Academic journal article Social Justice

The Heart Just Insists: In the Struggle with Elizabeth "Betita" Sutherland Martinez

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Heart Just Insists: In the Struggle with Elizabeth "Betita" Sutherland Martinez

Article excerpt

There is no separating my life from history.

--Betita Martinez

We Shall Not Be Moved

I AM VISITING MY OLD FRIEND BETITA MARTINEZ ON HER 87TH BIRTHDAY. For almost two years she has been living in a residential facility in San Francisco, her body retreating, her faculties unspooling. She is quite frail, her hearing truncated, her short-term memory whittled away by strokes. She's legally blind, yet can spot a dog yards away. Conversation has become an ode to the everyday, not the grand political discourse it used to be. Now it's a struggle for her to speak just the right words that once flowed in Spanish and French, not to mention sharply chiseled English.

If Betita's commitment to "destroy hatred and prejudice" was her "sacred duty," as she put it in a manifesto written when she was sixteen, it was language and writing--the ability to "tell people what I wish to tell them"--that was her passion. (1) So it must have felt like a defeat when, not too long ago, physical and cognitive limitations forced her to give up a true love of some eighty years: the written and read word.

There are moments, however, when past and present coexist. Today, she rises to the occasion of her birthday, blowing air kisses to a small gathering of well-wishers, and singing along with Barbara Dane on "We Shall Not Be Moved," just as she had done in Cuba in 1966 with hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters. (2)

Betita and I have known each other for forty 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 recovering leftists struggling to find our way through the dystopian gloom.

She's always been more optimistic than me about the future of humankind. "Hey," she responded to my political melancholy during the Bush dynasty, "I just finished watching a documentary about the Donner Party and, believe me, things could be worse."

While most of us licked our wounds and picked up our interrupted lives, she protested alongside anybody who would march in the 1990s and was never without a sheaf of leaflets in the 2000s. She'd lived, as she puts it, through five international wars, six social movements, and seven attempts to build socialism around the world? (3) There was no stopping her now. 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. "It was nothing to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week," recalls Mary King, a comrade of Betita's in the 1960s. "We were exhausted half the time." (4) More like thirteen hours, according to Betita.

She wasn't always a committed political activist. At one time she was a child of privilege, on the fast track to professional success.

Child of Privilege

Elizabeth Martinez, the only child of a "mixed marriage," grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in Chevy Chase, the white, middle-class section of Washington, DC's segregated suburbs. Her parents called her "Betita" for short. Her dark-skinned father, Manuel Guillermo Martinez, 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 University. Her blue-eyed, American mother, Ruth Sutherland Phillips, got a master's degree from George Washington and taught advanced high school Spanish. Ruth was a local tennis champion, accomplished pianist, and bridge enthusiast. "Few people love life more than she did," wrote Betita after her mother's death. (5)

"My physical life was easy," Betita recalls about her materially comfortable youth. "I remember dinners at home. The three of us would sit around a big mahogany table in the Gracious Dining Room. …

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