Luz Martinez was just 12 years old when she left Mexico for the United States, without her parents and not knowing any English.
Like many girls of her generation, she dreamed of someday being a secretary: Today she is the first Latina to be elected to the Vernon City Council.
The road from pre-teen immigrant to councilwoman wasn’t always easy, Martinez told EGP during a recent interview. She said it was hard leaving her single mother and home in Juarez, Mexico behind in 1965, but the sacrifice — made by countless immigrants before and since — was made so she and her younger brother Manuel would have a “better life.”
“I could have made a life in Mexico,” Martinez ventures, “but I knew [coming to the U.S.] was going to be better for us.”
Martinez and her brother had the good fortune to be adopted by an aunt who lived in East Los Angeles, but it was difficult transitioning to life in the U.S., she told EGP.
“It was hard because I didn’t speak a drop of English. Little by little, I tried to speak more and more,” she said, recalling that she and her brother would watch television shows in English to pick up the language. We were determined to learn English and get an education, Martinez remembers.
Although she now speaks English fluently she’s still shy about speaking in public, but says she is working on being more vocal during city council meetings as recommended by Vernon’s Reform Monitor John Van de Kamp. He says more open discussion will improve transparency and help the city rehabilitate its public image, damaged by allegations of corruption and a campaign to disincorporate the industrial city: The reason Martinez says she ran for office in the first place.
Martinez’ journey from Mexico to Vernon was winding and years in the making. At 18 she returned to Mexico to be with her mother, crossing the border between Juarez and El Paso, TX everyday to work. Years later she would return to California, a newly divorced single mother in need of a job, preferably as a secretary as she had long dreamed.
She had after all acquired the skills she needed at Montebello High School where she took typing and stenography courses in hopes of someday following in her aunt’s footsteps and landing a “glamorous job,” like those depicted in the AMC TV show “Mad Men,” which happens to have filmed in Vernon.
“I would see [my aunt] all dressed up with her hair done,” Martinez recalls. “Some kids played house, I played office.”
A talented stenographer, who says she could type 160 words per minute, Martinez in 1987 was hired as the assistant to the city administrator’s secretary, where she learned to prepare agendas and take minutes. Within a couple of months she was promoted to secretary for Vernon’s fire chief, a job she held for 23 years before deciding to run for the council seat left vacant when former Mayor Hilario Gonzalez decided to retire. The city was at the time embroiled in allegations of wrong doing by its top executives.
Martinez says she decided to run, despite all the controversy, because as a long-time city employee she had come to know the city well and felt she had something to offer.
“What an opportunity to help assist the city!” she said. “I saw all the terrible things happening here and that’s what made my decision to run and [to try and] prevent people from coming and ruining the city,” she said, recalling the images of reporters swarming the city and negative headlines about Vernon in the news.
Former fire chief and current City Administrator Mark Whitworth told EGP he feels Martinez has a “genuine interest” in helping the city address the reforms measures brokered by Sen. Kevin de Leon in return for his support to fend off calls for disincorporation.
“She saw the need in the community and wanted to help Vernon make progress,” he said.
But being elected in a city with only about 100 residents wasn’t easy. There were allegations of voter fraud and votes thrown out, which in the end turned the election in Martinez’ favor. She made history when she took office in October 2012, as the first Latina ever elected to the council, and as only the third woman to take the oath of office since the city was founded in 1905. Martinez says her election has opened the door for other women, including Latinas.
Now “I want to see more woman in the body and for them to say ‘I can do that,’” she said.
Martinez told EGP she was determined to tackle the city’s much needed reforms and according to Vernon spokesperson Fred MacFarlane, she “stepped up to the plate” when it came to reducing the controversial high salaries paid to council members.
Martinez chose to forgo the higher salary paid to her fellow council members, opting instead to receive just under $25,000 a year as recommended by Van de Kamp. “That’s something she didn’t have to do; but that just demonstrates that she’s all in and really wants to put the right message forward of what Vernon should be,” said Whitworth.
The council has since voted to reduce council member pay, but it’s something that could have taken years if Martinez had not taken the initiative, says MacFarlane.
Martinez says she still feels strongly about her Mexican heritage and culture, and hopes to someday bring celebrations like Mexican Independence Day, which resonates with her personally, to the city where many of the residents and city and industry workers are Latino.
“That day is very important to me … I don’t forget where I came from,” she said, still in awe about how far she has come from being a child immigrant to Vernon official who will represented her city in Sacramento this week.
“I am very proud to have come all the way to where I am today.”