First of a 4-part series.
DELANO -- Entering Lupe Martínez's office is like stepping into a museum exhibit featuring two of the state's great social justice movements.
A huge red poster emblazoned with the United Farm Worker's symbol -- a black Aztec eagle -- is propped against a filing cabinet.
A picture of residents from the farmworker community of Kettleman City -- considered a birthplace of the environmental justice movement -- hangs on a bulletin board behind his desk.
If his office is a museum, then Martínez -- a stocky, 58-year-old with a bushy, salt-and-pepper mustache and sideburns -- is the perfect docent.
When giving a tour through his office, Martínez -- a former grapepicker who became an organizer and leader in the farmworker movement -- refers to the legendary farmworker leader César E. Chávez by first name.
He refers to a historic campaign in Kettleman City to fight a proposed toxic waste incinerator as "the battle."
Today, when Martínez -- the assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment -- tells stories about his decades of service in the farmworker and environmental justice movements, he sees more similarities than differences.
"The issue is the same one," Martínez said. "Whether it is in the field, or environmental, or in the community, it is all the same. We are all suffering from the same problems."
The skills and passion needed to empower people -- to speak out for their labor rights, or to seek healthier living conditions for their families -- are similar, too, he said.
He still relies on the lessons he learned from the UFW to help Valley residents ease the burden of polluted air, contaminated drinking water, dangerous pesticides and toxic facilities in their communities.
"I like to think I'm a product of what César wanted: Farmworkers coming out and some going into organizations, and some going into the environment," Martínez said. "He knew that if we got out there, we would start making other changes, not just in the fields."
A black-and-white photo of a young Chávez -- at a meeting at the Earlimart home of Ambrocio Gallegos, Martínez' father-in-law -- is pinned to a bulletin board behind Martínez's desk.
The picture -- taken in the union's infancy, in the early 1960s -- depicts how Chávez began meeting with farmworkers in their homes, and then built a movement.
Martínez was not at that meeting. But when asked, he launches into the story of the first time he met the farmworker leader.
Martínez was born in Brownsville, Texas, and began working in the San Joaquín Valley fields at age 15.
He quickly witnessed unfair labor practices. He saw workers get cheated out of their wages and hours, and have no access to restrooms or water in the fields.
In reaction, he became a volunteer organizer for the farmworker union. Martínez met Chávez at a meeting at the UFW's 40 Acres compound in Delano in the late 1960s.
The farmworker leader was small and soft-spoken, but his words were powerful, Martínez recalled.
"What I came to realize is that he gave us hope," Martínez said. "To me, what he was giving everyone was a vision. There wasn't anything else."
And Chávez gave Martínez something else: The philosophy -- known as the education of the heart -- that has guided his organizing work for decades.
Martínez now passes this UFW teaching on to his co-workers in the environmental justice movement, said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment.
"I think what Lupe brings to the movement -- to all of us -- is this idea of the educated heart," Farrell said.
"You have the mind, and the knowledge to achieve good things for people, but if you don't have the heart and really care about the people you are working with, then you're missing a valuable component of the work."
"So you have to educate your head and educate your heart, and in doing so you will achieve social justice for everybody."
A black-and-white photograph of Chávez -- with a wide-brimmed hat on his head, and a shovel thrown over his shoulder -- holds a prominent place on another wall in Martínez's office.
The farmworker leader is remembered for his efforts to unionize farmworkers, so they would have the right to rest periods, toilets in the fields, clean drinking water, and hand-washing facilities. Unionized workers also gained the rights to vacations, medical insurance, and pensions.
But when Martínez gazes at the photo, he also remembers Chávez as a strong advocate for the environment.
"He was one of the biggest environmentalists -- we just didn't realize that is what you called them," Martínez said, with a hearty, belly laugh.
To explain, Martínez launches into another story.
By 1982, he was a full-time community organizer, and worked toward the UFW's traditional goal of securing collective bargaining agreements between growers and workers.
But then childhood cancer clusters began appearing in farmworker communities like McFarland in Kern County, and Earlimart in Tulare County. Along with the union's original goal, Chávez took on an environmental health challenge: Pesticides.
