Ricardo Martinez, co-founder of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, speaks about immigrant rights in 2006. Martinez died last week. (Western History Collection, Denver Public Library)

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For three decades, Ricardo Martinez, co-founder of the advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, helped parents and students fight racism in Denver Public Schools.

Last week, Denver lost the humble and fierce organizer. He died of a stroke and its complications, according to a written remembrance shared by his family.

“At his core, he was a warrior,” said his wife, Pam Martinez, the organization’s co-founder. “At his core, he unquestionably believed in the basic democratic rights of all people.”

The organization helped parents and students take on issues ranging from discipline reform to biased school principals. Martinez was also active on the state and national levels on education and fighting for immigrant rights.

Though much of his work was focused on the Chicano and Mexican communities, his wife said he applied that same gentleness, commitment, and passion “for all oppressed peoples.”

Ricardo Martinez, 69, retired in 2019 from Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, which recently changed its name but retains a similar mission.

“He didn’t just fight for Latino students,” said Denver City Clerk Paul López, who first met Martinez in his youth. “He fought for every student, for everybody’s access to an equal education, regardless of where you were from or what language you spoke.”

Martinez grew up in Southern California, the son of farmworkers, said Pam Martinez. When he was old enough, he worked alongside them in the fields and canneries. As teenagers, Martinez and his sister would take the bus from town to town delivering newspapers put out by the United Farm Workers union and the political party La Raza Unida.

Martinez eventually joined both the union and the party, and became active in the anti-war movement, she said. The Martinezes met on a picket line and moved to Denver in 1982 as young parents. About a decade later, when Ricardo Martinez was working as a labor union organizer, they got a call from parents at Denver’s Valverde Elementary about a principal who was punishing students for speaking Spanish.

The Martinezes helped the parents successfully push for changes at the school. At a celebration of the parents’ victory, Pam Martinez recalled, one Valverde father suggested they keep the organization going — and what was then called Padres Unidos was born.

Over the next 30 years, the organization pressed Denver Public Schools on important issues from preserving bilingual education and improving the quality of school lunches to reducing suspensions and expulsions, which disproportionately affect Black and Latino students.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos was instrumental in opening a bilingual Montessori elementary school in northwest Denver, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, and in bringing about reforms at other city schools, including North High School and the former Cole Middle School.

A 2008 overhaul of Denver Public Schools’ discipline policy to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and police referrals was largely the result of years of organizing by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, which worked with the district to shape the reforms.

“They were bulldogs, and they were not going to let that go,” said Theresa Peña, who was president of the school board at the time. “Where there was compromise, they got 85% of what they brought to the table because they were right.”

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Senior Reporter — Chalkbeat Colorado Email: masmar@chalkbeat.org