Unsung Heroes 2019

Unsung Hero: Mary Alice Martinez

Language hero: a dedication to keeping Tiwa alive

By Sheila Miller
Posted 10/11/19



By Sheila Miller


When Mary Alice Martinez, who goes by Alice, speaks of growing up in the village of Taos Pueblo, …

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Unsung Heroes 2019

Unsung Hero: Mary Alice Martinez

Language hero: a dedication to keeping Tiwa alive


When Mary Alice Martinez, who goes by Alice, speaks of growing up in the village of Taos Pueblo, she speaks of love.

In every household — from every auntie, grandfather and grandmother — there was love. Within the village, there was a sense of safety that is difficult for the modern mind to imagine. All children were known and cared for by everyone in the village, and children learned “how to have respect for your elders and how to help anyone who needs help,” said Martinez.

If a grandmother needed water from the river, you helped her carry it.

“No one went without food,” she recalled. Being raised by her grandparents in the village through kindergarten (she attended the Taos Day School), instilled in her the fundamental values of village life. She remembers sleeping on summer evenings, listening to the flowing of the river through the screen door and mutual regard.

“That’s what we teach them in Tiwa class,” Martinez said, speaking of her experience growing up surrounded by love and responsibility to others.

“Our language is the heart of our existence.”

That language, Tiwa, is in danger of becoming extinct, and Martinez has dedicated herself to protecting it.

Her memories are in Tiwa. Native English speakers often consider the primary role of language as personal expression, but language communicates more than the thoughts of individuals — it carries the values and traditions of cultures.

When Martinez grew up in the village, everyone spoke Tiwa. Now, many adults in their 30s and 40s are not fluent and thus can’t teach the language to their children.

With the traditional way of learning no longer available, the Red Willow Education Center saw the need to hire two Tiwa teachers. Those two teachers are Martinez and Antonia Lujan.

‘Just always come home’ – the path to becoming a language protector

Even though she and her parents had moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, early in grade school, they always came back to the village in summer and for festivals.

“We danced all the corn dances just like my mother and my grandmother,” Martinez said, and the family continues to plant the corn and bean fields as often as they can with seeds saved from her grandfather.

One San Geronimo Day, when she was 14 and he was 16, her future husband, Cameron Martinez Sr., caught her eye. She stood outside of her grandparents second level home, and he and a friend passed by — perhaps even strutted. “We couldn’t stand around talking,” Martinez said of unmarried men and women. Still, she descended the ladder to exchange addresses with the young man, only to be immediately caught by her mother, who shooed the boys away.

“You represented your whole family back then,” said Martinez.

Alice and Cameron exchanged letters for years, she writing from Colorado Springs and he from Albuquerque. They shared the same goals: to go to school and help their families, and in time they were married.

They both studied at universities in Colorado where their first child, a son, was born in 1983. On August 5 they celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary with their two children.

Alice Martinez began her college studies “as an honor and a tribute” to her grandmother, who didn’t have the same opportunities to pursue her own career interests, but encouraged Martinez to “go and see what’s out there, just always come home.”

She has been faithful to her grandmother’s advice. Her path began and continues in the village.

On learning the importance of political action

In 2018, Martinez’s life had reached a point where she might reasonably have chosen to rest, but instead she chose to apply herself to fostering political engagement in those around her and at keeping the Tiwa language alive, “trying to save our culture and our existence.”

Martinez had recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service after 19 years as the Arroyo Seco postmaster and 10 years before that as a postal worker. It was as a postmaster that Martinez’s political leanings first had the chance to be expressed. Because they weren’t unionized like the clerks, the post masters “had to advocate for themselves.”

It was fitting work for one whose courtship with her husband was through the mail, and Martinez enjoyed it. “I loved taking care of my customers,” she said.

After retiring from the postal service, she remained politically engaged with matters that impact Taos Pueblo and the broader communities of Taos and beyond.

Some of that work takes place through the organization Taos United, “a local grassroots nonprofit organization of social and political activists working for a fair and just democracy, human rights, environmental stewardship and the welfare of our community,” its website describes.

To all the people of Taos County, Martinez said on behalf of herself and the Taos United organization, “If they need help with anything, we’re here.”

Bringing Tiwa education to Enos Garcia Elementary School

Martinez and her husband belong to the last generation to grow up speaking Tiwa as their first language. Long concerned about the loss of their native tongue, she accepted the encouragement of Shawn Duran — who works in the Taos Pueblo Tribal Governor’s Office  — to come out of her brand-new retirement and apply for the position of Tiwa teacher at the Red Willow Education Center.

“All things come the way Creator gives it to you,” she said. “You have to follow the path that is chosen for you.”

Hiring Martinez and Lujan was an important step, but there was still a big problem to be solved. As of May 2018, there were two teachers, but no students.

For months, Martinez and Lujan worked to find funding for a program through which they could teach Tiwa to children. While they searched, they learned about the teaching of indigenous languages through the Institute of Indigenous Languages in Santa Fe and the University of New Mexico Native American Language program.

After months of work and initially teaching without grant support for the program, Martinez and Lujan found funding for teaching Tiwa in Enos Garcia Elementary and regularly taught 30 students during the 2018-2019 school year.

At the end of the year, the students received a certificate commending their work. “This was the first time our students received recognition for a formal indigenous course,” Martinez said.

The goal of the language program is to be in Enos Garcia Elementary permanently, and even to expand into the middle and high schools to support the 30 students who are currently in the Enos Garcia program and their successors as they advance through school.

The Digital Storytelling Project

It’s one thing to learn grammar and vocabulary. For teaching the students about village life, Martinez has another resource: the stories of the elders.

The Tiwa language is not written. Histories are oral and given from person to person. Therefore, it was not without serious reflection and consultation with many elders that she took on the Digital Storytelling Project, creating an audio archive documenting the stories and memories of village elders.

“It takes a lot of courage and confidence to do this,” said Kathleen Michaels, who nominated Martinez as an Unsung Hero.

These stories will form part of the Tiwa language curriculum at Enos Garcia, giving young students access to both their language and the values carried in the stories of the elders.

Visitors can help protect Tiwa, too

In spite of the willingness of Martinez and others to share information, and to perform powwow dances for people and organizations that request them, it is frustrating to encounter misconceptions.

The sense of entitlement exhibited by many visitors to the village, who enter people’s homes in the village without permission and frequently demand explanations for tribal affairs, such as why the pueblo is closed to visitors during a funeral, is troubling.

“Our world is getting smaller. Everyone wants to see everything,” Martinez observed. “But, some things are to remain untouched.”

Moving forward

The Enos Garcia Tiwa language program is already experiencing success, and Martinez and Lujan have plans to expand their program to include the parents of the children and other adult members of the pueblo.

“I still want to contribute a lot of years,” Martinez said, whose energy seems to well up from within.

“Our people are resilient.”

With the help of Martinez and the Red Willow Education Center, Tiwa will echo off the walls of the village for many years to come.


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