Norma Martí

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At a young age, Norma Martí migrated with her family from Puerto Rico to a diverse, working-class neighborhood in northwestern Indiana, part of metropolitan Chicago. She shares her formative experiences there, what enabled her to attain a college education, and her encounters with discrimination in her first role as an educator. She subsequently worked for the Census Bureau in Illinois and the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in North Carolina, enhancing both organizations’ reach of Latino communities. In the late 1990s, Norma decided to focus on advocacy and outreach as Development Director for El Pueblo, a nonprofit organization based in Raleigh. By the mid-2000s, in a new role as Minority Outreach Specialist for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), Norma leveraged the connections she had built with various Latino organizations to expand Medicaid and children’s health insurance in Latino communities across the state. In 2020, Norma was called back from retirement to NC DHHS to help coordinate the agency’s COVID-19 response in the Latinx population. She has continued that work through her current role as Latinx Community Co-Lead for COVID Response for North Carolina’s Community Engagement Alliance (NC CEAL). She concludes by calling for unity and perseverance in Latino communities, and sharing words of wisdom for future leaders, which will include her grandchildren.



Daniel Velazquez: Okay, so today is the 31st of May of 2023. I am Daniel Velásquez. I am here with Norma Marti, who is currently the NC CEAL Latinx Community Co-Lead for COVID Response. And we are conducting this interview via Zoom. Norma, thank you so much for sitting down with me and sharing your story.
Norma Martí: Thank you, Daniel, for giving me this opportunity to take out some cobwebs from the mind.
DV: Okay, Norma, could you tell me about your personal background, where you were born, raised, and any early family experiences that you'd like to share?
NM: Yeah, sure. So, I was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, basically about six months after the island got their Estado Libre Asociado designation, which to me is a glorified colony. But my dad had already been in Indiana, northwest Indiana, working in steel mills because there was not a lot of work. He came from a farm family and the farms weren't farming, and the land was being bought up by U.S. military, whatever. And so, he left and went to work in the steel mill. Mom was there with him, my two older sisters, and then got pregnant with me in the early fifties. And so, she just--. Because we're citizens and it's easy for us to cross the border—and again, we're only citizens by an act of Congress—she went back to Aguadilla, which is where my grandfather and her siblings lived. And that's where we stayed. So, when people ask me, I forget, I was born in Mayaguez, I always say I'm from Aguadilla because that's where the family, the abuelos were. And then she didn't come back to the States for three or more years, because Papi finally stood his ground and said: we need to be together, we’re a family. And so she came, never happy to come back to the States. So that's my early memories of why I'm here as opposed to there.
DV: Okay. So, your dad came first, and he went where?
NM: He was in Indiana. He went--. The story for Papi is that my dad was tall. And so, he was hired because the steel mills at the time would put an announcement, and like, day laborers today, all of them would just show up in the parking lot. And I don't know how they would select. But dad was tall. And all the other Latinos and people in the parking lot were short. So, they called on him. And he got a job at Standard Forge Steel Mill for, gosh, 25 years. And then they shut down and then he worked for Inland Steel. But again, it was a good paying job, right.
DV: Okay, and at what age did you finally come over with your mom?
NM: It was about when I was about three, three or four. I started kindergarten here in Indiana. So, again, dad was just a laborer, but he had--. It was good income, steady income, good benefits. His benefits actually paid for my mother's elder care when she needed to be cared for in her old age. So, East Chicago is a suburb, if you would, of Chicago. It's in Indiana but most of our media market was Chicago, so we knew everything about Chicago politics and life and nothing about Indiana and Indiana politics and life. It was a steel mill town. Everybody was blue collar pretty much. All our mothers spoke some language other than English, Polish, Ukrainian, Yugoslavian, Croatian, and the Blacks even had an accent when they spoke, the moms did, because they came up from the south, right. So, the teachers were the only ones that spoke standard English. So yeah, and each group had their own benevolent society and or church. Like the whites went to one Catholic church, the Mexicans went to one Catholic church. And so, it was just an interesting--. When I look back, it was an interesting, segregated, but yet still integrated. I don't know if that makes sense. So, things like my dad and his colleagues started the Brotherhood Social Club. It was a Puerto Rican thing. Friday night bingo, Saturday night bailes with orquesta from Chicago, the big names from Chicago. And Sundays, anything; potlucks, whatever, just to be together, these fifty to a hundred families, all from somewhere in Puerto Rico. We actually organized the first Puerto Rican Estado Libre Asociado Day on July 25th. My kids were little at the time, so it was in the mid ’80s, 1980s. Because we had to keep up with La Unión Benéfica Mexicana, which had the biggest parade in town for their Independence Day in September. So it was that kind of ethnic--. It was a friendly rivalry. We went to the parade. We had our own float in the Mexican parade. They had one in ours. So it was just never feeling foreign at all because of that environment until I went off to college. And that's a story unto itself. Again, my parents were happy having us graduate from high school. That for them--. They had a third-grade education, so, for them to--. For us to finish high school was success. But I had a high school counselor who really mentored me. I was really blessed. Marty Quinn, may he rest in peace. And so, he had me visiting all the colleges in Illinois and Indiana; we didn't have any money to send me to school. But I went to Dominican College up in Wisconsin, which is where his daughter actually was attending. And he was able to get a scholarship for me.
DV: Wow.
NM: So that was pretty amazing that I was, again, I call these folks angels in my life. They just, they're there, they see a spark or something in me and they guide me to what I should be doing. But Wisconsin was five hours away from East Chicago and I had never been away from my family. And so, I was homesick, very homesick. And so, I transferred then my second—sophomore year—to Purdue in West Lafayette. No scholarship. Papi paid the whole thing. I worked summers in the steel mills to help with the tuition, which at that time was two hundred dollars a semester, but that was a lot of money in the 1970s, alright? And my parents never owned a house. I call my education their investment. So, anyway, on that, I got a BA in secondary education and a minor in Spanish, of course. I remember applying to eighty-seven, and I remember eighty-seven schools to be a teacher.
