Tony Platt : My Friend Betita Martinez

Betita Martinez. Photo from SF Gate.

‘The heart just insists’:
My friend Betita Martinez

As the daughter of a dark-skinned immigrant from Mexico City and a blue-eyed North American, she felt racism in the air, ‘but I did not have words for it then.’

By Tony Platt / The Rag Blog / December 27, 2010

I’m visiting my old friend Betita Martínez a few days before her 85th birthday. I bring chocolate chip cookies, and my laptop to show her photographs of a recent trip to Europe and Morocco. Our conversation is not the grand political discourse it used to be. It’s more of an ode to the everyday.

We’ve known each other for 35 years, from the time we worked together on a radical pamphlet about the police, through our years as comrades in a Marxist organization, and during the last two decades as leftists struggling to find our way through the dystopian gloom.

While most of us licked our wounds and picked up our interrupted lives, she protested with anybody who would march in the 1990s and was never without a sheaf of leaflets in the 2000s. She kept the faith, while mine wavered. “The heart just insists on it,” she once explained.

Betita looms large in my memory as a professional revolutionary who managed on a few hours of sleep and an occasional steak, with little time for small talk. This wasn’t always the case. At one time she was on the fast track to professional success.

Elizabeth Martínez grew up in the white section of Washington, D.C.’s segregated suburbs in the 1920s and 1930s. As the daughter of a dark-skinned immigrant from Mexico City and a blue-eyed North American, she felt racism in the air, “but I did not have words for it then.”

Her father, Manuel Guillermo Martínez, who had witnessed the Mexican revolution as a young man, worked his way up from a clerk in the Mexican Embassy to professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown; and her mother, Ruth Sutherland Phillips, got a master’s degree from George Washington and taught advanced high school Spanish.

Soon Betita was emulating her parents’ hard work ethic, joining the bridge club in high school and prepping for college and a career. She was the first Latina at Swarthmore, graduating with honors in history and literature in 1946. Here she began a lifelong friendship with fellow student (and later renowned economist) Andre Gunder Frank, a Jewish scholarship boy from Europe who, like Betita, knew what it felt like to be in exile, never feeling quite settled anywhere.

After college, using her mother’s vaguely British middle name, Liz Sutherland plunged into the post-war ferment of New York’s cultural scene. With her contacts from Swarthmore opening doors to institutions typically closed to women and Latinos, jobs came quickly and easily: as a translator and researcher at the United Nations (1947-1953), an administrative assistant in the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art (1957-1958), an editor at Simon and Schuster (1958-1963), and Books and Arts Editor at The Nation (1963-1964).

Betita Martinez. Photo by Margaret Randall.

For some 15 years Liz hobnobbed with cutting edge artists and literati, and married one, the writer-activist Hans Koning. She moved easily between the beat milieu of the Village — hanging out with Diane Di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and other demimonde intellectuals — and chic patrons at Fifth Avenue soirées. This ability to function in very different worlds would serve her well later in life when she had to fundraise for grassroots causes and translate radical rhetoric into palatable liberalism for middle-class audiences.

Among her friends were photographers Edward Steichen (her boss at MoMA) and Robert Frank, and the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. She could more than hold her own reviewing French new wave and English kitchen sink movies in the la-di-da Film Quarterly.

“If the film speaks its piece well, it lacks the magic of the unsaid,” she wrote in 1961 about Karel Reiz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. “There is nothing here to make you shiver, no awareness of ‘the million-eyed Spyder that hath no name.’ The characters are all there, but they are more recognizable than illuminating.”

Unusually for somebody still in her 30s, she had honed literary skills as an editor, designer, and writer. Most of us hope to be good at one of these things in a lifetime. She did them all really well.

In 1960, just two years into her job with a prestigious publishing firm, Simon and Schuster — and already an editor — she was assigned to work with the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman on the publication of Four Screenplays (including “Wild Strawberries” and “Seventh Seal”). She saw the landmark book “through from start to finish,” she told a reporter for Saturday Review. During a visit to Sweden to meet Bergman, they had lunch together on a set. “What was it like to talk with him, what’s he like?” I once asked her, wide-eyed. “He said I had nice legs,” she replied.

