Photo courtesy of Jonathan De Campos.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan De Campos.

With the 2020 political season in full swing, Joseph Martínez has a foot in two battleground states decided by razor-thin electoral margins.

Joseph Martínez Vázquez advocates for what civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.”

He has been registering homeless people in the urban core of Miami to vote, placing refrigerators and food in Miami streets so that people can access and conserve groceries, especially now that businesses have closed.

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A community activist born in Milwaukee, Martínez was in Miami when the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sent protesters into the streets all over the nation in May. Martínez was active in the protests when Miami police tear gassed crowds. He lifts his shirt to show where he was hit in the stomach by rubber bullets.

In August, Martínez found himself on the ground and in the firing line again while visiting Wisconsin. When Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha and streets in Wisconsin boiled over, two protesters were shot and killed by a 17-year-old with an assault rifle.

The 29-year-old’s parents are from Puerto Rico (from Sábana Grande and San Juan), and as he got older he became interested in the island’s issues. “They sent me to Puerto Rico for summers with family and I worked on improving my Spanish'”

In the summer of 2019, Martínez was present at Miami “Ricky Renuncia” protests against the former governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló.

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“I am boricua, but grew up in Milwaukee,” he states. Martínez is from the south side of Milwaukee, with a large Mexican population. Puerto Rican migration to Wisconsin and the Midwest grew as industries recruited workers in the 1940s and WWII.

“You have stark differences based on which part of the city you’re in,” Martínez explains to The Americano about Milwaukee’s quadrants. “The people [are formed] by that experience.”

“We have to address working class issues. And I’m not OK with the treatment of the undocumented by the government,” Martínez says.

In the tradition of Lewis and other leaders of the civil rights movement, Martínez advocates for changes in society that may seem utopian, but over time could move closer to the mainstream. Martínez says he’ll continue advocating long after Nov. 4th, no matter the results.

As a student at Marquette University, Martínez says he was arrested by police at repeated protests. “Milwaukee is a smaller city. The police knew me by name,” he says.

Martínez’s demeanor is active and combative. He usually wears clothes and buttons with political messaging—a “Viva Puerto Rico libre” shirt with an image of Puerto Rican nationalist martyr Pedro Albizu Campos. Wiry and kinetic, he moves with associates from meetings and demonstrations, distributing paraphernalia and literature.  

Now high on his priorities is the status of Puerto Rico; Martínez advocates for independence, even though he understands that untangling decades-long ties with the United States could be traumatic for some.

“I see a reflection of the way we experience second class citizenship,” Martínez says.

“I started learning about the history of Puerto Rico, and the US should be criticized,” he says. “[Hurricane] María is a perfect example, with citizens entirely ignored because of a colonial situation” in relation to hurricane victims in Texas.

Finding Alternate Solutions

Martínez advocates for alternate—some would say idealist—solutions to problems in American society. “I don’t identify with either party. When COVID hit, the banks got the money,” he notes. “When the banks went down [in 2008], the Democrats let them off the hook…

“Each society has its own issues. People’s critiques have to be grounded in research. Because I understand our system, I am working on issues like canceling student debt, and defunding police,” he says to The Americano after a meeting that ended at midnight. He advocates for Democracy for All 2021, Environmental Justice Movement (non partisan) in the Overtown, Liberty City, and Little Haiti neighborhoods of Miami.

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Martínez is leaning towards the Green Party, and considers voting for Biden, although admitting, “I’m critical of both parties.”

Even though he abstained from voting for president in 2016, he considers voting for local issues primordial. “They should focus on voting locally,” he says. “That’s really important… [you] have a higher likelihood of holding the local politician accountable.”