Sylvia Martinez describes herself as an American first and a Hispanic second. Her family's roots can be traced from Colorado to Texas, back to Montana (where she was born in 1973) and ultimately, south of the border. "My grandparents came from Mexico, my father came from Mexico, and I'm very proud of that," she says. "You have to be [proud] as a Hispanic or a Latino, because we're not white, we're not Anglo and so we're not seen always by everyone as deserving of being in this country."
Martinez's family adopted a migrant lifestyle. Growing up, she and her five brothers and one sister would leave the small, largely Hispanic border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, each April to labor with their parents in the fields of northern Colorado. "We picked cucumbers, we harvested onions, we thinned beats, harvested potatoes, cleaned corn, you name it, we did it," she recalls.
Looking back, she says working the land was a family tradition. Her grandparents were farm workers some 60 years ago, and brought their children into the fields, and so forth. But she notes that it was hard to cultivate enough time during the growing season for an education. "I worked during the day with my family, and came home, helped my mother prepare supper, shower and go to school at night, summer school for migrant students." She says it wasn't easy, and she remembers many times when she didn't want to go to school.
In 1991, with diploma in hand, Martinez realized that she'd had enough of Eagle Pass, Texas, and the lack of opportunity that awaited her homecoming. She chose instead to settle in Greeley, Colorado, and her family stayed as well. She married a former marine, and had two children. She found work in the judicial system, eventually becoming an investigator for local criminal defense attorneys.
But despite her close association with migrant workers, she would stay on the political fringes of the immigration debate until late 2005. That's when the District Attorney wanted to open an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Greeley, and was seeking the support of the City Council to sign off on the measure. Martinez says it was the proposal of the ICE office that pushed her into becoming involved.
She attended a meeting that November with a pro-immigration movement that was starting to gain momentum. While happy to hand out flyers against the ICE proposal, she recalls being a bit more reluctant to take on a greater role. "We thought we should come up with a name, and so we decided on Latinos Unidos. And then there were questions of, 'Well, who's gonna field questions from the media if they have any?' I was picked. I didn't volunteer," she insists with a laugh.
There were many days when Martinez asked herself "What am I doing?" and "Can we really make a difference in such a short amount of time?" After much prayer, she says the answer was "How would we know if we don't try"
"If we'd just sat back and not thought we could have made a difference, we wouldn't have gone to all of these meetings," she says, "and the fact that the decision was made not to follow through on that proposal was huge."
But the decision that December not to open a local ICE office did not stop federal officials from pursuing immigrants who were in the country, and Colorado, illegally. Operation Wagon Train rolled into Greeley one year later, on December 12th, 2006. Several white buses with black tinted windows were parked outside of the Swift and Company meatpacking plant while ICE agents rounded up immigrants suspected of using false or stolen identities.
Nearly 1300 people were taken into custody in six states during the early morning raids, 262 in Greeley alone. Martinez recalls being very disheartened by what she saw that day. "There are a few, I will agree, that have committed crimes, and as such they should be punished and they should do the time as any other person in this country does. But," she stresses, "the fact that we have 12 million undocumented people here is a sign that the current system is not working."
She is disappointed that a compromise bill in Congress, which would have legalized those immigrants, was defeated last month. "It's really sad that we're not willing to work together to try and make a better living for all of us, because this country is very big and very wealthy," Martinez says, adding, "there is enough room for all us."
Immigration legislation may be dead for now, but the issue is not for Sylvia Martinez and the Latinos who make up a third of Greeley's population. "A lot of people speak negatively about the immigration issue as a whole, because they don't understand or they're misinformed; not because they hate," she insists. She is determined to show the larger community the benefits of a just and humane immigration policy. "My goal," she says, "is to inform, to speak out as often as I can — or as we can — as a group, as Latinos Unidos."