DV: Did you have any experiences within college that you want to share about before you move on to teaching?
NM: College. We tried to organize a Latino group. Again, those of us that grew up in East Chicago in that area that went to Purdue, tried to get together. We just weren't strong--. There weren't enough of us. But the Blacks got a Black student union, and they gave us a room that we could then go meet in to just plan and organize and celebrate our own things. I was on the Dean's List. I graduated with honors in my BA. Yeah, it was--. Dr. Gonzalez, I guess I've mentioned her to you before. She was married to Dr. Gonzalez, who was Puerto Rican. She was white, but she became, again, one of those angels in my life that I'll tell you a little bit more about her later on as I talk about my professional development. But again, having those, the Gonzalezes there made it possible. I got an F on my first English paper. I had never gotten anything but A’s in high school. How the hell did I get an F on my first college education? I did not at Dominican, but somehow at Purdue I did. And she coached me and instructed me, gave me little hints about what I was doing or not doing correctly. And I ended up, like I said, on the Dean's List graduating with honors by the time I got it.
DV: Did you always have teaching as a plan? That was what you wanted to do?
NM: Yeah, I mean, again, I come from a generation where you were either a teacher or maybe a nurse. There weren't a whole lot of secretaries there weren't a whole lot of ladder-climbing days back then. And I wanted to be a teacher but, I mean a doctor, but when I saw my dad changing my sister's bandages after a surgery I completely freaked out. He had to come and get me and neglected my sister who needed to have her bandages put back on. So, I realized then at a very young age that I probably couldn't stand being a doctor. And I love teaching. I've always enjoyed teaching regardless of the subject. I enjoy sharing and learning with my students. So yeah.
DV: Okay, so tell us about your teaching career.
NM: Okay, so my teaching career, again, I sent out eighty-seven applications all around Illinois, Indiana, and I even went to Wisconsin. I had one interview, one interview, a telephone interview at that, and I was not going to take the job. My dad said: well why, it's the only one you've had, it's here in Indiana. I said, dad, but it's way over there in Fort Wayne and the darn principal called me--. He said: we've never had a foreigner in our school before.
DV: Wow.
NM: And so, and now looking back, there weren't any Blacks in that school either, any Black students or teachers. So, I really was a foreigner in many ways. So, my dad insisted that I needed to take that job and teach that man a lesson. And then this is where the Dr. Gonzalez story--. I was ready to quit after my first semester. I was like, this--. He was just so--. Those little micro-aggressive comments that he would make every single day. I hated them. And he would even say them in front of my students, which I totally resented. And so, I just remember dad, I mean I was telling my dad. And he said: if you don't want to go, come back home, you're fine. And I was talking again, Dr. Gonzalez continued mentoring us as we moved on into our careers. And she said, no, no, let me come. She was an English teacher. So, she said let me come, let me do a lesson in your class. And when I told the racist principal that I was having this person from Purdue University come and teach me class. He was like, Purdue in Lafayette? I go, yes, yes. He says, oh, that's wonderful. Well after that I was like--. He stopped the aggressions and I ended up staying there another year and got a new principal who was wonderful, was what a principal should be. He would sit in my Spanish classes and to do my teacher evaluation one time. And I didn't even know he was in my class. I used to, this is again, old school, we had to go into a lab with headphones and listen to Spanish tape conversations, right. And so, I would play lotería with my students at the end with the vocabulary of the week, right. And this kid says, bing--. You know, lotería, lotería! and I look and go, who's that kid in that? I don't have a kid in that seat. Well, it turned out it was the principal. [Laughter]. He was in there evaluating my performance that day. And he came back at the end of the class, and he says: Ms. Martí, that was, I think I've learned more Spanish in these 45 minutes than I had in all my undergraduate classes in Spanish in college. And I said, well, thank you. That's great. So it was, it was kind of a day-and-night. The first year I wanted to just sink into a hole and, I mean, I was totally depressed because this man was just so negative on anything. I can't even begin to tell you the words he would use but this really demeaning of me, of me as a--. Oh, yeah, she's that woman, she speaks another language, I just--. You hired me to teach Spanish, people, you know? I’m sorry. And so, and then having this gentleman who was an amazing educator and encouraged all of us to be the best teachers we could be. So that was my first year of teaching. I didn't leave teaching because of that. Again, I left because I was still--. By this time I'm twenty, what, four or five? I was still homesick. I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a little town called Churubusco, named after the Mexican Hollywood, right, go figure, the Spanish-American War. So, it was like three hours away from--. It's like saying Asheville to Raleigh, it's just too far to go every weekend. And so, I went back home to go to graduate school. I never did finish graduate school, but at least I moved from teaching to social work, if you would, public health at that point. And worked at the Roberto Clemente Neighborhood Center in East Chicago, Indiana, where we offered programs for the Latino community in that particular area, mostly Mexican American, even though the center was named Roberto Clemente, it was just because the Puerto Ricans had more political clout than the Mexicans at that point, although they'd been there longer than we had as a population. Loved it. We had senior citizens, a Black senior citizen group, a Latina senior citizen group. We had teams for the kids. We opened a daycare for the moms to bring their kids. It was just a wonderful, again, not a teaching experience, but a completely different way of growing and learning what social programs could do to enhance the neighborhood. So that was my first foray into what I would call social work-slash-public health in Indiana. And then I came out this way. Well, no--.
DV: How long were you at the center?
