Chapter 13: The Border and Human Rights—A Testimony by Roberto L. Martinez

1. How did Roberto Martinez’s life affect his involvement with immigrant rights?

I was born and raised in San Diego and my adult life has been that of an activist-organizer working alongside leaders within the Mexican-Chicano communities to struggle for the human rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters. During the 1990s, I was fortunate to be the Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program in San Diego. My work there was to organize the investigations into instances of violence and abuse involving Mexican immigrants and Chicanos.

In the early 1950’s, the INS launched "Operation Wetback." This was a continuation of the infamous "repatriations" begun in the 1930’s when more than one hundred thousand Mexicans, U.S. citizens, Legal Residents, as well as suspected undocumented immigrants, were rounded up and deported by the U.S. Border Patrol with the help of the U.S. Army and local police. It is estimated that by the time "Operation Wetback" ended in 1955, over 1 million Mexicans, including U.S. citizens, were deported to Mexico.

But "Operation Wetback" also affected Mexican Americans who were U.S. citizens. I was a student attending San Diego High School in the early 1950s. Frequently the police would stop me as I was coming home from school and sometimes they would put in me in jail and then turn me over to the Border Patrol for deportation. This happened about two or three times a month. The fact that I was a fifth-generation U.S. citizen didn’t seem to matter. My family had lived in the relative tranquility of a farm community in East County but in 1945 we moved to downtown San Diego after my father was discharged from the service. It was an enormous cultural shock for me. However, nothing could have prepared me for the terror and psychological trauma of being arrested or threatened with deportation by police and Border Patrol. Looking back, I realize now how Mexicanos in Los Angeles must have felt during the massive roundups by both police and Border Patrol in the previous decades. What made this problem worse was that there was no one to turn to for help. There were no civil rights or immigrant rights organizations.

After I graduated from high school I got married and in 1965 my family was one of the first Chicano family’s to move into Santee into a community called Carleton Hills. The day before we moved in, I went to check on the house to see if it was ready. To my surprise, workers were removing the wall paneling from the living room and throwing them in the front yard. When I asked them why, they said that the house had been vandalized the night before. When I looked at the panels, the words "get out town wetbacks" were carved into the panels. There were also swastikas scattered throughout the paneling. Although I had experienced racism before, this was the first display of overt racism directed at me, and my family. This would be my introduction to the kind of racism and violence I would encounter in my work at both the border and in the north and east county with farm workers.

A month after we moved in, a cross was burned in front of the home of a prominent black doctor and his family that had also just moved in. They also sprayed swastikas on their walls and broke their windows. Within a week they moved out.

By the early 1970’s several more Mexican families had moved into Santee. Some of the children, including mine, had begun attending Santana High School. Also at this time the Youth Klan Corp was actively recruiting members at Santana High School. The school administrators allowed this recruiting to occur on campus year round. No one had ever challenged them on this racist policy.

By 1973, I began emerging as a leader in the community, primarily as a leader in the Mexicano community. We, along with other Mexicanos, felt isolated socially, culturally and politically, in east San Diego County. A few years later, I began receiving complaints that the white kids at Santana High were attacking the Mexican kids after school. Following one particularly vicious attack on the Mexican kids by white youths, including Youth Klan Corps kids who wore T-shirts that read, "White Power" on one side, and "Youth Klan Corps" on the other, I received a visit that would change my life forever.