By Albert Gregory
As far back as Mariana Martínez can remember, she has always loved Wonder Woman.
As a kid, she sat in her mother’s home in Southwest Santa Rosa and watched reruns of the ’70s-era TV show, admiring the capeless crusader played by the actress Lynda Carter as she easily bent steel and tossed around villains. But the moment she made the connection between her and Carter’s shared Mexican heritage made all the difference for Martínez.
Indeed, Carter has said in interviews that her grandmother entered the country as an undocumented immigrant.
“When I found that out I was like, ‘Oh yeah, you have a bigger fan [now]’” Martínez, 40, said. “She’s pretty badass.”
Recognizing she shared that connection to Carter’s Latina roots was significant because Martínez had rarely seen anyone who looked like her in a position of power—fictional or not. For the past few decades, Martínez has worked to become a role model for young Latinx girls and boys.
Today, Martínez is the vice-chair for the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) Board of Trustees and director of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at Mendocino College in Ukiah.
As an SRJC trustee, Martínez supports policies to increase hiring of people of color as counselors and other faculty positions, to secure funding for student housing, to increase diversity in management positions and to expand the college’s primary scholarship, the Doyle Scholarship, to serve more students—including some students taking fewer than 12 units.
At CAMP, Martínez works with students who are of migrant or agricultural backgrounds from both Mendocino and Lake counties. The program aims to ensure 86% of the students finish their first year of college, a total of 24 units, and that 95% of them continue to their third semester.
Martínez was born in 1981 in Tijuana, Mexico. She came to America with her mother and stayed after their passports expired.
After spending about five years in Southern California, her mother met Martínez’s stepdad, and the new family decided to go north with Martínez’s newborn brother. They landed in the Roseland neighborhood, which was finally annexed into the City of Santa Rosa in 2017.
During Martinez’s youth, Roseland was, as it is now, a predominantly Latinx community. She attended the local Lawrence Cook Middle School and then Elsie Allen High School, where most of her classmates were Latinx, but many of her teachers were white.
“I don’t think it was like [how] people painted it in terms of danger and all that,” Martínez said. “I didn’t experience any of that so much. It was just predominantly Latino, and everything you needed was here.”
Martínez started on the college-prep track early, after teachers recognized her advanced math skills. As a result, she ended up spending much of her time in classrooms predominantly with white students.
“[The system was] unfair because all my other [Latinx] friends were capable of doing the work, but they weren’t in there,” Martínez said. Being the only brown kid in the room made her feel awkward at best. She knew the white kids likely had no ill-will towards her, but felt they never noticed the exclusion of her Latinx classmates. She did.
She went on to study Chicano studies and Spanish at Sonoma State University before going to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where she received a master’s in education curriculum and instruction. She finished her education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned her doctorate in education policy studies.
Her friends call her crazy. Crazy for constantly noticing all the injustice in the world and fighting for changes. They call her a peleonera, which crudely translates to a fighter in Spanish, but really means someone who always tries to pick at something. She put that spirit on full display while winning her SRJC’s Board of Trustees seat in 2016, defeating six-term trustee Richard Call, the son of Robert Call, who served as a trustee for 20 years. Martínez was reelected in 2020.
“[When she won in 2016] I was really excited. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s how we’re going to add some dimension to this board.’ She had run a really—I wouldn’t use the word aggressive—but a forceful, really good political campaign,” said Maggie Fishman, an SRJC trustee.
Sometimes, Martínez still feels like the token brown person, just like she was in high school college-prep classes. For instance, she suspects she was appointed to chair SRJC’s recently-formed Ad Hoc Racial Justice Committee because she was the only brown face on the Board of Trustees. Although she feels qualified to head the committee and believes it is important to have someone with a background like hers lead it, she can’t help but wonder if it was assumed she would take the position only due to the color of her skin and not her abilities.
“I don’t think people do it consciously, and they don’t get what they’re doing. And that’s when you kind of have to be like, ‘Are you asking me because of my expertise? Or are you asking me because I’m brown?’” Martínez said.
Since her appointment to the Racial Justice Committee, she’s worked towards creating an ethnic studies department and filling faculty positions with more people of color.
Martínez acknowledges the progress at increasing representation in positions of power at the SRJC is slow, but the recent addition of Caroline Bañuelos to the Board of Trustees added another advocate in Martínez’s fight for equality and equity.
Working for two different colleges in two different counties can leave Martínez with little time to unwind. Her youngest sister, Dani Velazquez, sometimes wishes Martinez would let out all her stress and vent about the injustices that keep her up at night.
“She doesn’t show it and she doesn’t tell us. But I know her so well that I can see it sometimes,” Velazquez said. “I think she gets really sad because I know she wants to do more.”
During her years as an educator, Martínez encountered many young women who she continues to mentor. Her friend Ariana Aparicio, 31, who refers to Martínez as her “fem-tor,” witnessed her superpowers firsthand.
“Wonder Woman is a badass, and Mariana is badass. Right?” Aparicio, an academic program coordinator at UC Davis, said. “So, I feel like she connects on that level. Especially as a superhero, right? I think that’s representative of what Mariana represents.”
Originally published on the North Bay Bohemian.