NM: At the Roberto Clemente Center? Gosh, it’s been so many years. It was three or four years. Then I went to work in the--. I had a woman from the, it must have been the 19-, pre-1980 census come to talk to our community about the importance of the census. And she offered me a job. Ta-da! I'm perfectly happy right where I'm at. And she's like, oh, you're just what we're looking for, we need. And I think the position was called Community Services Specialist or something like that. And you could work in our Chicago office, but you'd be working Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, it's our regional office, you're just what I want. And I’m thinking, I'm not looking for a job, but thank you, if I think of anybody, I'll let you know. The woman kept calling me, Mary Grady, gosh, I hadn't thought of her in years.
DV: Wow.
NM: Mary Grady, and she kept calling me, and I finally thought, well, what the hell, let me just try it. I don't know what that means. And I loved my work at the Census Bureau in Chicago’s Regional Office. I was there for a good ten or more years, yeah. Ninety eighty censuses, and I think the beginning of the ninety censuses. So, yeah. Did a lot of traveling in those three states, worked with indigenous populations up in Wisconsin and a lot of African American and Latinos in Chicago City metro area, and then of course the folks in Indiana. My one story on that one, now that I'm thinking about stories, was being in Indianapolis talking to the Chamber of Commerce about the census, of course, right. I was, at that particular point in time, I was the regional director of the northern half of Indiana for the 1980 census, I want to say, 1980. It could have been the ninety. It was one of those two. And they were just talking away about how they couldn't hardly wait for that area to fall apart so they could buy up that land by the lake and just start building up some condos and blah, blah, blah, blah. And once we get rid of all those people, and I’m sitting there listening to this, right. This is where I live. This is northern Indiana. And I just sat there, and I thought, I don't believe that they're just--. They didn't even see me. I was in the room. I was there to speak to them. They still didn't even see me. And they continued with their little racist comments about getting rid of all these people of color and getting them out so they could build their condos on the beach. Well, last time I went to northwest Indiana, it's been a while, there are no condos at the beach, but they surely did get rid of all the minorities. By default, the jobs left. And so, again, we go where the jobs are, which is how I then got to North Carolina. After the census, I was offered a job with RTI International. How did I? The census was--. Wanted me to move to D.C. or something, I can't even remember now, it was Charlotte, D.C., and I thought, there are no Latinos there. I don't want to go there. I don't want to go to D.C. My family is here, kids. So, I decided I would do something else. I went back to teaching at a high school, my old high school. And then I got a part-time job because that's what we all do, Latinos. We work two, three, four jobs. And I was still married, but it was just--. The marriage was falling apart, and I could feel it. I got a fellowship for the University of Chicago to work in public health, and I accepted it, but then I got pregnant, and it just became very difficult to finish that curriculum. And so, I got an offer from a friend to work as a supervisor for interviews that were being done by RTI in Chicago. And I did that. And at the end of that cycle, he asked, wouldn't you like to come work at RTI in North Carolina? And I'm like, North Carolina? Let me look that up in the map. [Laughter]. And that's how I--. That’s how, what kind of work? It was--.
DV: What kind of interviews, before you even came to North Carolina, were they doing?
NM: They were interviewing for positions in their survey center here. RTI at the time had four or five different centers, each one focused on--. One was on education, one was on health, one was on international aid. I can't remember the others, but those are the three that I worked on when I was there. So, the boss came and interviewed me. He was doing interviews in Chicago for recruiting staff here in North Carolina, and they offered me a job. And I thought I was--. Like I said, I went back to teaching. I was worried about the kids and health insurance, right. They were growing. My son was ten years old. I'd gotten divorced at that point. And the little one was three, four. And I thought, gosh, health insurance. And then I looked up the area. And I thought, Raleigh--. I didn't like Charlotte, go figure. But Raleigh had the universities, and I kept thinking: well, when they grow up, they can commute and they’d still get a great education if I’m in Raleigh, right. So, let’s do it. I took the job. The only job that's ever moved me, literally paid for my move. I mean, the van, the big moving truck.
DV: Wow.
NM: People that came and packed my house. I was like, all of them. Like I was on cloud nine. And, and the big salary of what, $33,000 a year back in the day in 1991, July first. They actually paid me as of July first, although I didn't start until July fifteenth. They put us up in a hotel until the apartment became available. I mean, it was really, it was a really great blessing. Again, just a fluke that someone that I had worked with at the census was now working at RTI, and they recommended. And so, again, those connections that you make are so important in your life, and you don't always know who it is that's going to open up that door for you.
DV: Okay, I was going to ask you who it was. It was someone you knew from the census days?
