EDITOR’S NOTE: This introduction is adapted from a longer article written for Social Justice.
Betita Martínez is recognized today as a founding activist in the Chicanx movement and as an unrelenting fighter for feminism and interracial solidarity, searching for ways to bring communities of color together, saying “NO to any definition of social justice that does not affirm our human oneness.” Drawing upon her own experiences, she alerted young Chicanas how hierarchical forms of leadership can “destroy social-justice movements from the inside out.”
When Betita Martínez, then known as Liz Sutherland to her friends, moved from New York to New Mexico in 1968 “to search for my identity” and create a revolutionary newspaper, El Grito del Norte, she was 42 years old and, as she later admitted, “totally ignorant of the Southwest, almost totally ignorant of Chicano culture and life.” It was around this time that she first signed a memo Elizabeth Sutherland Martínez. “That’s my full name up there,” she wrote, introducing her new self.
By the time that Betita moved to Española she had already lived several lives. She grew up with a Mexican father and white mother in the privileged but racialized “never-never land” of Chevy Chase, where she felt like “a freak brown child in a white suburban world.” Graduating from Swarthmore in 1946 and in pursuit of a career in the “Eurocentric publishing world,” Betita Martínez became Liz Sutherland (adopting her mother’s vaguely British middle name) and plunged into the postwar ferment of New York’s cultural scene. Here she worked as a researcher at the United Nations (1947–52), then as an assistant to photographer Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art (1957–58) before joining the editorial staff of Simon and Schuster (1958-1964).
Between 1961 and 1965, she wrote six articles for The Nation, and in 1964 became its Books and Arts editor.
During this period, Betita had one foot in the world of upwardly mobile diplomats and the scribbling class, the other in the demimonde of outsiders, leftists, and Lower East Side rebels. Among her close friends were photographer Robert Frank and the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. At Simon and Schuster, she used her insider status to lobby for publication of an extraordinary photographic record, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964). During the early 1960s, she hobnobbed with cutting-edge artists and literati (including Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Diane di Prima), moving easily between the “world of Beat poets, junkie painters, and LSD experiments” and Fifth Avenue soirées hosted by chic patrons. This ability to function in very different social worlds would serve her well when she did fund-raising for grassroots causes and translated radical rhetoric into palatable liberalism for middle-class audiences.
As a woman who clearly looked Mexican,Betita had to work trebly hard to be noticed and taken seriously by New York’s male, white literati. She was a “woman in a world dominated by men,” as she recalled, but she could more than hold her own with the big boys, whether it was the cut-throat world of publishing or reviewing French New Wave and English kitchen-sink movies in lah-di-dah film magazines.