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

2. What event made Roberto get involved in immigrant rights?

In June of 1979, three Mexican women called me at home and asked if they could bring their three teenage children who had been attacked at Santana High School the day before. That very afternoon the three women brought their three children, two boys and one girl to my home. The two boys were badly beaten about the face. The girl had bruises on her face and neck where she had been choked by a Sheriff’s Deputy. The three claimed that a group of white boys, including members of the Youth Klan Corps, were waiting after school with boards and bats for the Mexican kids. As usual, the Mexican kids were outnumbered.

Shortly after the melee began Sheriff’s Deputies arrived to break up the fight. However, instead of arresting the white boys who had initiated the fight, the Deputies, not only arrested just the Mexican kids, but badly beat them in the process. As the kids were relating their horrifying experience to me, all of my own experiences with police and Border Patrol came rushing forward and I could feel the anger building up inside of me. I knew then that I could not remain silent.

That same afternoon after the women and children left I called both the school and the Sheriff’s sub-station in Santee and demanded a meeting for the next day at the school between the Mexican community, school administrators and representatives from the Sheriff’s Department. Both the school officials and the Sheriff’s department refused to meet, saying that everything had already been resolved.

Frustrated, but determined to get all three groups together, I called each of them back and warned them that if they didn’t meet the next morning at the school we would hold protests in front of the school and Sheriff’s sub-station, as well as a press conference to denounce publicly how the school and the Sheriff’s Department were creating a racist and violent atmosphere for Chicano students. Both called back within a half an hour and agreed to meet the next day.

At the meeting the next day we not only got the school to stop allowing the Youth Klan Corps to openly recruit on campus, but to stop discriminating against the Mexican kids. The Sheriff’s Department agreed to discipline and relocate the Sheriff’s Deputies who were abusing the Mexican kids. This was not my first experience at organizing, but it was my first experience at publicly challenging law enforcement in brutality cases. I also learned that public officials are afraid of the media.

As word got around the east county about my confrontation with the Sheriff’s Department, I began getting calls from Lemon Grove and Spring Valley about Sheriff's Deputies assaulting Mexican families in their homes, at Baptisms, parties and weddings. After meeting with several people in those areas, I decided to form the East County Sheriff’s/Community Relations Task Force, which began meeting almost immediately with representatives from the Sheriff’s Department in East County.

During this period I began working with attorneys to file lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department. This was also the time when I first made contact with the Chicano Federation asking for support. They sent a representative to attend the Task Force meetings. Although the Sheriff’s Department representatives only attended three or four meetings, because Sheriff John Duffy pulled them out claiming he never authorized the use of the Sheriff’s Department’s name on the Task Force, the group continued to meet for another year. Because of the publicity generated by the law suits and the Task Force, which had several high–profile elected officials and members, abuses by the Sheriff’s Department in East County were substantially reduced.