NM: Yeah, somebody that worked with us at the census in Chicago took a job at RTI. Gosh, I can't, Brian, I can't remember his last name. Isn’t that terrible? Brian something. Oh my God, it'll come to me at some point. I didn't write him down. There's a lot of--. You don't get to my age and the place that I am now in my—I call it my fulfillment of my career—again, unless people have opened doors for you, unless people recognize something in you that you don't even recognize in yourself. So, I came to work in the Center for Education Research, did lots of national studies across the country. The post-secondary student aid study was the biggest one. Went everywhere, Dallas, and anywhere there were Latinos, Dallas, L.A., Phoenix, Chicago, Puerto Rico even, to do these, to do the training. And again, back in the day, we’re talking paper-and-pencil interviewing. There were no online surveys like there are today, no websites, that kind of thing. So, I had to train the interviewers. And the two things that happened at RTI was I made them realize that instruments are, if you validate an instrument in English to make the data trustworthy, reliable, then you've got to do the same thing with the Spanish. And you've got to have it translated by a professional, not by a graduate student at UNC. Because when you're feeling blue, it's not te sientes azul. It just isn't. And so, I finally got them to recognize that they needed to have a review team, and that they also needed to have a protocol in place for hiring what were called bilingual interviewers. Again, just because you speak or can read a language doesn't mean you really speak it well, right. And so today I can honestly say that they actually have a group, a professional group at RTI that reviews all their translations and trains all of their interviewers, or people that are on those different surveys. But back in the day, 1981, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 [Laughter], it was Norma. And a lot of wonderful people in those areas. But again, I lived in North Carolina, but I didn't live here because I was always on the road. My mom, mommy was here. My dad had passed away, so mommy was here helping me raise the kids, watching them. Again, church members, the whole village helping me raise these two beautiful adults that I have today. So, yeah, I decided at that point that I needed to--. My son was graduating from high school, going on to college. He went to NC State, sorry--. He did. [Laughter]. Both my kids. So El Pueblo was advertising for a development director. I had to look up what development director was, and I thought, oh, I think I could do that. So, I interviewed with, at that time, Andrea Bassan was Executive Director, and Melanie Chernoff was Assistant. They interviewed me, again, saw something in me that I probably didn't see in myself, and they said: sure, come on, join us. And so, I took a half a salary cut in pay to go work at El Pueblo, which is not something I recommend to anybody. I'm sorry, you know. Now in my old age, I kind of miss that income I would have had at RTI. But notwithstanding, I didn’t gain money, but I gained me. Fiesta del Pueblo was the only fiesta with Lat--. At that time in the whole state. And so, we got the music, the comida. My daughter and I wouldn't miss a fiesta del pueblo before I got hired by them. And so, when I got hired, I made a commitment to take a certification course at Duke so that I could learn what a development director was supposed to do. And so, I'm happy to say that I kept the budget intact those two years that I was there, came pretty close to a million, if not more, of donations. And again, I just couldn't make my life work on the salary that a nonprofit paid at that time in my life. And so, my son was in college. I didn't realize that I was helping him pay for that. And so, it was hard. And so, I--. Again, a friend said, hey, look, there's this job at the state and it's got your name on it. It's you. And I'm like, okay, I'm not really looking for a job. I quit at El Pueblo—no, I was really looking for a job. I quit El Pueblo after the last fiesta of that year, 2005, 6, and I just need to chill.
DV: Actually, tell us more about El Pueblo. What kind of work was, does El Pueblo, or did El Pueblo do at the time?
NM: At the time, El Pueblo, like I said, we were like the only Latino advocate group out there, or at least visibly. So we did a lot of advocacies in terms of--. I remember, again, talking with state legislators, department chairmen on license, trying to get the license to be valid proof of residency regardless of your status. We did the Fiesta del Pueblo, which was the biggest thing, and we did a youth photo that I really miss. I don't see that anymore anywhere, but we used to do a youth photo and did it in Greensboro one year, we did it in Raleigh, I want to say Charlotte. But again, bringing young people in to have speakers and have them interact with each other and to grow. We had a lot of grants that we put together to work on things like literacy. We had a Smart Start grant that hired, who is now my best friend, Margarita Cassini, to go to the community, to trailers, to apartment complexes to talk about literacy and the importance of reading to children. We had a Susan G. Komen grant. My dear, dear, dear Colombian friend, Maria Eugenia Cerron, who passed away from cancer a couple years ago was our leader in that effort. So, again, we had a really, it was just a familia. I didn't have my familia here, and I hadn't had it while I was at RTI because I was all over the darn place. But here, that, I mean, I'm still, Melanie is still--. Melanie baked me a cake for my seventieth birthday. So, I mean, these are still people that I call family. And yeah, so that was what El Pueblo did for me. That was my richness. That was my, that's what I banked my retirement on. All those connections that I made those two or three years. And then I built on that when I got hired at the state. Again, my friend Carolyn Sexton hired me to work at Department—then the Division of Public Health, which is part of NC DHHS, working as a minority outreach specialist, a title that was just made up. There was no coordinator, there was no staff, it was just me. And we were trying to promote the state's children's health insurance program. At the time it had just been legislated by the Clinton Administration, and so we needed to get the word out to get--. I think the first year they only had like forty thousand slots, and they completely filled up.
DV: What year was this now?
NM: Early, mid-2000s; 5, 6, 7. And that range is when I started at the state. And again, with legislation and lobbying, both from organizations like NC Child, El Pueblo, and since we found lots of different groups started cropping up then across the state. AMEXCAN, I mean, just a whole bunch of Latino-led folks whose voices were now being listened to en masse at the state, at the general assembly. Those numbers grew and to the point where I think we had almost a hundred thousand children enrolled in our health check, it’s what we called it back then. I don't know what they're calling it now. But we were like 95% enrolled eligible children in the state when I left in 2019. So, I think, again, nothing I did--. But I had built this wonderful familia with El Pueblo and people that came to our Fiesta and then again, all these organizations that started developing, that across the state with, again, leadership from rural as well as urban areas in the state. Latin American Coalition in Charlotte. I mean, just True Bridge on the west end. I mean, all these wonderful organizations that supported the work that we were trying to do of getting families enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP. And then what I thought is my most successful point in that career, in my life, is when I went to an event at the Hmong, that the Hmong community had in Morganton--. In Hickory. And when I walked in I felt like I had walked into the Brotherhood Social Club, except that they spoke Hmong and not Spanish. And so, it was just like stepping back in time, realizing that they were doing just what my family, my parents, and that whole cohort had done for us, trying to make the community recognize that they're there, that they deserve services, that they are good people. They're just great. The men were all in their little suits and we're all talking, and they brought up the mayor and they brought up the county commissioner. And I said, gosh, I'm like I'm at the Brotherhood Social Club, but they're speaking Hmong. It's so amazing. And the women were over in the table making all of their wonderful dishes. And I just, I felt I had finally been successful because not only was I getting to my people, as I call them, mi gente, regardless of their nationality, but I was also reaching these other communities that also needed to be included. So when the refugee community honored me by saying that I was one of their--. One of them, I felt successful. Not just because I felt I owed it to my community to do what I was doing, but to include them and to make them feel welcomed and entitled, was really wonderful. So, yeah.
DV: That’s wonderful.
NM: Yeah. I retired.
