Community Organizer: Wilfred Martinez

I met Will Martinez in the summer of 1970. He was fifteen years my senior and the chair of the Mexican American Service Agency (MASA). I had enlisted in Vista and requested an urban placement in the east. I was sent to Pueblo, Colorado. My assignment was to serve as MASA’s “coordinator”, in quotes because a coordinator might be thought to lead or direct and that is not what I did. I was an assistant to Will Martinez and others, a right-hand man and happily so.

The Mexican American Service Agency 

MASA was a remarkable organization. It was comprised of thirty board members, each addressing a different area of minority involvement in the life of Pueblo: housing, labor, education, media, etc. At the time, the city of Pueblo was one-third Mexican American and it was thought that of all Colorado communities, Pueblo was most overdue for greater minority involvement.

Will Martinez was a veteran of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. He had been the director of Pueblo’s War on Poverty office and his skills as a leader and community organizer were clear to me from the beginning. (The year before joining Vista, I had started Kansas City’s chapter of Zero Population Growth. However, that was an organization of like-minded individuals, college students mostly. Will’s work was with all elements of the community and on another level.)

I worked in MASA’s office, preparing documents, organizing meetings, and in general, doing whatever MASA members asked me to do.

My time with MASA—thirteen months—was remarkably rich and wonderfully meaningful. I learned about, and was accepted into the Chicano community, at least that part of the community with connections to MASA’s board members. It was Will that I worked with most closely. MASA had countless meetings with people throughout the community, evening meetings largely and always, always, there was the meeting after the meeting in the local tavern. We debriefed, drank, laughed, and ate Mexican food. I gained twenty-five pounds in thirteen months. Never have I experienced the camaraderie that I experienced during that time… with Will, Dan Luna, Sr. and others.

Photo by D.Thomas: Dan Luna, Sr. and Will Martinez

(On a slightly different note, it was during my time in Pueblo that I began to take responsibility for my own education. I read continuously. In particular, I read every book that B.F. Skinner had written (10 books at that point). With the help of MASA members, I built a laboratory in the back room of the MASA office building and conducted experiments with pigeons, rats and gerbils. I was, I’m sure, an oddity but MASA members were fine with my extracurricular activity, amused perhaps but wonderfully supportive.)


Toward the end of my thirteen months in Pueblo, shortly before I moved to Denver, I wrote a detailed history of MASA: its formation, its mission and many accomplishments, and submitted the write-up to a national survey of community-based volunteer organizations. MASA was selected as one of the three most effective volunteer community organizations in the country. Will and others flew to Washington, DC to receive the award.

Wil Martinez was one of the individuals profiled in the Catalyst and was also an exhibit in the Gallery Installation I put together in ’86. It could not have been otherwise given that the installation focused on people I admired. The following is from his exhibit.

“Will Martinez grew up near the Southern Colorado coalmines of Walsenburg and Trinidad. He was the best community organizer I ever knew.

“In grade school, he spoke only Spanish but his teachers insisted: “No! No! No! This is Colorado! The United States! America! Speak English! Speak English!”

“And, eventually, he did: A beautiful mix of English with his native language. “Ya basta — tu tierra es mi tierra! Still, my life very bello.”

“Will Martinez was marked. His ease around others, his confidence and his intelligence allowed him to take naturally to the requirements of leadership. I never saw any objection to Will being in charge.

“In organic chemistry, the stability of a molecular configuration is measured by its “aeromaticity score”. A high score indicates a stable configuration, a low score, an unstable configuration.

AI image: “aeromaticity”

Laughter, humor and reason

“Will was capable of uniting elements of the community that were incapable of uniting without him. His secret was humor, or so it seemed to me. Nearly everything (but not everything) struck him as funny. On several occasions I saw him disarm difficult, even explosive situations with humor and laughter and sometimes, simply, with reason.

“Once, in what seemed to me a potentially explosive situation, Will challenged a group of militant Chicanos who had surrounded MASA’s board members: “What do you mean: Dust off?” asked Will calmly. His question was in response to the leader of the surrounding group suggesting that there were some angry young men there who would like to dust a few people off. As the only Anglo in the room, I thought I was a goner. “No one here is going to be dusted off,” continued Will. “Our struggle is with inequities big enough to drive a car through: housing, jobs, education, adequate representation. These are the issues and we can use as much help as we can get. We can use your help. That’s what we’re working on here.

“This was just one example of Will’s gift. He was a fearless laughing man talking so much sense that people were drawn to him, and often, the people drawn to him would give up their fury (if that’s what they had) and listen. For the sake of getting the job done—community development, the forwarding of minority involvement in the life of the city—he used his rare gift. Maybe aeromaticity is the word for it. I don’t know. But Will could make things come together. He knew how to stabilize a situation so that organizing and problem-solving could go on. He got things done. Plan, strategize, enchiladas, another round, are you sure… it’s already midnight, yes, another round, definitely!

“Viva Wilfredo, citizen of Pueblo, Trinidad, Walsenburg, citizen of our beloved Axtlan!”

AI image: “Viva Wilfredo”


“Will Martinez is one in a million.”

                      Dan Luna, Sr.

Not long after he retired from the University of Southern Colorado, Will Martinez merged his long time interest in genealogy with his love of the Southwest in a book entitled, Decisive Battle. It is the story of the 1779 battle between Comanche Chief Cuerno Verde and Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico.

from The Pueblo Chieftain – 7/16/01

Will Martinez died in the Spring of 2014.


David Thomas, PhD