This past week I had the absolute honor and privilege to spend time with the indefatigable activist sage Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez. She’s perhaps best known as the author of the classic “500 Years of Chicano History” which remains a profusely illustrated testament to our people’s storied resistance throughout centuries of oppression. Betita, as she prefers to be called, was in town last week, however, to speak to students and people in the community about her latest book “500 Years of Chicana Women’s History.” Starting where her classic text left off, Betita’s newest book is a bilingual historical exhumation of the long obscured stories of Chicana women in resistance. All too often faced with a male dominated triumvirate chorizo-fest image of the Chicano Movement, Betita’s book is a breath of fresh air and further more, an absolute necessity!
I met Betita for the first time as I drove to my friend’s house where she was staying. With a busy schedule, it was virtually impossible to arrange for Betita to come to KPFK’s studio in North Hollywood for a live interview on Uprising. Since she was staying close, the best option was for me to drive after work and conduct an on the spot field interview with the legendary Chicana activist. I arrived before Betita had come back from her speaking engagement at Chapman University in Orange. The time allowed for me to prepare an interview with her about “500 Years of Chicana Women’s History.” Finally, Betita returned and I met the frail yet ever-strong radical. She needed a 30 minute nap, she told me. For an interview opportunity such as this, a half-an-hour wait was not even a test of my patience! After 30 minutes, Betita and I spent another 30 minutes talking about her wonderful new book; of which an edited version of the conversation aired on Uprising the very next morning.
After Betita and I wrapped up our conversation, she took another 20 minute nap before her last speaking engagement of the day at Santa Ana Community College. Decidedly tired, I contemplated going home, but fortunately decided to tag-along and accompany Betita to her event. In the car ride to the college, I had the opportunity to speak with her some more about electoral politics and personal history; conversations I am sure to cherish. At Santa Ana College, a classroom of students awaited Betita and she gave a personality-laden presentation of 40 of the best pictures in her book and their historical significance. Suffice to say, there was not a soul that wasn’t profoundly affected by the words and ideas of this tireless, unrepentant Chicana militant!
The next event Betita spoke at that I attended was held at SolArt Gallery Cafe in Santa Ana. Before people arrived, I presented her with some recordings from the Pacifica Radio Archives from her gubernatorial campaign in 1982 with the Peace and Freedom Party as well as a copy of an interview she did in 1992 about the 500th anniversary of the genocide of the Americas. After an inspiring number of young Chicanas filed into the gallery to hear Betita’s words, an informal interview setting had the veterana activista telling tales of her political activities throughout the years. After a question and answer session, Betita admitted proudly that she was humbled by her stay in Orange County. She said the rebellion should start here after meeting so many actively involved Chicanas! (And of course, 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History was born in Orange County with the first photo collected was that being of the rebellious Modesta Avila!)
The cross-generational experience I had with Betita Martinez is impossible to sum up in a blog entry. At 83 years old, her uncompromising radicalism is quite something to behold. It was an experience I am not soon to forget. Throughout my brief, but immeasurably valuable time with her, a quote from Salvador Allende’s University of Guadalajara speech kept reemerging in my mind; “Hay jovenes viejos y viejos jovenes.” Seremos como Betita! Que Viva Betita!