DV: How long did you work for the state before you retired?
NM: Twelve years only. I just--. It was time. Age was the factor. I could collect Social Security, which was--. And I figured, I wasn't making a whole lot of money, but I wasn't making--. I mean, comparable to what I was making as a state employee. And so, I thought I could live on this. And again, I've never been very good at financial, very good at financial strategies for my life, but I'm happy. It doesn't matter. I'm happy. And so, I stopped in 2019. I took my grandson to D.C., my granddaughter to Wilmington. I went to Sedona, and then I went to Cuba to do one of my last mission trips that I've done, I've done Nicaragua, Guatemala, and I got to do Cuba just before COVID.
DV: Mission trips, what do you mean?
NM: Well, most of them were church related. Or in the case of Cuba, it's a Witness for Peace/solidarity, which was created by my dear friend, Gail Phares, back in the mid-80s when the Iran-Contra reality was happening in Latin America. And again, we’re so tied to the migration to the U.S., and the push and pull at the border, we don't see that all of that has to do with our policies in D.C. I mean, I'm a, like I said, I'm a citizen by an act of Congress, not because I or my people voted to be citizens, right. So, the mission trips are usually church groups or non-profits that will take a group of folks in the U.S. to a country to get to see how people live. And to understand the policies of America, the U.S., and how those policies affect the people living in these neighboring countries, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. And so, Nicaragua, I went, I can't remember what year all of this. Guatemala was my first one, I went twice. And my son actually went on a mission trip his senior year in high school, and it makes you see--. Mission trips for me made me realize that we are really just all one. We’re all one, whatever your belief system is, if you believe in a God or don't believe, we're all--. When I went to Guatemala, I felt like I had gone back to Puerto Rico and my grandmother's stories of how my grandmother lived in this little hut with a dirt floor, and they would throw water on it to pat it down. That's what I was living in when I went to Guatemala fifty years later. And I'm like, we're all the same. We've had different histories maybe, different ways of getting to where we are. But--. pero somos uno. Somos uno en Dios, en el universo. We have that. There's a little DNA that just trickles through every person on the planet. We may look different. Our accents may be different. Our histories may be different. But basically, what we want is the same thing. It's happiness. What's that, what's the constitutional thing, the pursuit of happiness? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Well, they got that right. I mean that really is what every human being wants: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And so mission trips let me see that. And Cuba was, again—my last name is Martí—so it was just awesome to drive into--. Fly into Martí International Airport. [Laughter]. I claim him as an uncle, but he was on that island and my family was from the other island. At some point the Martís from Europe were the same, and then they came through the Caribbean and settled in different islands. I always say he looks like my dad, when my dad was young, José Martí does. But anyway--. And just the struggle of the people of Cuba, and the struggle they're still living today, simply because we can't get over something that happened sixty years ago. It's just like, I don't know. I mean, people are starving and dying because of an ideology. That just doesn't seem right to me. It doesn't seem moral to me. I mean, we do it here, too, right? We have families who are hungry and starving that shouldn't have to be. But when you see it on an island, at the level--. And the spirit of the Cuban people is just amazing. And of all of the people, the Guatemalans, the Nicaraguans. Yeah, so I love that experience that my faith has brought into my, in my world. It complements the work that I do here, because, again, I've established good working relationships with the Guatemalan community, Nicaraguan, and Cuban. Sometimes we butt heads, but they're still my brothers and sisters. And so, it helps me do the work here as well.
This just reminds me that a couple of--. Last year, the NC Justice Center awarded me the Lifetime Defender of Justice Award. And when they called me, I thought, did you get the right number? I haven't done anything to defend justice. And so, it was like: yeah, Norma, you’ve been nominated and the board agreed that you should get this. And I'm like, I don't understand. And so, when I was telling all my friends, I said I don't understand why I got this award. And they're like, what do you mean you don't understand? And so, they started telling me, look, you've done this and this and this. And I'm like, yeah, but those were, I mean, they were my jobs, they were my faith. That was what I was supposed to be doing. I wasn't doing anything that I wasn't supposed to be doing. That we're not all supposed to be doing, right? And then they reminded me that not everybody does do everything that I do. And I said: oh, okay. Well then, okay, let's go! And so, I got three tables worth of friends to pay an outrageous amount of money to get a chicken dinner [Laughter], but to support the Justice Center and to receive the award with me, because it wasn't for me, it was for us as a community and as people that have struggled. So, I had some of my community health workers there. I had folks from DPH , and from different churches, and from Duke, and from UNC. I mean, again, everybody that's been a part of my world was invited to come and three tables worth of people showed up. So, I was pretty excited. That meant more to me than the award. [Laughter]. That did, yeah.
DV: Did you do the mission work for a long time, or is that something that you were doing after retirement?
NM: No, no, that's a thing I did while I was working.
DV: Okay.
NM: Yeah. 19--. 1999, 2000, 2001, I went to Guatemala.
DV: Oh, wow.
NM: 2017, I think, I went to Nicaragua. Oh, and then we went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, as part of--. My own people needed help. And so, we went to Puerto Rico to help rebuild some homes of folks on the island. And then Cuba in 2019. It was the first one after retirement. The other ones were all done while I was working. Again, my job doesn't stop with the paycheck. It extends into the rest of the day and the world. I don't know, that's just how I've seen my life. It's all of it. It's what you do on Saturdays and Sundays. And, yeah, it's all of it.
DV: And I know that you didn't stay fully retired for long. [Laughter].
