When Ricardo Martinez left Mexico for the United States on his sixth birthday, he had no idea that he wouldn’t see most of his family again for 10 years.
“I remember all of my family coming to say goodbye [to my parents and me], and I didn’t fully grasp what was happening,” Martinez says. “I thought we were all going out. The concept of moving, when you’ve only ever experienced one city and one place, is incomprehensible for a child on their sixth birthday.”
Martinez, a gay Mexican-American, spent his early childhood in Mexico City before emigrating to New York, where his family moved into his aunt’s two-bedroom apartment that housed three other families. When Martinez received the news that he had been named Equality Texas’ new CEO in November, he couldn’t help but recall his start in America.
“I just didn’t know what to say. I was in shock,” Martinez admits. “It’s humbling when I remember staying up late to help my mom put together pens manually, and seeing her hands blister up and bleed just so we could get an extra $25. That was my reality, so to have the reality I have now, I’m incredibly grateful for it.”
At 37, Martinez is the first Latinx man to head Equality Texas in its 30 years of operation. Dianne Hardy Garcia, a Latinx woman, led the organization from 1993 to 2002. Originally a joint effort of the Lesbian/Gay Democrats of Texas (LGDT) and the Texas Gay Task Force (TGTF), Equality Texas was known as the Lesbian/Gay Lobby of Texas (LGRL) from 1986 until 2006, when it officially adopted its current name.
Equality Texas’ mission is to secure full equality for LGBTQ Texans through political action, education, community organizing, and collaboration. Martinez is more than ready to carry out those goals, according to Equality Texas Foundation Board Chair Elizabeth Myers.
“Ricardo is a visionary leader who is the true embodiment of the American dream,” Myers says. “[After] years of hard work, perseverance, dedication, and exceptional leadership in many different executive positions, he is extremely well-positioned to lead Equality Texas into the future.”
Although he holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Stony Brook University and a master’s degree in nonprofit management from the New School, Martinez says school was not always easy for him.
“I remember being strategic about pretending to be sick and going home, because I couldn’t understand people,” Martinez says. “Luckily, I ended up going to an [elementary] school that had an ESL program and teachers who really went above and beyond to make me comfortable and help me grasp the language. After a year or so, I had already started speaking and writing in English.”
In between his bachelor’s and master’s programs, Martinez worked in human resources at a temp agency where most of his clients were nonprofit organizations. It was here that Martinez learned about mission-based organizations and became motivated to further his education.
Through networking at the New School, Martinez was able to land his next two jobs at Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning (PENCIL) and Summer Search. At PENCIL, Martinez helped high-school students develop mock business proposals and gain eligibility for paid internships. He later transitioned to Summer Search, where he helped cultivate leadership skills for students who had talents in areas other than academics. “I wanted to work with folks that needed me the most,” says Martinez.
After his work with Summer Search, Martinez began working for GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network), eventually moving to Phoenix to chair its local chapter. He concurrently worked with Stand for Children, where he acted as the National Director for Constituent Engagement supporting equal access to education. During this time, he was a part of the movement that helped repeal Arizona’s “No promo homo” law.
“I take very little credit for helping overturn the ‘No promo homo’ law—that was a collaboration between a lot of different organizations,” Martinez says. “That repeal was successful because organizations like GLSEN Phoenix [and others] worked tirelessly for years to develop a community where change was possible.”
Martinez’s experience working with community nonprofits started at the age of 14, when he began volunteering with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York City. 15 years later, Martinez was recognized by the Obama administration for his outstanding leadership within the LGBTQ community.
“Ricardo Martinez has been a proven and effective leader with local and national LGBTQ organizations,” says Holt Lackey, Equality Texas’ board chair. “He understands that leadership begins with listening, and that real change comes from inclusion and standing united to defend the rights of every Texan.”
As Equality Texas’ new CEO, Martinez hopes to make as many connections with local organizations as possible, citing the Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT), Planned Parenthood, and the Texas Freedom Network as just a few of the organizations he has already started communicating with.
“[Our] work will continue to focus on our high-impact policy framework, which includes nondiscrimination, family recognition, transgender rights, and LGBTQ youth outreach,” Martinez says. “When we say that we’re trying to ensure equal rights in the hearts and minds of all Texans and the laws for LGBTQ folks, we really mean all LGBTQ folks.”
With the recent transitions in leadership at Equality Texas happening under the Trump administration, Martinez’s goal is to ensure his staff and volunteers are safe and that they know they have purpose and clarity in their mission.
“Progress is fragile—it’s like a pendulum, so when we swing too far in one direction, it’s quite possible you’ll swing in the opposite direction just as quickly, depending on the people who are in positions in power,” Martinez says. “That means we have to both hold the line to protect our rights so we don’t lose any more, and work double-time to make sure we are making some type of progress, even when the landscape is not favorable.”
Now based in Austin, Martinez will soon travel to cities across Texas to meet community leaders and organizations hoping to collaborate with Equality Texas. The organization will also hold their Love Equality event in Dallas on February 8, which will celebrate the progress and power of the LGBTQ community.
“It’s about focusing on [your] personal power. If [someone] believes that they inherently have power—and that connecting with other people compounds that power through collective action—then [they will] always be on the right track,” Martinez says. “Anyone and everyone that is inspired to take action is welcome to do so with Equality Texas, and they know where to find us.”
For more information about how to get involved with Equality Texas, visit www.equalitytexas.org/ or follow them @EqualityTexas on Twitter and Instagram.
This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.