Padres Unidos - Denver, Colorado
Denver, like many cities in the West and Southwest, has an increasing Latino population and an even faster-growing Latino student population. Here, 57 percent of the 73,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 are Latino. Many of these students are English-language learners who are placed with inexperienced or undertrained teachers. Latino parents are often unwilling or unable to face a bureaucracy they find daunting and unsympathetic to their concerns and may find themselves contending with critics of bilingual education.
Seeds of commitment
Ricardo Martinez was a boy picking onions in California’s Imperial Valley when he and his family heard of workers organizing to improve working conditions in the fields. Inspired, Martinez and his family formed a committee with their co-workers to gain their own rights. Soon after, Cesar Chavez visited, and the committee became part of the United Farmworkers Union. At 14, Martinez began to hand out fliers in fields and neighborhoods to support the union. “Out of this experience, and the tremendous pride that emerged from organizing a union in the fields, came the belief that all things are possible through unity, organizing, and staying the course,” Martinez says. Pam Martinez was galvanized by the Chicano Movement of the 1960s. “I learned that by staying together and organizing, people are able to make progress and change conditions—against all odds.”
The first major victory Pam and Ricardo Martinez helped achieve is one that continues to resonate throughout the United States. Working with a legal team, the Martinezes organized more than 600 families in Houston to fight a Texas law barring undocumented immigrant children from public schools. Hundreds of people — most of them undocumented immigrants — repeatedly packed the courtroom to insist on the right of every child to a public education. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Texas law unconstitutional, ensuring the right to education for undocumented children throughout the United States.
In 1991, Pam and Ricardo Martinez helped establish Padres Unidos in Denver. Padres Unidos’ first victory was to gather more than 80 signatures of immigrant parents to sue the Denver public schools for not adequately educating their Spanish-speaking children. Padres Unidos won the lawsuit, and Denver public schools improved the quality of bilingual education for 35,000 Spanish-speaking students. Another victory grew out of a Padres Unidos leadership class. “What would an ideal school for your children look like?” organizers asked parents. After researching models of success for Latino children, the parents proposed a dual-language Montessori school. The group succeeded in fighting for their chosen curriculum, for bond money to build it, and for the principal of their choice. The resulting school is the first of its kind in the country.
In 2003, Spanish speakers in Colorado public schools faced another formidable challenge when an “English for the Children” amendment was presented, with the intent of ending bilingual education. Padres Unidos mobilized its members to go door to door explaining the issues, to speak before community groups and to get out the vote. The amendment was defeated and Padres Unidos’ critical role in the successful effort served as a model for similar campaigns in other states.
In addition, Padres Unidos worked as part of a broad coalition to help pass a Colorado tobacco tax in November 2004 that will provide $175 million in public health care, including care for undocumented residents.
Padres Unidos has multiplied its reach with the addition of Jovenes Unidos, the student arm of the organization. Jovenes Unidos compiled information about unfair discipline against Latino youth in area schools and demanded change with their “Education on Lockdown” report. The student group also is engaged in the fight to gain children of undocumented workers the right to attend Colorado public universities at in-state tuition rates, and is pressing for a national law that would ensure this right nationwide.
Pam and Ricardo Martinez believe their success stems in large part from two words: slow down. “We have learned the importance of not outstripping people, of not getting separated from the base, and not falling into the temptation to ‘just let the staff do it.’ When the work is divorced from the community, when the people don’t have full ownership, we trade the efficiency of ‘the work’ for the long-term goal of building a real movement for justice and new leadership.” To be effective, the Martinezes believe, those involved in the day-to-day work need enough time to study, discuss, and understand the issues so they can make their own assessments and decisions.
The Martinezes have developed a three-step approach to solving problems: They begin by having those involved document the problem; next, they identify the impact of the problem on people’s lives; finally, they work with the affected parents and students to find solutions. According to the Martinezes: “This intergenerational process is a dynamic that ensures that new folks will be able to lead the work for social justice and change in the years to come.”
As a married couple, the leaders of Padres Unidos face a challenge that is also a strength. “We work collaboratively, with respect for each other’s intuitions and instincts, and with no competition as to who is a ‘better leader’ or ‘more right’ than the other,” they say. While Ricardo is known as a negotiator, a collaborator and consensus builder, Pam focuses on analysis, strategy, and maintaining a steady course toward the pair’s ideals. The key to success with this structure, they say, is constant communication and discussion.
Both Ricardo and Pam Martinez see their roles moving toward those of “intergenerational learners and trainers, passing on what we know as well as learning from the new generations as they come forth.” The emerging vision is for a training center to serve home-grown organizers and to build a broader movement in Colorado. The Martinezes picture the center as a place for discussion and reflection, for “envisioning what the world we are trying to create looks like, so that activists and organizers can incorporate their global vision into their work.”
More about Pam Martinez, Ricardo Martinez, and Padres Unidos
“Both Pam and Ricardo are grounded in their various strengths by proceeding from what is in the best interest of the overall community. ...They truly understand their responsibility to develop new leaders in the course of the work.”
- Robert J. Prince, Senior Lecturer of International Studies, the University of Denver
"Their ability to stitch together a community coalition is one of the best, marked by care, compassion, and a focus on the critical details for sustainability.”
- Christy Donor, Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
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