NM: Some would say I haven't retired. Yeah. Well, COVID came, and with COVID came a call from NC DHHS, one of my colleagues that I'd worked with had just been made Deputy Director, Ben Money. And Ben called me and said: we need you to help us. And I go, well, what's going on? I mean, I knew that--. I knew what was going on. I was, but what is it? He says: Norma, we have 75% of patients at Duke today that are Latino. And there's--. We're only 9% of the population. And I go, my God, what are you guys doing? How are you telling people? And he says, well, that's why I'm calling you. I want you to come on board and help us. And so I thought it was a volunteer thing because, again, I don't think of money as I should, but I don't. He says no, we want you to come back, we know you're retired so maybe part-time. I go, oh, okay, you're going to pay me. Yeah, sure, I'll do it. And so, but they paid me. But what I did was, that money, I gave it to people who were not working and who were, who needed groceries and whatever. Because I figured it wasn't supposed to be for me, it was supposed to be to help the community. So, I did. I mean, I helped me, too. I went to the beach, probably more than I've ever gone to the beach in North Carolina, for my sanity. But it was really great working with Dr. Cohen and her team of deputy directors. They stepped up. We would tell Dr. Cohen that the community had a concern in whatever, Durham, Hickory, whatever, at 8 o'clock at night, and that woman would be on a Zoom call with us to answer every single question, and she followed up with every single complaint that was given by the community. The first week that I came on board, she told us at the end of this week, I want you to give away a half a million dollars so that we can get organizations to start giving the message out. So, we did. We gave five organizations $100,000. And I told them, help us get the word out, help us create the right messages, help us to do this work, and I am so proud of that work that they did. I didn't do--. I didn't create any of that. They did it all, and we curved it. I mean, we got it. We got the place where the Latino population, by the time I left, a year later—was only supposed to be for six months, it turned out to be a year—the numbers were at least, by the time we had a vaccination available, the numbers of Latinos who had vaccinated was higher than any of the other groups in the state. And so, for that, I am eternally grateful, eternally grateful. And again, as with everything, you don't do a job and walk away. You let the institution know where their holes are. And there was holes that you had to call somebody in from retirement to help you reach out to a community? Why don't you have a position in the department, hello, that already has the pulse of the community and can tell you what needs to be told and can reach out immediately. I mean, like we did within a week. But again, I wasn't part of the department at that point. I was brought in. And so, yeah, so they listened and we, they're listening. And we have some really great people at NCDHHS today. You need more, but we have some really good folks there.
DV: Thanks for sharing all of that, Norma. Considering all of these experiences, what would you say were some of the challenges and barriers that you faced in your journey? How have you addressed them?
NM: I think the challenge is understanding what you're walking into. And again, if you don't have the skill set because of your education, then go find that skill set. Take a course. Get a certificate. Always, always, always speak up when something is a deficit. Don't take it on as another task to do on top of what you were hired to do. And I think that's the hardest thing to do. It’s like, can you take a look at this translation? You know, there are professionals that do that. I'll take a look at this today, but I think you need to--. I can give you some names and numbers and contacts for you to get a professional person to be looking at this translation. And so, it's those challenges, it's doing what you're charged to do and not more. Again, I never got paid more for being bilingual. I know I never was at the top of the payroll scale. And yet there were many times I was doing two jobs, one in English and one in Spanish. So yeah, that I think is the biggest thing. Prepare yourself, educate yourself, and don't let people use you. Stand up for what you know is your space and not just feel like: I've got to hold on to this job, so I've got to do what they're telling me. I've been blessed that every job I've had I've loved. But that doesn't mean each one of them didn't offer challenges. Like I said, the racism will slap you in the face. You take the slap, but then you just move forward and find a way to educate that person that slapped you so that they don't do it again, or at least not to your face. So, I don't know. Does that make sense?
DV: Yeah, yeah, it does. Thank you. Turning that around, instead of thinking of challenges; you've spoken of angels that helped you along the way. Besides the angels, what are some of the main factors that you can pinpoint that you think have helped you? It could be something abstract, like a way of thinking, or tangible, specific people like you mentioned.
NM: Yeah, I've mentioned all the, I think I've mentioned all the people, if not, forgive me. Those of you who know me who helped me, if I didn't mention you. It's been a long trajectory. So, I think it's we are not--. Again, I'm talking my generation of Latina women. We were not taught that we could do anything other than maybe be a mother, maybe be a wife. I mean, those were the expected roles. And I love my children. I love being an abuelita. I mean, that's like my favorite job today. But that is not all who we are. We are, we have a passion inside of us. And whatever that passion is, find a way to express it. Don't let anybody block you from--. I mean we have limitations. Obviously, I would have loved to finish my master's and always wanted a doctorate, so never did all that, but I never let that stop me from seeking opportunities that were presented to me and saying: well I don't know, maybe I could do that. I could do that. And I did do that. And I did do that not by myself, but again, by educating myself and seeking partners that had the resources or the skill sets that maybe I didn't have. Finding partners is probably the most important thing in terms of barriers because you're not going to knock it down by yourself. Hundreds of people have tried that for centuries. And I look at the African-American experience in North Carolina, and as--. What, three hundred, four hundred, five, four hundred years if my math is right, four hundred-plus years of constant, constant, constant, constant, constant, constant, constant drilling down on a people. To me, it's--. They're my heroes. The fact that they survived all of that negativity and God-awfulness that was imposed on them. And it's the same thing with our people. We've had some pretty nasty shit thrown at us in the decades of the United States of America. But we have to--. We're here and we're not going anywhere. This is our country. This is our home. This is where my grandchildren will make a difference in the world. From here, they will make a difference in the world. And so, be proud of that heritage, but don't let anybody diminish it. And teach them, as much as learn from them, teach them. Yeah, yeah, that's pretty abstract.
DV: Thank you.
NM: But I can't put it into like go do A, B, C. Whatever that teaching opportunity is for you, whether it's a certificate, whether it's a couple of classes. I mean, my latest thing is meditation. My goal in life now for the next however many years I'm allowed to breathe on this planet is to ask my Latina women, my daughters and my nieces and my nephews, and boys too, the nephews and the sons, to take a deep breath. And to find that inner peace that is there and whatever you want to call it; God, energy, spirit, whatever you want to call it, there is this force within all of us that's just really divine. And if you let it come out, people may see it. You may not see it, but other people will see it. And so, give yourself that time to just pause, reflect, and then go do something. It's not just say it, do it.
