Like many young Omaha professionals, Gabriela Martinez is torn between staying and spreading her wings elsewhere.
The 2015 Creighton University social work graduate recently left her position at Inclusive Communities to embark on an as yet undefined new path. This daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants once considered becoming an immigration lawyer and crafting new immigration policy. She still might pursue that ambition, but for now she’s looking to continue the diversity and inclusion work she’s already devoted much of her life to.
Unlike most 24-year-olds. Martinez has been a social justice advocate and activist since childhood. She grew up watching her parents assist the Salvadoran community, first in New York, where her family lived, and for the last two decades in Omaha.
Her parents escaped their native country’s repressive regime for the promise of America. They were inspired by the liberation theology of archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for speaking out against injustice. Once her folks settled in America, she said, they saw a need to help Salvadoran emigres and refugees,
“That’s why they got involved. They wanted to make some changes, to try to make it easier for future generations and to make it easier for new immigrants coming into this country.”
She recalls attending marches and helping out at information fairs.
In Omaha, her folks founded Asociación Cívica Salvadoreña de Nebraska, which works with Salvadoran consulates and partners with the Legal immigrant Center (formerly Justice for Our Neighbors). A recent workshop covered preparing for TPS (Temporary Protected Status) ending in 2019.
“They work on getting people passports, putting people in communication with Salvadoran officials. If someone is incarcerated, they make sure they know their rights and they’re getting access to who they need to talk to.”
Martinez still helps with her parents’ efforts, which align closely with her own heart.
“I’m very proud of my roots,” she said. “My parents opened so many doors for me. They got me involved. They instilled some values in me that stuck with me. Seeing how hard they work makes me think I’m not doing enough. so I’m always striving to do more and to be the best version of myself that I can be because that’s what they’ve worked their entire lives for.”
Martinez has visited family in El Salvador, where living conditions and cultural norms are in stark contrast to the States.
She attended an Inclusive Communities camp at 15, then became a delegate and an intern, before being hired as a facilitator for the nonprofit’s Table Talk series around issues of racism and inequity.
She enjoyed “planting seeds for future conversations” and “giving a voice to people who think they don’t have one.”
Inclusive Communities fostered personal growth.
“People I went to camp with are now on their way to becoming doctors and lawyers and now they’re giving back to the community. I’m most proud of the youth I got to work with because they taught me as much as I taught them and now I see them out doing the work and doing it a thousand times better than I do.
“I love seeing how far they’ve come. Individuals who were quiet when I first met them are now letting their voices be heard.”
Martinez feels she’s made a difference.
“I love seeing the impact I left on the community – how many individuals I got to facilitate in front of and programs I got to develop.”
She’s worked on Native American reservations, participated in social justice immersion trips and conferences and supported rallies.
“I’m most proud when I see other Latinos doing the work and how passionate they are in being true to themselves and what’s important to them. There’s a lot of strong women who have taken the time to invest in me. Someone I really look up to for her work in politics is Marta Nieves (Nebraska Democratic Party Latino Caucus Chair). I really appreciate Marta’s history working in this arena.”
Martinez is encouraged that Omaha-transplant Tony Vargas has made political inroads, first on the Omaha School Board, and now in the Nebraska Legislature.
As for her own plans, she said, “I’m being very intentional about making sure my next step is a good fit and that i’m wanting to do the work not because of the money but because it’s for a greater good.”
Though her immediate family is in Omaha, friends have pursued opportunities outside Nebraska and she may one day leave to do the same.
“I’d like to see what I can accomplish in Omaha, but I need a bigger city and I need to be around more diversity and people from different backgrounds and cultures that I can learn from. I think Omaha is too segregated.”
Like many millennials, she feels there are too many barriers to advancement for people of color here.
“This community is still heavily dominated by non-people of color.”
Wherever she resides, she said “empowering and advocating” for underserved people “to be heard in different spaces”.will be core to her work.
Despite gains made in diversity and inclusion, she feels America still has a long way to go. She’s seen too many workplaces let racism-sexism slide and too many environments where individuals reporting discrimination are told they’re “overreacting” or “too ‘PC.'” That kind of dismissive attitude, she said, cannot stand and she intends to be a voice for those would be silenced.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.