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Remembering Colorado Activist Rita Martinez

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On the day that Rita Martinez was buried, mourners in Pueblo, Colo., organized a protest.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) The people united will never be divided.

KELLY: They handed out buttons, waved signs. A few people draped a big cloth over the Christopher Columbus statue in the middle of town that read, take it down.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was a fitting goodbye for a community activist whose work stretched decades. Martinez died from COVID-19. She was 65.

KELLY: She may have been best known for her lengthy fight to remove Pueblo's Columbus statue. Martinez also worked for years convincing Colorado to stop celebrating Columbus Day as an official holiday.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I remember I used to tell my kids that I wouldn't see Columbus Day end within my lifetime.

KELLY: This year, the governor signed a bill into law doing just that.

THERESA TRUJILLO: She sort of just had a little more courage than a lot of the other folks around her.

CHANG: That's Theresa Trujillo, a longtime friend and fellow activist. Trujillo says Martinez had been organizing for years, but it wasn't always her life. Martinez began her career as a nurse.

TRUJILLO: And she really paid close attention to folks who were sort of more marginalized - so Spanish-speaking families or Chicano families.

KELLY: Soon, Martinez became active in the Chicano movement. She spoke out against police brutality and health disparities, mentored young people.

CHANG: For 30 years, she organized Pueblo's Cinco de Mayo celebration. But she didn't like to take credit.

TRUJILLO: She was really good about sort of handing back all of that assigned power that community gave her and saying this is about us.

KELLY: Martinez was devoted to her community. She was devoted to her family, too.

VICENTE MARTINEZ ORTEGA: She was funny. She was silly. She always liked to have a good time.

KELLY: This year, her son Vicente Martinez Ortega moved in with her.

MARTINEZ ORTEGA: She and I would watch, like, movies, like, at least two nights a week. You know, like, we'd hang out. We'd be - I'd always call her my roommate.

CHANG: Growing up, Martinez taught Vicente how to organize, how to set up chairs for a rally, how to work the phones. She helped him find his moral compass, too.

MARTINEZ ORTEGA: Those are, like, gifts that we got from our parents that we didn't even know that we were getting.

KELLY: When Martinez got sick, Vicente went to visit her. He was struck by the names on the doors in the COVID ward - room after room occupied by Latino patients.

MARTINEZ ORTEGA: It's just really difficult to see my people dying, especially when my mom worked so hard for us to be able to live with dignity and respect of our culture. But we still can't waver, and the fight is still going. Rita's story is not finished.

CHANG: Martinez did not live to see Pueblo's Columbus statue taken down. But on the day of her funeral, a procession carried Martinez down the streets of Pueblo. And at some point, a sign appeared in front of the Columbus statue.

KELLY: (Speaking Spanish) Rita. It read, long live Rita.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YO SOY CHICANO")

LOS ALVARADOS: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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