DV: So this is what you've been up to lately, meditation?
NM: Yeah. Well, my NC CEAL work is winding down. I had a wonderful review with Wake Forest University that's doing, for the first time ever, a Spanish language intervention called Pain Trainer for people with major pain or terminal pain that medication doesn't always resolve, it’s an eight-module intervention on finding that place of tranquility and calmness within you and not focusing on the pain. It's a wonderful medical intervention, right. You're talking about meditation as a tool in the world of health. And so, they've translated into Spanish. It's been wonderful being on that team at Wake Forest. Again, they had it professionally translated, but then they brought together this group of folks, me and ten other people across the state from different nationalities to look at it, to make sure that language spoke to all of our nationalities and that the people on the computer screen look like us. So, yeah, that's been a wonder. It's finished, but it's a wonderful project. Stay tuned and look for it. Again, it'll be online. It'll be free. I've done some work with Duke along the same lines in terms of meditation and training. I'm finishing a certificate with the Chopra Center on Meditation. Deepak Chopra is probably one of the most renowned U.S. medical doctors has addressed the value of meditation as a health equalizer. Again, it brings down all the bad things and brings up all the good things. So, blood pressure, heart, chronic disease, all those measures will lessen if you spend some time meditating. And so, my goal is, in the next four or five years, is to have that Casa de la Abuelita, where I can teach meditation to my girls. To all the women and men, Latinos. I am going to be a little segregationist about it. I really want to focus on the Latino population and teaching us to breathe, to see that inner beauty that's in all of us and that strength that we have inherited from our ancestors. Yeah, that's what I hope I can do in the next decade or so.
DV: That's awesome. Norma, I think we skipped your work with NC CEAL. Can you tell us a bit about how that's been going on?
NM: Sure, that's been the last two years, and it's been wonderful work. Year one, we were still kind of the tail-end, middle-end. Vaccination was going.
56:30 DV: First--. So you were working for the state and then you left that. They were hiring other folks to take over. So, was it immediately after that you started working for NC CEAL?
NM: Actually, I took the NC CEAL job thinking that I would be done with the state job in December. So I started in January of 2021.
DV: Oh, okay.
NM: But then they didn't hire the persons, the people, and so the state asked me to stay for a few more months, and so I was kind of double, double. But this isn't a job, it's not like nine to five, it's really just a, it's an honorarium that we get from UNC School of Medicine, Center for Community Partnerships and Health, I think is what CCPH stands for. So, I was able to do that. And those first few months was really just recruiting a team to work with us to help create materials that were still needed in our Latino community. And so, again, because of the work that I've done in the state, my dear friend Dr. Krista Perreira called me and says: come and join us on NC CEAL. I'd like you to be--. She's the academic co-lead, the community co-lead for the Latino, Latinx Community Response team. And so, what we did in year one was we brought together ten young--. And I told her, Krista, we need young people. She says, what? I said anybody under forty? Because, again, we want to build up the leadership of the Latino community. It's okay to get the executive directors of all of these organizations, but they're busy. Let's get some of the people that work with them, but that need to maybe get some leadership and connect with each other as leaders, young leaders in the state. And so, we got ten folks together. They're a wonderful team. I would name them all out, but I'll forget one of them. I should have brought my list of them, but I don't want to forget any of them. But again, from north, south, east, and west of North Carolina, all of them working either community colleges or nonprofit organization. Again, we covered every nationality we could of the Latino world. And we, what's missing in the messaging for COVID. And so, everything was like, it's just too complicated. I mean, it's too many words, too much, people just want bullets. And so we ran across a colleague at Arizona State University, Dr. Gilbert Lopez, who had begun a series of cómicas, animated cómicas, with the gentleman that did Coco, the movie [Laughter].
DV: Wow.
NM: Did some of the animations of the original ones. And so, he needed additional funding to create some more of these animations. And so, as a team, we agreed that we could use our money for that to happen. So, and we gave them the themes. We gave them five themes. One was the importance of masking, the importance of vaccination of young people, because it was just beginning to give it to little--. The five-to-eleven-year-olds. Mental health as a result of the isolation. The chip myth that they're putting a chip in us because they're going to go out to get us. And, oh gosh, I can't remember what the fourth one was, the fifth one, but we created these wonderful--. We? The animation team that Arizona had contracted created them. We as a team made sure that the words were the words we wanted to have. So, we have these wonderful, rich characters: Tio Rigo, Doctora Susana, Mama Lucha, the Abuelita. It's just, it was, they're just beautiful characters that represent, I mean, they tend to be a little Tex-Mex. But even as a Puerto Rican, I felt like I could relate to anyone, I could relate to the Abuelita, she is me. And so, I thought, okay, this is great. So, we created the animations. And then on a fluke, again, you just ask. Sometimes you're afraid to ask. I asked the animation company. I said these are great, but we don't always have connectivity in our rural parts. I said, well, how much more would it cost us if you printed them into like little cómicas? And he's like, we'll just throw that in. We'll send you the file. That's no big deal. It didn't cost us anything except the printing, which again, we had to pay for printing. And then we ended up one day at El Centro Hispano, like four of us, boxing them so that we could ship them to all the other, the other rest of the team. And then we realized we didn't have money to ship them. And so, I took some and, and Prudencia took some, and Hilda took some, and we all took some, and on our way home or whenever we were in that part of the state, we dropped off boxes to our colleagues so that they would have their cómicas to pass out at festivals, at vaccination events, at anything they were doing COVID-related. Those were a big hit, so much so that La Conexión, the Conexión USA newspaper here in North Carolina, took them and for every week in, I want to say, end of November-December 2021, they published a full page of the Comica with a QR code. Is that what they're called? That if you clicked on it, it would take you to their website and then you could see the animation of the Comica, right. Same thing, but one is visually and sound and the other one you have to