He’ll devote his time to promoting public awareness of the Maestas school segregation case and S.P.D.T.U, and taking care of his mom
By cvlopez | email@example.com
“I do remember the first time I put on the robe.” Martín Gonzales is answering questions about his 25-year career as judge and he’s recalling moments which stand out over that period.
He announced at the start of the year his retirement from the Colorado 12th Judicial District Court, where he has presided from the bench since 2007. A process to select his replacement is underway, and it’s not lost on him the amount of time he’s been on the bench and the youthfulness of attorneys who present before him.
“You know, I’m starting to feel like a 3-day-old fish on the counter. So I figure it’s time to go,” he said, a grin crossing his face.
His retirement as a state district court judge will leave him more time devoted to presenting and honoring the Francisco Maestas school segregation case he got involved in a decade or so ago; more time to make sure his mother, Maria, has what she needs on a daily basis; and more time for “engaging in those activities that raise the cultural and political perspectives of the Hispanics,” specifically through the Society for the Mutual Protection of Workers (S.P.M.D.T.U.) of which he is a member.
“My first priority is my mother and making sure she’s taken care of. Everything is secondary in my mind to that point,” he said.
His road to becoming an attorney and ultimately a judge is rooted in his upbringing on his family’s farm raising and butchering
sheep near Capulin in Conejos County. His father, Leo, was a longtime water commissioner governing the Alamosa and La Jara rivers, his mother a homemaker whose freshly baked bread remains a smell he recalls to this day.
“I still remember listening to her chattering and having the smells of frijoles and chile at the same time. My favorite meal still is beans and chile and home-baked bread.”
Born in 1952, he came of age during the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights period of the 1960s and 1970s. At the University of Colorado where he graduated and studied law, he was active in the Chicano movement and farm workers movement of that era.
For others who grew up in the San Luis Valley, how he ignored advice from his high school counselor that the military, not college, was his future is as relatable as the aroma of beans and chile on the stovetop and freshly baked bread in the oven.
“Law school seemed to be the way to change the world,” he said. “I think when you see those of my generation, the numbers that went into law school, I suspect a great number of them had the same motivation, to try to make a difference in society.
“I just think you do what you can do because you have a passion for it, and don’t let anybody stop you.”
THE school segregation case involving the Francisco Maestas family, which the judge has devoted countless hours to along with a full committee of academics and community volunteers, is set for a broader public unveiling starting in March with a traveling exhibit at the state capitol and then Colorado History Museum. In October a dedication ceremony of a bronze relief created by New Mexico artist Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera is scheduled for the Alamosa County Courthouse.
“It got lost in the sands of time,” he said of the historic school segregation battle which dates back to 1913, when Maestas initially approached the school district to allow his son, Miguel, to attend the school nearer to their home on the north end of Alamosa rather than being forced to cross the railroad tracks to the south end of town to attend the school for Hispanic families.
Maestas was a supervisor on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad and lived on the north side of Alamosa, which was an oddity in that period since most other Hispanics, including railroaders, settled south of the railroad tracks.
“They were denied. In fact they were ridiculed in the papers for even making the suggestion,” Gonzales said. “It was not an effort that succeeded through that methodology. Ultimately it was that, in conjunction with the lawsuit, that I think ultimately produced the result of desegregation.
“The importance is, I think, this is the first desegregation case in the country concerning Hispanics.”
It was an inquiry from Dr. Rubén Donato, professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, who reached out to the 12th Judicial District Court seeking files of the case that brought it back to light. Donato learned about the case from Dr. Gonzalo Guzmán at Colgate University, who had been researching a different subject when he read an article mentioning the Maestas case.
“Ultimately they got ahold of me and I was like, ‘What in the world are you talking about? What case are we talking about here?’ I was not aware of it, nor do I believe I ever knew anybody who was aware of it.”
Once the Maestas school segregation case was found searching through microfilm from the state’s court archives and a copy was provided to Donato, “I basically put that case file in my hip pocket and said ‘You know one of these days I’m going to do something.’”
That day came in 2015 when voters greenlighted a new Alamosa County Courthouse and he saw it as the perfect timing to recognize and make the masses aware of the Francisco Maestas case.
“Law school seemed to be the way to change the world. I think when you see those of my generation, the numbers that went into law school, I suspect a great number of them had the same motivation, to try to make a difference in society.”
“THE struggle for civil rights is always a bundle of sticks. It’s this stick and that stick and you put it together and you move forward. I think this was just one stick in many struggles that were occurring at that time,” he said.
He added, “You gotta put it in historical perspective. We are talking about a period of time that was not far removed from the Treaty of Guadalupe, it was not that far removed from the Spanish American war, and not that far removed from Mexican American war. You have a situation in the early 1900s, when the KKK and other such organizations had a great deal of influence over the politics of Colorado and the nation.”
In his thinking the Society for the Mutual Protection of Workers, which was founded in 1900 to protect Hispanic property rights and fight discrimination, was in the background of the case for the good. It is the work of the S.P.M.D.T.U. that Gonzales plans to promote in the next phase of his life.
The Maestas case, he said, is important for several reasons. “Predominantly I think it’s important to understand that the struggle for civil rights has been ongoing for a long time. I think sometimes those of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, we think we invented that struggle.
“Well the fact of the matter is that struggle has been going on for a long time and this case is a representation that our grandparents and our great grandparents understood the value of fighting for one’s rights and engaging in the struggle for what is appropriate and necessary to advance in this society.”
He was first appointed to the bench in 1997, when then-12th Judicial District Chief Judge Robert Ogburn appointed him to serve as juvenile magistrate. “I was charged by the then-Chief Judge Ogburn to create the juvenile court system for the 12th judicial district. That had not existed in this district before.”
“The idea,” he said, “was to create a method whereby we could try to prevent juveniles from being incarcerated. The idea was to knock down those numbers somehow and produce a product that was effective for the community, effective for the kids involved and useful for the court system.”
He accomplished that, and the juvenile caseload fell from 11 to 15 on average a day to about five. “That’s what I was thinking about when I put on that robe and walked into the courtroom for the first time. ‘How am I going to pull that off?’ It was an awesome responsibility.”
It’s been 25 years since that day. He figures now is the time for some other meaningful work, and his retirement awaits.
Alamosa Citizen members get the Monday Briefing sent directly to their In boxes – plus a weekly newsletter on Thursdays that summarizes the top stories in the Valley. Member support keeps The Citizen free for all to read.