How UT’s Monica Muñoz Martinez is working to make Texas history accessible – and honest

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Monica Muñoz Martinez is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet all this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Monica Muñoz Martinez believes everyone should have access to truthful accounts of their own history – including the dark, difficult or troubling parts.

Martinez, an associate professor at the University of Texas, has devoted herself to making the history of anti-Mexican violence on the U.S-Mexico border publicly accessible, earning a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2021 for her work.

The award-winning historian and educator helped start Refusing to Forget, a nonprofit that calls for public commemorations of the murder and oppression of Mexicans in Texas, and Mapping Violence, a digital research project that recounts histories of racial violence in the state between 1900 and 1930.

Martinez, a native of Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people were killed in a mass shooting in an elementary school in May, grew up learning about the six-week walkout in her hometown to protest discrimination against Mexican American students in the 1970s.

However, she said she didn’t learn about the larger history of the civil rights movements until she attended college in Rhode Island, where she eventually became inspired to make sure the stories she learned about people pushing for social change wouldn’t just be heard by people at universities.

“When you learn from people who challenged power, who studied how power functioned and fought for change, that has the ability to empower a new generation,” Martinez said. “It’s a powerful thing to give people access to inspiring histories, and so I think some people would rather those lessons of the past not be available.”

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m from a family of educators and social workers. My mom, who worked in public education for over 35 years, taught me not just the importance of public education, but also what giving people access to a quality education can do for social transformation. I also have been inspired by my grandmother. When I was in high school, she was suffering from dementia but told me stories about how she always wanted to become a teacher.

She would repeat stories about how sad it was that there were so many people that were illiterate. She would share these memories of seeing people signing their names with an X. So, thinking about the women in my life, my family more broadly, and those people who think about education as a civil and human right, that’s something that has inspired me.

I was also able to take classes from historians who taught me about the history of civil rights movements and the darker parts of U.S. history, such as slavery, Native genocide and police violence. The historians were committed to mentoring a new generation, so they created opportunities for students like myself, who sometimes had multiple jobs in college, to be able to get paid and have research experiences.

I was invited to speak at the dedication ceremony in Uvalde when the junior high was named after Genoveva Morales. I wrote my thesis on the school walkouts in Uvalde and about Genoveva Morales, a civil rights activist who was the lead plaintiff in a desegregation suit against the school district, and so it was a full-circle moment for me to be able to come back and talk about the importance of her work, of the civil rights legacy that she left, but also to be a part of the history that I didn’t have access to until I was a college student. Now, students at the junior high know about Morales.

It was also the moment where I learned about the importance of public history and its ability to impact communities and inspire new generations. It was affirming for the career choices that I had made but also just continued to push me to be committed not only to scholarship and researching, writing and teaching, but to making history available. I just felt like this is what the work is for.

The injustices we see today will shape communities and families for generations, so we have to call out injustice in all its forms. We live in a world that is centuries in the making. If you study the history of our world and this country, my belief is that social change takes learning from our past to build a more just future. Social change also requires being deliberate and intentional to have a positive impact.

My parents also taught me not to forget where I came from. The opportunities that I have benefited from are a direct benefit from others who worked to make those possible. I am also grateful for professors and historians who opened the door for me and who mentored me. I have a responsibility to give back to the communities that have given so much to me, and I have a responsibility to create opportunities for others, too.

I have been moved by parents and kids in Uvalde who, despite carrying unimaginable pain and grief, they advocate for change to make a better world. I am also inspired by public school teachers like my mom, Maria Elena Martinez. Educators who see the shortcomings of an imperfect system and commit to making it better, and to providing opportunities for the next generation, even if they themselves may have been denied those opportunities.

Likewise, after the Uvalde massacre, I have a newfound respect and admiration for social workers, people who help others navigate the knotted bureaucracies of social services, victims’ services and health care. They, too, see imperfect systems and try to maximize their effectiveness and reach as many people as possible who are eligible for life-saving services. Teachers and social workers do this important work, often while exhibiting tremendous self-sacrifice.

Commit more time for fun and rest. Seek more experiences that bring you joy to help counter the pain and violence you will encounter in your work.

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