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. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. 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, 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 limited to people at universities. For her advocacy work, Martinez has been named USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honoree from Texas.
“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.”
Who paved the way for you?
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.