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Activist assails ‘climate of fear’

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Since the 1970s, many Latinos have stopped calling themselves "Chicanos" because the word is so politically charged.

Elizabeth Martinez is not one of them. In her Martin Luther King Jr. keynote address Thursday at the University of Utah, the "Chicana activist" came out swinging, her politics on her sleeve.

"The message is out there," she said, " 'Don't ask questions; if you ask questions, you're a terrorist.' The climate of fear is chilling."

Sharing anecdotes and statistics, Martinez spoke for 20 minutes, painting a picture of repression and fear in America since Sept. 11, saying many things smacked of McCarthyism. She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Breaking the Silence Speech" and trumpeted his message of "access for all and opportunity for all."

"If ever there was a time to celebrate Martin Luther King, it is now," Martinez said. "Speaking out is something we have chance to do."

She told of several friends who were afraid to go to Mexico for Christmas because they feared they might not be allowed back in the country. She chided the media for using the term "illegals" to refer to "undocumented workers."

"No human being can be illegal," she said, to a round of applause.

Martinez has been a familiar name among political activists for almost half a century. She worked for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the Vietnam War in the '60s and published the newspaper, "El Grito del Norte" (The Shout from the North), a decade later. She is the author of six books, including the seminal "500 Years of Chicano History: In Pictures" and a recent collection of essays, "De Colores Means All of Us." She lives and teaches in San Francisco.

Speaking to a mixed crowd of university students, high school students, administrators and members of the general public, Martinez said if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would have spoken out against the "unspeakable loss of life on Sept. 11." She also felt he would see the attack on Afghanistan as coming from a "spirit of revenge." She said the government and media have been amiss in not letting the true number of Afghan casualties and the expense of the war effort be released to the public.

"The first casualty in any war is the truth," she said.

The Martinez keynote address was just one event slated to commemorate the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. over the next week. The NAACP will sponsor its annual Memorial Luncheon Monday, Jan. 21. There will also be a jazz concert at 7 p.m. that night at Kingsbury Hall, featuring Danilo Perez. Award ceremonies, book signings and other special addresses are also planned. The University of Utah has dates and times for most events. Call 581-7569.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com