When it comes to defending the rights of fellow Latinos, Albert Martinez said he has no problem being labeled "militant," even though he doesn't believe in resorting to violence.
"I see it as a fight," Martinez said. "I believe my people have been oppressed. I feel that I'm one of the servants in the long struggle of the Chicano people to determine their own path--whatever that may be."
Martinez is co-chairman of the Orange County Chicano Moratorium Committee, a 40-member group of Latino-rights activists. Martinez and others have taken stands on such issues as police brutality against Latinos and the celebration of Columbus Day.
"What that day says is that our ancestors didn't have an identity until a European came over and said, 'Yes, you do exist,' " Martinez said.
The committee also has helped obtain legal counsel for the vendors of the now-defunct El Mercado swap meet in Santa Ana when it was threatened with closure, has helped local Latinos involved in landlord-tenant disputes and is lobbying against what members believe is police abuse at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Martinez, 29, helped form the committee in 1989 and also spends time teaching classes in English as a second language and working with Latino high school students who have been expelled.
Martinez said his commitment stems from a desire to make the road easier for other Latinos in the hopes that they will not go through what he did as a teen-ager.
At 14, he was excelling in his classes at Westminster High School and placed first in a preliminary competition for the Orange County Academic Decathlon. But soon after, he began to lose interest in school and started "running around with the wrong crowd," including some gang members.
"I didn't have a strong identity and in seeking it out, I gravitated toward this group," said Martinez, who continued on a downward spiral that resulted in his being kicked out of high school before the 11th grade and included heavy drinking and drug use.
"To me, it seemed like my only options were to go to prison . . . and have a lot of stories to tell or I could go into the military, hope there's a war, get some medals and come back a hero."
After two years in the Marines, Martinez hit bottom when he served time in prison for being the driver in a car accident that resulted in the death of a close friend. Martinez, who had been drinking, was critically injured.
After his release from prison, Martinez began to piece his life back together by enrolling in general education classes at Rancho Santiago College. He became involved in the campus group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, which he said changed his life and gave him the sense of purpose he had been searching for.
"It was my niche," said Martinez, who now has a college degree and is applying to law school.
"I finally had a place, somewhere to fulfill my ideology and true beliefs. I saw that I could be someone other than that strong, macho person that I thought I had to be."