The following year she was off to Cuba, meeting with writers and filmmakers creating a “cinema of revolution.” That was her first turning point: “When Cuba declared itself socialist, so did I.”

In 1964, Liz served as go-between and editor for the militant black-led organization SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and Simon and Schuster, resulting in an extraordinary book of photographs, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. It opens with three tranquil, rural images of the Deep South, followed by a carnival scene of a lynching in graphic detail.

Lorraine Hansberry gets credited for the introduction, as do Danny Lyon, Roy de Carava, and others for their photographs, but Betita’s name is nowhere to be seen. (She was similarly unacknowledged for her editing role in Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power, another iconic publication.)

She finally gets her due years later for helping Jim Forman write one of the most significant memoirs of the civil rights movement, The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Holed up in a house in Puerto Rico, she helped him not only get his writing in shape, but also broaden his “understanding of the vast and deplorable role of the United States government in suppressing the rights of all nonwhite people.”

In the mid-1960s, now in the prime of her life, Liz Sutherland made the shift from publishing to joining the Movement, giving up a sure-thing life of privilege for long hours and low pay for the next 45 years.

She became director of SNCC’s New York office, getting the word out and raising funds from Jewish sympathizers when she wasn’t on the road in Mississippi and Alabama, or making overtures on behalf of black nationalists to the Chicano-led UFW organizing migrant workers in California.

“I did not grapple with my particular identity then, with being half Mexican and half white,” she recalls. “The work said who I was.” And the work was grueling, especially for a single parent. Her pre-teen daughter Tessa “endured many lonely hours and TV dinners” when her mother was interviewing civil rights workers in the South. “She understands about Mississippi.”

A few years later, three pivotal events propelled her political development in a new direction. First, SNCC had, as she put it, “an identity crisis” and decided it “should be an all-black organization.” Stokely Carmichael made clear in a speech given in Berkeley in 1966 that “we cannot have white people working in the black community.” No one “white-baited me to my face,” says Betita recently, but to most of the SNCC staff she was “classified as white.”

Secondly, Elizabeth Sutherland and several other refugees from SNCC contributed to “an energized convergence of women in New York City,” as one observer has noted, and were in on the ground floor of the women’s liberation movement. Elizabeth was a member of the New York Radical Women’s collective — a group that included Joan Brown and Shulamith Firestone — and contributed an article (with Carol Hanisch, instigator of the celebrated protest of the Miss America pageant in 1968) to the first issue of Notes From The First Year, a theoretical journal of radical feminism, priced 50 cents to women and one dollar to men.

The Hanisch-Sutherland essay, which follows right after Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Organism,” is organized as a series of answers to typically asked questions about feminism. For example, don’t some women “naturally want to be housewives?” To which the authors of “Women of the World Unite — We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Men!” reply: “Anyone who thinks she feels good as she surveys her kitchen after washing the 146,789th batch of sparkling dishes isn’t being ‘natural’; she’s literally lost her mind.”

As Elizabeth Sutherland became Betita Martínez, she made sure that issues of gender were not put on the back burner. In 1970, she contributed “Colonized Women: The Chicana” to Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful, an anthology that became required reading for a generation of feminists. Today, Morgan quickly recalls Betita’s “intensely feminist intelligence and commitment. Her stubborn insistence on freedom and power for all members of communities of color — including, surprise! women — got her into a lot of hot water. But that never stopped her.”

Thirdly, a trip to Cuba in 1967 connected her with an inspirational gathering of Latin American revolutionaries that triggered her own identity crisis: “the ground of my life was shifting, stretching.” She took off for New Mexico in 1968, where she founded a Chicano movement newspaper, El Grito del Norte, and organized the Chicano Communications Center. “A voice inside of me said, ‘You can be Betita Martínez here. It feels like home’.”

It felt like home until the mid-1970s, when Betita left New Mexico and joined a leftist organization in San Francisco, hoping to be part of a movement that would transcend identity politics. Ten years later, after the Marxist left imploded, she returned to grassroots work, searching for ways to bring communities of color together, speaking out fiercely against racism, sexism, and war — saying “NO to any definition of social justice that does not affirm our human oneness.”

While illness limited Betita’s mobility when she reached her 80s, she kept on writing, as she’d done all her life. Without a university base or philanthropic support, she has accomplished what most academics never do in a lifetime: written several books that have left a deep impact on readers searching for socially relevant, well researched, and thoughtful history and commentary.

