The Mission community mourns the passing of Maria X Martinez. She joined the ancestors on July 15, 2020 in her Bernal Heights home, surrounded by her daughter Paloma and family.
Maria was director of the Whole Person Program and highest ranking Latina in the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH). She had a highly successful career there for 23 years.
In a system that often overlooks the brilliance and vision of people of color, Maria persevered. She embodied a masterful ability to envision a dream that reached across sectors, and then inspired people to embrace it.
While at the SFDPH, she created the Whole Person Care system for vulnerable populations. The program flourished and spread throughout the state and beyond. She specialized in population health initiatives, data and service integration.
Maria solidified interagency partnerships among DPH, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the Human Services Agency, bringing these departments together to work in ways they previously had not.
“She was an incredible original visionary, always thinking of community first and how this system could better serve people,” said Barbara Garcia, her former director whom Maria worked side by side for many years as her Deputy and Special Assistant. “She would tell me, ‘People who come in for services should never have to figure it out—we should figure it out.’ She developed a homeless data system that pooled information from 20 different care systems.”
Art was always at the center of Maria’s world view. She believed it was the most powerful tool for building social justice. She folded it into everything she did—from building public health systems in San Francisco, to uplifting messaging and support centering on immigrant children and families.
As noted in an article Maria wrote in 2007 titled “The Art of Social Justice,” she said, “Artists not only document social change: they promote, inform and shape it….art is powerful… for art is the intellectual underpinning of social change; nowhere is there more need for art than here and now.”
Maria collected Oaxacan folk art and wore brilliantly colored and finely designed Huipiles and intricate Mexican jewelry. Over the years, she traveled regularly between San Francisco and Oaxaca, Mexico as she designed her home there and built strong ties in the Oaxacan community.
Maria hosted numerous Latino and Indigenous artists in her San Francisco home to support and share their art work with the world. Photographers, papermakers, weavers, silk screen artists, potters, all stayed in her home when they came to this part of the world.
“She was an artist at heart and she knew its power. Every time we worked on a project she would think of art as a way to community healing,” Garcia said.
As a community arts advocate since the 1990s, Maria championed public policies, legislation, and charter reform to ensure long-term cultural equity in arts funding. She served as a San Francisco Arts commissioner, president of the San Francisco Consortium of Community Cultural Centers, chair of the Board of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, president of the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club, and board member of BRAVA for Women in the Arts. For 14 years Maria was on the board of the Chicana Latina Foundation and was board president until her passing. There, she developed the Leadership Institute for scholarship recipients.
In every aspect of her life, Maria nourished future generations of social justice leaders, who walk among us today.
“She was so positive so many times,” recalled Diana Oliva-Aroche, who worked at SFDPH and is a former scholarship recipient of the Chicana Latina Foundation. “And as a Latina, as a woman I needed to hear that encouragement to keep looking forward. She reminded me to keep doing the work as public servants for the betterment of our communities.”
Maria had drive and energy. When she was in her late 50s, she earned a Master’s in Community Communication in USF’s graduate program, juggling studies with students decades younger than herself, and continuing to work full time.
When Maria saw a need, she immediately went into action, poured her heart and soul to ensure there was social justice and equity—especially for the children. She formed the Regalitos Program in support of a local school to provide a special holiday program and gifts to newcomer immigrant families and their children arriving from the border.
Maria’s love for the children and her insistence on the power of cultural expression drove her to form an artistic response to the tragedy and brutality at the border. She shepherded a group of community songbirds, producers, activists and organizers, to produce a moving and beautiful song for the children, “Our Children Are Sacred,” written by Francisco Herrera.
Without a doubt, Maria’s vision and intuition intersected most brilliantly, in her daughter, Paloma, whom she adopted from Mexico. Theirs is a love story that crosses time, space, and borders. Maria always knew her daughter was waiting for her. And that they would find each other.
Maria made all of us believers in the power of love, art and community.
Paloma wishes to thank everyone who has reached out to support her mama during her transition and for all the support to the family afterwards.
Maria is survived by her three siblings Mike Acord, Linda Martinez, and Rick Martinez, daughter Paloma, godfather Fred Carl, godmother Bernadette Zambrano, and by her extensive and loving community of friends.
Maria X Martinez. ¡Presente!