know how to read, right? So, it was amazing the volume of hits that we got on those animations. So that was our success story for year one. And then for year two, the funding was different, and we ended up just having an African American Latino group, so it was only three or four Latinos, three or four African Americans. It was a little harder to get to what was still missing of the messaging of COVID at that point. We're in 2022, vaccines have been out. The boosters are out. So, we focused on little kids, right, because the rate of vaccination of little kids is so low. And we all agreed that we would create a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coloring book with a lot of the same kid characters that were in our original series. So, we still have the Doctora Susana, and this time she's talking to the kids that were in the series before, in the other five cómicas. And yeah, yeah, disclaimer that I did use the names of my children [laughter] on the cómicas because I could give parental consent without a problem, right? [Laughter]. So, I used their first names at least so that you have a Bianca and a Saul character. And they just, they did this really great coloring, the verbal part of it, the team came up with, right. And we got it approved by the doctors to make sure we were saying the protocol that was correct for masking and getting your vaccinations and stuff. And then we got a local artist, a Latino artist, to do the illustration. Rafael Osuba, who is a Raleighite, I think he lives in Raleigh, did the animation out of his company. He and another animator did the whole thing. So, it's all, again, created locally by a local group of Latinos and African Americans. The words came out of them, and then the animation came out of the local Latino artists. So that's our latest claim to fame. And then we did, as part of year two, a series of trainings on the importance of mental health, because, again, the team felt that that was the one thing that we could still do a lot with in terms of COVID, is to let people know that this isolation and survival, if you survived infection changed you and changed your family. And you need, and you may need help, and you may need to talk about it. So, we sent--. We had sixty slots for community health workers to do a twelve-hour training, so we did it in three four-hour sessions. En Español, one, and then two in English. And we trained--. Of the sixty slots, again, they had to come to all three sessions, and we paid them, of course, to do this because we don't--. That's their time, and either they're missing work or they could use the money, as we all can, right. So, they were paid to take the training. So, these promotoras de salud took the training and we have, I think, about forty-some that took all three sessions out of the 60. And so, they now have this wonderful toolkit of how to talk to people about approaching their mental health and the resource, like where to go to get a professional, a practitioner. So, hopefully, if we get funded for year three, we're going to take that up a notch and continue working with the community health workers.
DV: That’s wonderful.
NM: Again, challenges, universities are a bureaucracy, just like the state is a bureaucracy. Things don't happen quickly. You don't get paid on the day, on the calendar. It's whenever it gets processed by all of the different departments and somebody signs it and says it's okay. But eventually people do get their money, and eventually we do get a product and we can share it with the community. So, it's the consistency and the hitting--. Knocking on that door, knocking, knocking, knocking, knocking, until somebody opens it and does what they need to do with it. Because these are our dollars, these are federal dollars we pay into the federal pocket, all of us, whether we're documented or not documented, we all pay into the federal coffers. And so, these projects should involve and recompense the people participating appropriately. And we made sure that, as part of the NC CEAL effort, every time we use community members they were being paid for their time. Not a lot, but they were getting paid, which is important. Yeah, so that's kind of like my--. When I'm not meditating, I'm working on NC CEAL stuff.
DV: You keep busy.
NM: I keep busy. And I have grandchildren. I have a one-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a ten-year-old, soon to be eleven. So, they also keep me busy. And I'm blessed. I'm rich. I am the richest woman in Raleigh.
DV: [Laughter]. That's great. Your story is very inspiring. And as you know, we are doing a series on Latino leaders, and this is why I'm talking to you. So, I wanted to ask you what leadership means to you. How would you define that? If you think about your experiences, what do you think leadership means to you?
NM: To me, it's collaboration. It's looking for a door, a window, someone to show you that door or for you to show them that door that needs, that has a need behind it. It means doing the work but also asking for help. I think leadership is you, the you in unity, okay? Not only with what you see around you; helping to lift everyone that crosses your path, not just yourself. And you fail if you're just doing it for you, whatever that may be, but if you're doing it because you see all these other people that need to be lifted, that need to walk through that door with you. That to me is, again, the leadership is you, all of you, in unity with what you see around you. Again, lifting everyone that crosses your path, not just yourself.
DV: You had mentioned to me once, well, before, during our pre-interview, that you were proud of having opened doors for others behind you. Well, that's wonderful.
NM: Yeah, that's my claim to fame. Yeah, I hope I've done that for my children as well as for the folks who are not my children. But again, just reflecting, we need to stand tall. We need to be proud of who you are. And I don't know that I always was in my twenties and thirties, and maybe until I came to North Carolina in my forties. I think that's when I started to realize that there was all this potential, there's all these things out there. Like I realized that I should have had a Master's in Public Health because I love what public health does, right? My mom and dad did a lot by coming to the states. They sacrificed; all of our ancestors paved the way for us. So, I see it as my job, your job, all of our jobs to pave the way for that next generation of Latino leaders. Stay tall, be proud of who you are, the hard work that all of your family has done. I mean you may not see it as doing it for you, but they've given up a lot of their lives for you to have the life that you have. So, take all of that and don't let it go to waste. Pave the way not only for yourself—make yourself better at every step—but also bring other people along with you as you're moving along that timeline.
DV: Thank you so much Norma for sharing your story with us.
NM: Thank you for letting me, it's been such fun sharing and remembering what I can. [Laughter]. Of this long and wonderful life of Norma Martí. Gracias, Daniel, gracias.
DV: No, gracias a ti, Norma.


Transcribers: Sofia Godoy & Daniel Velásquez
Interview Date: 2023 May 31
Date of Transcription: 2023 August 28 / Revisions: 2023 September 22