For two decades, Yvonne Martinez was a labor organizer and negotiator. Now retired, she divides her time between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, and she’s turned her focus and energy to writing full time. Her debut, Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman, is a memoir in essays that begins with her account of growing up Mexican in Utah and ends with scenes from her career fighting for workers in California and the Pacific Northwest. Kirkus Reviews notes that the book “deftly illuminates prejudice in the American workplace”—which it does—but it is also a deeply affecting account of one woman overcoming generational trauma rather than succumbing to it.
“I’ve been telling the truth to myself for a really long time.” This is how Martinez responds when asked what inspired her to write Someday Mija. “The truth” she’s referring to begins with her early life as she remembers it—a childhood that included domestic violence and sexual assault, misogyny, and racism. She’s also referring, obliquely, to the fact that she learned to trust her own truth in a family oppressed by lies, secrets, and awful silences:
To notice my brother’s whiteness would have been to notice Mother’s black eyes, her swollen face, and the scratch marks on my stepfather’s back. To notice would have been to notice my stepfather beating my mother when he got drunk or when he was sober, just to show his in-laws that he could.
To notice would have been to find out how Sal got to be in the middle of the nine of us, a white kid in the middle of nine Mexicans, all Stepdad’s kids but me, the eldest, and Sal, the middle of seven sons.
To notice would have been to learn that Mother had tried to find another husband when Stepdad got deported….How when finding another husband didn’t work, Mother ended up with a baby from a white man.
As she recounts her personal history, Martinez describes how she separated from her family and pursued a career in higher education that began at the University of Washington. But as she explains, a turning point occurred when she reconnected with her youngest sister, Belinda, toward the end of Belinda’s life. Finally, Martinez was able to speak openly about the abuse and dysfunction she endured as a child with someone who had been there. “It was such a gift for both of us to say, ‘I saw that. Did you see that?’ and ‘This is what happened to me.’ ” This memoir is, in important ways, a product of the emotional work Martinez has been doing her entire life and the breakthroughs she made with her sister.
Even as she was working through her past, hoping to break unhealthy cycles, Martinez identified moments of resistance and resilience in her family history. In the essay that gives her memoir its name, Martinez recounts a night when her grandmother showed up after shutting down the bar that served as her base as a sex worker. The bar owner had tried to bring in new sex workers who would pay him, replacing the women working on their own. Martinez’s grandmother rebelled in a way that is not dissimilar to the labor organizing her granddaughter would go on to do.
In the process of writing, Martinez also gained a new understanding of why her Catholic mother became a Jehovah’s Witness. This conversion was “a principled and courageous act,” Martinez says. “She truly believed that if she was righteous in this life, she would be rewarded in the afterlife. This was, for her, the best that she could do. She couldn’t convert us kids. She couldn’t stop my stepfather from drinking. But she could surrender herself to her faith. This was what she could do because she couldn’t face the enormity of everything she had endured—as a child and as an adult.
“As a young feminist,” Martinez continues, “I didn’t get it. I would come home from college and ask, ‘Why are you still here? Why are you still in this marriage? All your kids are grown and gone. Why don’t you get out?’ I was arrogant. What I didn’t understand was her internalized oppression. I didn’t understand that her faith was her way of fighting back.”
Martinez notes the parallels to what she has encountered as a labor organizer. The decisive factor in the different paths she and her mother took are, the author says, a product of her own political education. “As an activist, I learned how—in an economic context—people are taught to hate themselves and to accept abusive work relationships and dangerous or toxic work environments.” A key difference Martinez points out between her mother and herself is her political education. Through study and activism, she discovered different ways of fighting back. She sees a connection between her professional work and her emotional work. “I was grateful that I was able to get into a graduate program where I met some pretty amazing teachers. One professor liked to say, ‘Follow the dog,’ meaning go wherever the research leads you. That’s what I would do when I was investigating discrimination in the workplace. And that’s what I would do when I was trying to claim the truth of my family history. That need to assert the truth—even if I’m just talking to myself—has been my form of resistance since the beginning, since I was a kid.”
Right now, Martinez is hoping to produce a play inspired by her experience as a National Fellow of the Harvard Trade Union Program in 1994. As she describes it, this is a tale of organizers organizing themselves to combat injustice. “There were 30 of us from around the world. One of our classmates was being stalked by another classmate. She wouldn’t name names, so we had to organize.” Readers who appreciate Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman will have to wait until this play hits the stage to find out how that situation turned out.
Jessica Jernigan is a writer who lives and works on Anishinaabe land in Central Michigan.