By Daniel O’Connell
Love cannot be contained, which is why it is revolutionary.
Few lived this truth more than Graciela Martinez, a pure soul and ferocious activist, especially for farmworkers, who passed away on Aug. 1.
Over these many years of work, research and advocacy in the Central Valley, I was always tied to Graciela, like family. Within days of arriving, she offered me a space in the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC’s) Proyecto Campesino offices on Main Street in Visalia.
From that perch, I began to witness her at the height of her advocacy—running a radio program for farmworkers, guiding the organization and especially fielding an incredible array of calls for assistance from the most vulnerable people in our society.
Again and again, I pondered how she was able to take in so much suffering and trauma without it all overwhelming her psyche. Plus her own life was not easy by any means, early on a single mother of four on top of the enormous demands of lifting up and supporting farmworkers across the Valley.
A story from that time. Just in the waning years of the Great Valley Center (GVC), they convened a large Valley-wide forum in Modesto. The GVC had the cynical, perhaps desperate, idea to honor Stewart and Lynda Resnick with an award.
I was seated with Graciela at a table near the front of the room when the award was announced. Everyone stood to applaud, except Graciela, who was indignantly rooted, sitting tall with chin up, in her chair. A simple act, but one that no one else in the room thought of or attempted it. Character. Dignity. Self respect—and knowing what side of the fight you are on, and holding that position!
Yet, beyond Graciela’s indignation at those who oppress us, her empathy and love did not exclude even those seemingly undeserving. I remember once talking to her during the Great Recession that hit the housing industry, financial institutions and banks particularly hard. In passing, she lamented the many wealthy people who were threatened with poverty for the first time. She felt sorry for them. (It was a position beyond where I could even go.)
Graciela served on numerous boards of directors but particularly impactful and important to her was Self Help Enterprises (SHE). Early on, she was with Bard and Olga MacCallister in Tulare County as they started multiple projects like SHE, SCICON and the AFSC’s Farm Labor Committee (of which, Proyecto Campesino was a part) from their living room. I believe that Graciela served on SHE’s board of directors until the end of her life, seeing through commitments she took on as a young woman decades earlier.
Years passed by, and we constantly commiserated together and became neighbors. She was living in the Sanger House on Quaker Oaks Farm, and I lived on a small farm across the street. So many nights we sat on her back porch together talking of life, our dreams and especially our hopes for the hopeless, vulnerable and oppressed around us.
A center of these aspirations became Quaker Oaks Farm itself. Like so many other efforts and projects she fostered, it continued to grow with her sustaining support and care.
With so much loss around us, I sit here now, numb and heartbroken at the same time, at the passing of such a beautiful soul. I consider how many people’s lives Graciela touched and helped, at times of great need, deprivation and crisis. I simply cannot calculate the number. Many of them were undocumented immigrants, horribly vulnerable and abused, often with no one to turn to.
Graciela took each call and welcomed every plea. She listened, and listened and listened. So often, after hearing someone out, she had an almost perfectly pitched humming, moan-like empathetic response, before she would speak. It said—I hear you, am suffering with you and you are not alone. Pure love.
How dearly I will miss my friend. She will not rest easy until we are finished with the work before us, to which she dedicated her life—to achieve justice here in the Valley, especially for farmworkers, and security for our immigrant neighbors.
The fight goes on!
*****Daniel O’Connell is the executive director of the Central Valley Partnership. He graduated from Cornell University.