Among her lasting contributions are Letters From Mississippi (1964), The Youngest Revolution: A Personal Report on Cuba (1969), 500 Years of Chicano History (1976), and 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History (2008), not to mention hundreds of journalistic essays. In 2000, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, but not the private pension, home ownership, and other perks that typically crown an academic career.

Betita Martinez. Photo by Tony Platt / The Rag Blog.

Recently, Betita looked more deeply and honestly into the self-inflicted wounds that can’t simply be blamed on the Man, “the human toll of righting wrong.” It troubles her that for too long the Chicano movement was seen as a subsidiary of the African American movement; that women in SNCC and Chicano organizations were too often considered subordinate to “male warriors” and assigned housewifely duties; that in the name of fighting for a “humanist society,” Marxist organizations could treat its cadre so brutally.

And while she gave all to her extended political family, Betita “deeply regrets neglecting another identity: being the mother of a young daughter who needed much more attention than she received in those years.”

Now it’s the mother who needs and gets much more attention from her daughter. A stroke makes it hard for Betita to see, hear, and remember yesterday’s visitors, yet she insists on living by herself with her dog Honey in a small, rented apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district, surrounded by books, posters, mementos, and rows of filing cabinets. “I love all dogs and some people,” she says. But she’s always delighted to see visitors, and disappointed when we leave.

Today, the talk is about a trip Cecilia and I took recently. Her eyesight is not good, so she sits almost on top of the screen of my laptop as I scroll through hundreds of photographs that for me are already in the twilight between just now and the past.

As she imagines the photos through a blur, I tell her stories to go with the images: riding a lurching camel through pillowy sand dunes in the Sahara, shopping in an outdoor market in Provence for just-picked fruits and vegetables, circling Jeff Koons’ gigantic flowering puppy that sits calmly outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao, watching kids splashing through a swimming pool installation on the roof of the Hayward Gallery in London, and stumbling over memory plaques in Berlin.

She happily munches cookies, and lights up when I come to photos of our new dog. “You must bring Buster here,” she says. We must all go to Morocco to see the camels.” She laughs at the absurdity and attractiveness of the possibility.

She’s thirsty and I look for a glass near her sink. “This one?” I ask. “Yes,” she replies, “that one. It’s a mere bagatelle.” I do a double take and she laughs. “I haven’t heard that in a long time,” I say. “Me neither,” says Betita. “How come I can remember that, but can’t remember the name of the person who helps me every day?”

We stop for a moment, pondering the marvelous trickiness of the brain. Then, just as we have often done together, we muse about the meaning and origins of this trifle of a word. As I search her well-used English and French dictionaries, and read out aloud all the detailed information I can find, I am reminded of the many times that we have done this together, sharing our pleasure in words and language, and for this moment all is as it was.

Happy birthday to Elizabeth (Betita) Martínez, born 12 December 1925.

[Tony Platt is the author of 10 books and 150 essays and articles dealing with issues of race, inequality, and social justice in American history. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Truthdig.com, History News Network, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, and the Guardian. Platt, now an emeritus professor living in Berkeley, California, taught at the University of Chicago, University of California (Berkeley), and California State University (Sacramento). This article was also posted to his blog, GoodToGo.]

Thanks to Bernardine Dohrn /The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Tony Platt : My Friend Betita Martinez

  1. Anonymous says:

    A lovely account of a life well-lived – not perfect – but well-lived. Let’s all go ride a camel!

  2. Anonymous says:

    thank you soooooooooo much for this article.
    Betita was so important to me and i still feel that she is part of my life. I meet her when I was working as a volunteer at the SNCC office when I first joined the movement when I was 11 yrs old..I knew her as Elizabeth Sutherland.. I assumed that she was married and that this was her husbands name and when she got divorced she returned to her REAL name.
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article about this Icon of World history .. not just the US nor Women’s nor Chicano etc etc.. but the world.
    85 yrs old. boy ..
    I learned wonderful history from the article and truely thank you for enriching me more about a women I already admired and love.

    this is the first comment I have ever wrote to a blog.. this article really moved me.

    Maxine Orris

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