"It doesn't make sense for us to try to get collective bargaining agreements when our children are dying," Martínez remembers Chávez saying.
Though never scientifically proven, Chávez was convinced toxic pesticides had caused the cancer clusters.
"They haven't found anything, and they are not going to find it, because they don't want to believe it's chemicals and pesticides," Martínez recalls Chávez saying.
This belief added a new and urgent goal to the movement.
Martínez and Chávez's mentor, Fred Ross, walked the streets of the farmworker communities to identify the epicenter of the disease clusters.
Chávez later dispatched Martínez to Canada to promote the "Wrath of Grapes" campaign, a large-scale boycott of table grapes intended to shine a light on the use of toxic pesticides in the fields.
In the summer of 1988, Chávez, then 61 years old, conducted his last and longest fast -- 36 days -- to highlight the health dangers pesticides posed to farmworkers and their children.
"He was talking about getting rid of these pesticides, because he was watching how many people were getting exposed, and getting sick, and going back to México to die," Mártinez said. "When you look at it, he was an environmentalist longer than anybody else."
A picture of Martínez, peering through a grapevine to speak with a farmworker, hangs on another wall in the office.
Martínez may have spent a majority of his life working and organizing in the fields, but he also has great stories about one of the state's early environmental justice fights.
He took a break from the farmworker union in the early 1990s when attorney Luke Cole, a pioneer in the environmental justice field, recruited him to help organize residents in Kettleman City, in Kings County, against a proposed toxic waste incinerator at the nearby Kettleman Hills facility.
Martínez -- the first organizer Cole hired under a California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation project -- remembers at first being confused about the goals of the environmental justice movement.
"This was something new," said Martínez. "As a farmworker, it was these people who went and hugged trees. I couldn't grasp it."
Soon, though, he saw the injustice of locating a toxic waste incinerator about 3-1/2 miles from a poor, majority Spanish-speaking community, he said.
To him, the issue was rooted in the same inequities that caused farmworkers to have few rights in the fields, and low-income, agricultural communities to suffer from childhood cancer clusters.
"You have farmworkers in those communities who have very little power or clout," he said. "It took me a long time to see all those things, but when you look at it, it is all the same thing."
Martínez began going door-to-door in the small community, following Chávez's house-meeting organizing method. He talked to people about the proposed incinerator and encouraged them to get involved in the campaign.
In what was considered a great victory for the fledgling environmental justice movement, the general manager of the Kettleman Hills Facility eventually rescinded the proposal.
Missing from Martínez's collection of memorabilia is his trusty guitar. (The guitar in his car, and not in his office because, "I never know when I might need it," he said.)
Martínez has sung and strummed songs -- especially the folk song, 'De Colores' -- as a way to unite people around causes for decades. Today, he also sings the song -- considered the UFW's unofficial anthem -- for members of the environmental justice movement.
Martínez -- who picked up the guitar in 1977, when he was blacklisted for organizing workers and could not find another job in the fields -- said music creates a sense of hope and peace.
Music, "just releases sometimes a lot of the pressure that's on that moment," Martínez said. "And it just unites people -- period."
Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre has experienced the power of Martínez's music.
"Anytime there is a rally, you can always count on Lupe and his guitar to motivate people and give them courage," said Mares-Alatorre, a leader in the community group El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water.)
Whether it is through music -- or by visiting people in their homes and listening to their concerns -- Martínez's overarching goal has always been to empower others.
His greatest reward, he said, is seeing full crews of farmworkers demand rights and get results, or seeing shy community members speak up for their families' health.
"Our communities here have been forever told they can't do anything... and they don't have the power," Martínez said. "That's not true. When people come together, things happen."
In 2006, Martínez -- who was then a national vice president and the head of the UFW's organizing department -- retired from the union and began building the organizing department at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.
Today, a framed photo -- likely one of the newest additions to his office -- represents another of Martínez's professional goals. The photo -- of his grandson, Dante Emmanuel Sandoval, now 3 years old -- underscores his desire to see his grandson grow up in a world with more justice and equality.
"I now see my grandson -- what are we going to leave him?" Martínez said. The future generation, he said, "also deserves better."
Send e-mail to: