'Angel of the Hills' Under Fire : Migrant Advocate Becomes the Target in Bitter Dispute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One thing is certain, the Rev. Rafael Martinez says. The boisterous bunch of homeowners who packed the Leucadia church hall that warm July night were more than just concerned citizens.

They were a lynch mob, he recalls, out to strangle his reputation in their nooses.

Martinez, executive director of an Encinitas-based migrant advocacy group, had organized the first of five community meetings to describe to residents how his North County Chaplaincy proposed to transform the failing Image Inn motel off Interstate 5 into housing for the homeless. And how they needed $103,500 in city funds to help them accomplish it.

Neighbors were having none of the idea. The resulting two-hour verbal slugfest, both sides agree, would have curled the pages of Robert's Rules of Order as residents sneered, howled and booed--eventually aiming their anger at Martinez himself:

How much under-the-table profit was he making on the project? Why was he lying to people? Wasn't he just some sleazy profiteer luring migrant workers from Mexico and Central America for his own ends? Why was a community outsider like Martinez telling local residents how they should treat the homeless or anyone else?

"Now I know what it must have been like to have been a black man in Mississippi during the 1950s," recalled Martinez, a 68-year-old Presbyterian minister and former college professor. "Those people didn't come to listen. They were a hanging mob."

A month later, the Encinitas City Council unanimously voted to defeat the homeless shelter project--to the applause and cheers of 150 residents who brought a banner that read "No More Money to Rev. Martinez."

While the dust from the long summer's battle has cleared, the acrimony remains--the nasty letters and angry, anonymous telephone calls. The sudden dark climate has brought some changes to the man once called "The Angel of the Hills" for his hands-on approach of helping migrants where they lived--in the rural spider holes and makeshift encampments that dot the North County countryside.

Today, an embittered and disillusioned Martinez wonders whether his no-nonsense style, the outspoken newspaper interviews and fiery public go-rounds, have further polarized a community already bitterly torn over the presence of documented and undocumented farm workers within its midst.

Speaking in the soft accent of his native Cuba, he said he worries that his almost decade-long battle to secure adequate housing for the homeless in North County might get sidetracked by the most unacceptable of reasons: his own personality.

"I have a big mouth sometimes because I don't have anything to hide--there are no skeletons in my closet. None," said Martinez, whose bifocals and slicked-back gray hair evoke grandfatherly images. "But I put myself in the fish bowl and this is what has resulted.

"If things ever reach the point where they block the work of the Chaplaincy, then I'll have some thinking to do. At some point, that has already happened. I'd be lying if I said I haven't already thought of stepping down."

Wilma, his wife of 45 years, his friends and supporters have all watched how past months of tension have disquieted the usually gung-ho Martinez, who has plummeted to his lowest emotional point ever.

"The battle for that homeless center took its toll on Rafael," said Osvaldo Venzor, a fellow migrant advocate who campaigned for the project. "One night before the final vote, he called a meeting at his house just to voice his growing doubts over what was occurring.

"We were supposed to be Christians working to bring the community together, he told us. And all this anger and name-calling was only causing divisiveness. And he said he felt partially to blame."

Diane Fradin, an Encinitas homeowner who helped lead the revolt against the $2.7-million Image Inn project, called Martinez an arrogant maverick who is out of step with other migrant advocates in the North County. And it is just that arrogance, she says, that makes people distrust him.

"I'm not a member of his fan club," she said. "In my opinion, he's a militant who prefers to ram his ideas down people's throats. He's lost credibility with people. I mean, the mayor has said she'd like to see him go away, to just walk off into the sunset. He's doing a disservice to the people he is trying to help."

Martinez denies the charge, saying that taking City Hall and the community on by the horns is often the only way to get things accomplished.

"I can be as gentle as a little sheep with poor people," he says. "But when it comes to others, I can be as arrogant as George Patton, the general."

Duncan McFarland, a neighbor of the Image Inn who opposed the project, said many residents objected to the fact that an outsider like Martinez--who owns a home in Solana Beach--was coming to tell them how to run their town.

"People got hot about that," he recalled. "Here's this outsider telling people what's good for them, telling them not to worry about their neighborhood. Well, he lives miles away. He didn't have to live next door to the place."

Some in City Hall have risen to Martinez's defense.

Recently, Encinitas Councilwoman Anne Omsted wrote a chastising letter published in a local newspaper, admonishing residents for confusing their dislike for the project with attacks on Martinez himself.

"If they think the idea is bad, then the person proposing the idea must be bad, too," wrote Omsted, who received letters calling Martinez everything from crook to sleazebag. "To attack the originator of an idea instead of the idea is surely not the style of public discussion we want for Encinitas."

For their part, the city officials and residents who opposed Martinez say the motel-conversion plan failed solely because of its lack of vision and because Chaplaincy members decided to let the public in on their ever-changing plans ridiculously late--after they were already in escrow on the property.

Anyway, the 106-room, single-room occupancy hotel for employed low-income workers--labeled "a holding tank for homeless people" by one angry resident--would lower property values and bring crime and blight to the area, opponents said. And why only help farm workers, they asked, when other area homeless also needed a helping hand?

In the end, residents and city officials said, the defeat of the message was certainly no slight to the messenger.

"Hey, I've got nothing against Rafael Martinez--but he sure put his foot in his mouth on this one," Encinitas Mayor Gail Hano said. "I was just flabbergasted that he would try to erect a project of this magnitude in a city known for its involved citizenry without even consulting people first.

"By the time he got to telling people about it, the deal was seemingly already sealed. And that didn't wash at all. If you ask me, he got what he asked for."

According to Hano, the community treated Martinez no worse than anyone else who campaigned for an unpopular idea. And the cry of racism, she says, is heard too frequently when migrant advocates fail to get their way.

"Many of the people who live in the community near that proposed project are Hispanic," she said. "And they were largely the ones who were outspoken against the idea. It's ridiculous. Racism had nothing to do with it."

But even Hano quickly wearied over the Image Inn tug-of-war.

"When it was finally over, I needed a rest," she said. "I've never been through anything like this in five years on the council. It was terrible."

For Martinez, the bad blood goes deeper than a public trouncing at City Hall.

In recent weeks, he says, he has also received hate mail blaming him for recruiting drugs and trouble to the area. And he has been told that citizens have requested an Internal Revenue Service investigation of his not-for-profit organization.

Not long ago, a man stormed into the Chaplaincy's tiny offices off I-5 at Santa Fe Drive, yelling insults at volunteers, claiming the North County area had simply had enough of this Mexican invasion.

But what hurts Martinez most, he says, is the way politics has conspired against him--not only at City Hall but from within the very ranks of fellow homeless advocates.

Before the council vote, he says, Mayor Hano told a local newspaper she simply didn't trust Martinez--a charge Hano denies, saying she only said Martinez didn't have much credibility left in the community.

Worse, he says, is that after privately pledging support for his homeless center project, two other council members suddenly reversed their stand only moments before the Aug. 28 vote.

Another unsettling surprise came from his own camp--the 25 local ministers making up the San Dieguito Inter-Faith Ministerial Assn. who failed to take a stand on the project, a move he interpreted as a lack of confidence.

"I know Rafael feels very hurt at this point. He put a lot of energy into the idea," said Rev. Albert Graff, Inter-Faith president and one of the North County Chaplaincy's 12 board members. "But the ministers perceived a very negative reaction to the project and reacted accordingly."

Martinez isn't buying that answer.

"You might expect that from politicians," he said. "But this was an opportunity for those ministers to make a moral statement to the community, to stand up for the poor. And they didn't do it."

Nor has North County's political system done anything to help the area's poor, he says.

"How many studies have been done about migrant workers? How many task forces have been formed? How many conferences held? And what has been done? Tell me one single thing that has resulted from all of this. How many units of affordable housing have resulted? None, that's the answer.

"And here comes our humble group that for years has been helping these people. We are doers. We mean business. And we started to get funding pledges from the state and county, and you know what happened? They became absolutely terrified that something concrete was actually going to be accomplished for the poor.

"Because all those task forces are just a smoke screen. That's what these hypocrites do, that's the body of politics in action. When they don't want something done, they give it to study-doers and conference-holders where they are sure it will become bogged down in inaction."

Such an outspoken defense of homeless migrant workers is nothing new for Martinez, who came to the United States from Cuba in the 1940s with $40 to his name.

In the Florida town of Lakeland, Martinez was a wide-eyed ministerial student, a young dreamer who wanted to become a doctor and one day open a clinic in Africa. His experiences at the school--he lived in the unheated back porch of a house on campus--have lent him insight into the migrant plight.

"At night, I cried as a baby," he recalled of his struggles in his new culture. "But I realized that I could not go back. I could not accept failure. So I wrote these long letters home to Cuba, telling my mother how good it was in the United States.

"And now I understand how these migrant workers who live in their spider holes go back home and tell the people in their villages how great it is here. Like me, they will not admit failure. And so they lie. And that brings more of these people here."

Rafael Martinez never became a doctor. Instead, in the early years, he worked odd jobs--dishwasher, stevedore, hospital worker. And then as a minister in New Mexico and Colorado, working with poor migrant workers. He then devoted his life to academics, receiving a master's degree in theology and, later, master's and Ph.D. degrees in the arts from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

After becoming an associate professor of language and literature at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Martinez took a three-year leave of absence to help form an advocacy group for urban Puerto Ricans in the Chicago area.

The mid-1960s saw Martinez leave the Midwest to teach languages at a small college in Lancaster, Pa. He spent 14 years there, 11 as department chairman, before he and Wilma moved to Florida in 1980 to run a small resort north of Orlando in semi-retirement.

In 1984, a grandfather in uncertain health, Martinez thought he had retired for good when he moved to North County to be closer to his wife's family and two of his three children. It was then he found a new extended family.

During his travels in the area, he stopped to talk with farm workers he saw toiling in the fields. Struck by their poverty, he decided to help, and in doing so gained a reputation for his offers of food and clothing--El Angel de la Sierra.

Soon, workers began coming to him. One day, as he struggled to help a worker with his immigration paperwork, Martinez was surprised to find a dozen others who had appeared in his living room, silently watching television.

What he also discovered, Martinez says, is the profound need of the poor--one that cried out to him in a language of desperation he could not ignore. The demand drew him out of retirement, bringing 80-hour weeks to answer the limitless calls for help.

By fits and starts, his efforts to help migrants flourished. In 1985, he founded the North County Chaplaincy-Casa de los Hermanos and rented space in a tiny shopping mall along Santa Fe Drive, using profits from his adjoining second-hand store of donated goods to pay his rent.

Since then, his nonprofit group has continued to offer the homeless such services as a weekly medical clinic, English language classes, food distribution as well as several apartments for Latino poor in Solana Beach.

He also started self-help programs for unwed mothers and those seeking immigration status. When fire raced through a migrant camp in McGonigle Canyon in November, 1989, Casa de los Hermanos and other church groups helped out.

Slowly, however, Martinez shifted his emphasis from the fields to the carpeted floors of City Hall, fighting for more government-sponsored programs. He spoke out in the newspapers and on television shows, such as ABC's 20/20 news program that recently profiled his efforts.

That, Martinez recalled, is when he began feeling the groundswell of community resistance--the ugly letters and rude telephone calls, the residents who shouted him down at public meetings.

Claudia Smith, an attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance, which itself has filed suit against the city of Encinitas for failure to provide adequate public housing for the poor, calls the new "anti-Rafael" sentiment a cheap shot by people out to discourage progress for migrant workers.

"It's all camouflage," she said. "The issue has always been the migrants. But this time they took a new tack. They excoriated Rafael. They tried to make him the issue. The cynicism was palpable."

But Smith has a warning for Encinitans: "If they think they have the best of Rafael Martinez, they've got another thing coming. He's a big boy. He can take care of himself."

These days, it's pride and a certain amount of anger that keeps Martinez going. Along with the idea of seeing the poor get a better life.

"I wish I could work myself out of a job, that there was no need for me here," he said. "But it's a reality. The poor are with us."

His resolve is bolstered by the support from sectors of the white community--the attorneys, developers and doctors who have offered him support after the Image Inn defeat--as well as the local businessman who came to console Martinez after his defeat and wrote him a check for $10,000

Or take the Orange County man who called after watching Rafael on the 20/20 show. "He asked me what I would do with $10,000," Martinez recalled. "Two days later, I received a plain brown envelope in the mail. Inside is a check for $20,000. No letter. No return address. These things tell me that there really is a God. And that he directs justice."

As he talks, his voice builds up steam--hissing with the kind of energy he knows will soon lead him to wage some new battle, Rafael Martinez-style.

"That's why they don't like me," he concludes of his detractors. "Because I always call things the way I see them. And that's not going to change."

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