Born 10 July 1960, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Daughter of Theodore and Dolores Jaramillo Martínez; married Jeff Scott
First a journalist, Demetria Martínez's writing career has evolved very naturally into poetry and novel. While her first novel, Mother Tongue (1994), published when she was only thirty-three years old, won the 1994 Western States Book award for fiction, Martínez came to fame several years earlier as a reporter put on trial by federal prosecutors for her participation in the Sanctuary movement (consisting mainly of church-related groups that provided haven for refugees from Central American conflicts). She was accused of helping illegally transport and harbor two pregnant Salvadoran women who had crossed the border at El Paso, Texas.
Martínez was working as a religion reporter for the Albuquerque Journal in August 1986 when a minister from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America contacted her and suggested she cover the story of the two Salvadoran women, who wanted to give birth in the United States and give their babies up for adoption. Martínez drove to El Paso, met the women, and interviewed them as they traveled with the minister back to Albuquerque. She eventually decided not to write the newspaper story, fearing she would endanger the women's anonymity and they would be deported. Instead, she wrote a long poem about their lives. Later, when the U.S. government found out about her interview, Martínez was indicted on five counts of violating federal immigration laws. It should be noted that during the 1980s the U.S. government was passionate about breaking any insurgency in Central America, and supported the Salvadoran rightist government. The archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated in 1980, while neither the Salvadoran nor the U.S. government sought to identify his killers. As Martínez notes in a foreword to her novel, more than 75,000 people died or disappeared in El Salvador during a 12-year civil war, which officially ended in 1991. Most died "at the hands of their own government."
In 1987 in Arizona, a trial ensued against Sanctuary movement participants, and Martínez became the subject of newspaper stories across the country as she pled the confidentiality of her reporter's notes. The federal prosecutor obtained a copy of her poem, which gave geographical details of the trip from El Paso to Albuquerque, and it looked like she would go to jail. Church-related groups who sought to provide haven for refugees from Central American conflicts viewed the case as a needed breakthrough for their cause. But the U.S. government sought to prosecute Martínez as a criminal who had willingly broken immigration laws. Literary experts testified of many examples of journalists later writing books or poems from previous reportorial notes. The defense succeeded. They demonstrated that the Salvadoran women had been persuaded to become prosecution witnesses because their fate lay in the hands of the immigration service, and the jury ended up discounting most of their testimony. The 1988 acquittal came after a very short deliberation.
As frightening as the indictment and trial must have been for her, Martínez considers the incident only a footnote to a much larger drama: the plight of the Salvadoran people. She considers that people lived in even greater fear of death and disappearance in El Salvador than she ever had to endure herself. It is no surprise this the theme of her award-winning literature is of El Salvador. Her long poem on the two Salvadoran women, titled "Turning," was published by Bilingual Press Review in Arizona as one of three poems included in the volume Three Times a Woman (1989). Martínez's poem won first place in the 13th Annual Chicano Literary Arts Contest in 1989. She then received the opportunity to give readings and do a lecture circuit at various universities, including Stanford, the University of California, the University of Utah, MIT, and Long Island University, as well as several campuses in Arizona and Texas. She taught a summer writing seminar at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and in 1990 she spent a month as writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook Cottages on Whidby Island, Washington, where she began a novel.
That year she also became national news editor for the weekly National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City. In 1993 she moved to Tucson, Arizona, and in 1994 published her first novel, a short book that packs a punch at the end. In Mother Tongue, there are two principal characters. The man is a Salvadoran refugee and poet who arrives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where "movement" people are trying to help him acclimate and assimilate. The young woman who is the other principal character, Mary, is living emotionally at the edge of life. She is asked to help the refugee, pick him up at the airport, settle him into her friend's house, help direct him to his new job as a dishwasher, and help him get to meetings where he will share his story with church and community members. She does these things while musing about what her role will ever be in life and if she will ever work more than part-time. She falls in love with him, but her own life is as precarious as his, which he does not realize. As they come to know each other better and as lovers, he at one point explodes from his anger and pain and the terrible Salvadoran violence. He confuses Mary with the Salvadoran army members who have brutally murdered his fiancé and begins yelling and hitting her. Then Mary lets out a cry that has been deep inside her since her childhood, and we learn more of what has happened to a young woman who is ignored by U.S. society—the child of a single mother, who suffers a terrible incident in her childhood, and whose mother dies of cancer when she is barely an adult. Martínez seems to be bringing each society to a deeper understanding of each other: the Salvadoran refugee has no idea how life was for the young Chicana woman in near poverty, and the U.S. mainstream society has no idea of Salvadoran reality for the common people.
Martínez is a strong, creative writer who will surely produce more insightful fiction and poetry. After completing a bachelor's degree at Princeton University, she seems to have stumbled accidentally into political involvement at an early stage. Her family history may have provided a strong political foundation. Her father was a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize for two years. He became the first Latino or Hispanic president of the Technical Vocational Institute, a large community college in Albuquerque. He is also the first Hispanic to sit on the Albuquerque School Board, winning two terms during the 1960s. The governor then appointed him to the State Board of Educational Finance. Martínez's mother is a kindergarten teacher, but her maternal grandmother, Lucy Jaramillo, was also recognized as a pioneer in the Latino community. In the 1940s she was elected county clerk in Albuquerque and remained politically active, holding various elective posts, through the 1980s. With her creative writing, Martínez works at bringing people together to examine each other, to see how politics and society affect the human being. Alice Walker called Mother Tongue "a great beauty of a book. I am so proud of Demetria Martínez for standing with and for the disappeared." And Luis Rodríguez, Chicago author of the banned book on gang life, Always Running, says, "Demetria Martínez has pulled out all the stops: here is truth to arouse any hardened heart; here is the 'insanity' of a woman in love calling forth a revolutionary lucidity. Read it. Get angry. And act."
Women's Voices From the Borderlands (edited by Lillian Castillo-Speed, 1995). The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education (1997). Breathing Between the Lines: Poems (1997).
Martínez has published more than 100 news stories and columns for the National Catholic Reporter (a nationwide newspaper independent from the Catholic church), numerous articles for the Albuquerque Journal, and poems in various anthologies.
Escritura 18 (Caracas, Venezuela, Jan.-Dec. 1993). LAT (11 Sept. 1994). Notable Hispanic American Women.
—ELIZABETH COONROD MARTÍNEZ