News of Ricardo Martínez’ death rippled across Denver in January. His passing gave rise to media coverage from Chalkbeat and 9News to El Semanario and the Colorado Sun. Social media posts connected friends, family and activists from across the country in remembrance of Martínez’ life—cut short at age 69—as an organizer, teacher and leader. He is remembered as a warrior for educational justice and immigrant rights. As co-chair of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, Martínez worked tirelessly on efforts that included defeating 2002’s “English Only” Amendment 31, winning DACA, reforming Denver North High School, and working to end the school-to-prison pipeline across Denver schools.
Martínez moved to North Denver with his wife Pam in 1982. Before long, the two were woven into the fabric of the community and continued their passion for equity and justice for those most oppressed.
In 1991 Ricardo and Pam co-founded Padres Unidos (later Padres & Jóvenes Unidos) in response to a local elementary school principal’s punitive treatment of Spanish-speaking students. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos went on to become nationally recognized for its racial justice, multi-issue, intergenerational organizing.
Of many North Denver schools where Martínez’ impact lives on, the struggle to create Academia Ana Marie Sandoval de Lenguaje Dual Montessori—over 20 years ago—stands as one example.
“There was broad community support for Academia Sandoval,” Pam Martínez recalls, “Yet with the district and school board, it was a big fight.” Padres Unidos went door to door, mobilizing Mexican, Chicano, and working-class mothers in the neighborhood in an effort to demonstrate to the district that there was a critical mass of families interested in the dual-language Montessori concept. Immigrants from Mexico had left behind an educational system where families had to pay for their children’s education beginning in sixth grade. Many came to the U.S. for its public education system and all they hoped that education would create for their families.
The neighborhood’s growing number of higher-income white families also supported the dual-language Montessori model. “The first gentrifiers of the neighborhood, really,” says Pam Martínez, “People like the original owners of the Lumber Baron Inn were also a force for creating the new model.”
The district intended to build a new school on the former Mount Carmel site at West 37th Avenue and Zuni Street. And it was leaning heavily toward a traditional model. But a strong core of the community had other ideas, and Martínez played an instrumental role in empowering community members to be heard and visible by a district and board used to making their own plans.
The fight for Sandoval ultimately required a change in the neighborhood’s school board representation. North Denver’s DPS board member at the time, Rita Montero, favored English—exclusively—as the language of instruction in DPS schools.
It was then that Reverend Lucía Guzmán left her role as leader of the Colorado Council of Churches to ultimately unseat Montero in 1999 and pave the way for the school’s creation.
Guzmán, now also a former State Senator, reflects back on that period. “When I think of Ricardo Martínez, I think of him as North Denver’s César Chávez. Together with his wife, Pam, Ricardo inspired us all and led tremendous fights for better schools and respect for immigrant rights. He gave his all for justice and peace. Ricardo was instrumental in my campaign for a seat on the Denver School Board. Academia Ana Marie Sandoval would not be a Denver school today without the structure Ricardo and Pam envisioned: Padres Unidos. Together, so many of the North Denver Latino/Anglo families, along with many North Denver teachers and activists, won the right to build the first dual-language Montessori elementary school. This school was established to be a beacon for children and parents who believe in diversity, equality and academic excellence.”
JoAnn Trujillo Hayes, founding principal of Academia Sandoval, remembers Martínez’ involvement in the school’s Collaborative School Committee (CSC). According to DPS, a CSC “brings together families, staff, and community members to create and implement a plan to promote high achievement within a school.” Trujillo Hayes recounts, “While Pam Martinez was heavily involved from the first seed planted at the thought of a dual-language school in Northwest Denver, Ricardo Martínez joined the efforts as the school’s CSC was initiated. He was a valued member with his quiet presence and sage advice. Ricardo was certainly an effective advocate for our Latino families. And of course, a wonderful role model for children. His spirit lives on in the school which was built on the foundation of community members. He was a warrior prince with a tenacious grip on the mission.”
Guzmán would cross paths with Martínez in later years, too, observing him in action with youth he mentored. “I last saw Ricardo in the halls of the State Capitol, where he appeared many times with young students (jóvenes) by his side. He didn’t wear a three-piece suit, but generally wore jeans and a tee shirt with an inscription, “I don’t speak English only”, or “No on 31.” He testified on bills supporting college entrance with instate tuition for the DREAMERS, and bills to allow driver’s license for undocumented immigrants. Ricardo was the mentor for the youth. He always stood to the side as they spoke and took center stage, as they interviewed the governor or the legislators or even the Press. He was a mentor of the highest regard as he showed his own bravery in speaking truth to power. He strengthened the voice of the voiceless and disenfranchised: the poor, the jailed, the indigenous, the worker, the teacher, the parent, and the child.”
Guzmán puts into words what many across Denver are feeling, “Like César Chávez, and Martin King, Jr., Ricardo’s life ended far too soon. So many times, our great leaders are repressed, jailed, disqualified, physically hurt. Ricardo now belongs to the ages, but his legacy belongs to us all. We can care for his legacy by holding close the teachings of North Denver’s César Chávez, Ricardo Martínez.”