’s time on the council.

She served two terms. President Richard Nixon appointed her to a task force to evaluate the Peace Corps and she sat on local and national advisory committees.

At one point, she thought about running for higher office in Texas.

But Martinez wanted to help local Latinos, especially children who needed mentoring.

She helped open Los Barrios Unidos, a community clinic, in West Dallas with activists Pete Martinez and John Zapata Gonzales and then started the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico group.

The nameplate from her Dallas City Council days is still on the desk in her home office.

Mrs. Anita Martinez,” it reads. “Councilwoman.” Even today, she spends a few hours working there, calling potential donors to help support the folklorico group.

“If I’m here, I’m making contacts,” she said.

She is still on the nonprofit’s board and tries to catch every performance, inspired by the kids who look fearless dancing.

Childhood memories of Spanish music and colorful, swirling dresses at Pike Park celebrations stayed with Martinez all her life. She always saw folklorico as a way to further Latino celebration and uplift children. The applause, she said, gave shy kids a rush of confidence.

“We need to nurture self-worth in children. If you don’t do that by the time they’re 8 or 9 years old, you’ve lost them. And they are the future.”

After her folklorico began in 1975, the number of Dallas groups celebrating Latino culture started to grow. Today, her group, like many others, is always on the hunt for support, as funding for the arts diminishes and longtime donors die.

Given those challenges, she’s not ready to step away from the group. She overcame a lifetime of challenges as a woman and Latina. And she’s not going to let anyone’s perceptions about age get in the way.

“You just have to have las ganas (the will),” she said.

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com


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