2023 President's Award for Leadership in Racial Equity and Social Justice Recipient - Lupe Martinez

Martinez makes it his life mission to help migrant farmworkers and other underserved communities

Growing up, when asked what he wanted to do later in life, Lupe Martinez would say he wanted to wear a white shirt and work in an office with air conditioning.

“Working in the fields and all that was not for me,” said Martinez, who worked for many years as a migrant farmworker along with his parents and nine siblings. 

And though he eventually left that work behind, the discrimination he faced and the impact of the work and the toll it took on families like his stayed with him. It has led him to spend more than a half century advocating on their behalf as well as on behalf of other underserved populations. Martinez, 78, is president and CEO of UMOS. He has spent 54 years with the nonprofit, nearly 50 of them as its leader.

“My drive has always been because I’ve been there. I’ve been in the trenches,” Martinez said. “We experienced firsthand the injustices. I had this drive in me to see if I could try to create some change or at least keep it from getting worse.” 

When he was born, his family had been migrant farmworkers for at least a dozen years. They lived in Texas, but over the years would travel halfway across the country to states like Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin throughout the spring and summer. When Martinez was old enough to join the family in the fields, he was put to work, pulling around buckets, gunny sacks or whatever equipment his siblings and parents needed to harvest crops.  

His family eventually settled in Wisconsin, buying a farm in Plover and later Junction City where they grew pickles and corn and raised cows, pigs, chickens and ducks. 

Martinez got connected with UMOS after seeing an ad seeking a bilingual community outreach worker with a farmworker background. UMOS was formed in 1965 to help improve the lives of migrant farmworkers and their families. It was one of the first migrant farmworker organizations in the nation and is the oldest. 

Thinking it would be the ticket to that office job he had been hoping for, he applied and was hired. He was 24. On the first day he found out he would be traveling to the migrant labor camps in Door County. In that role, he drew upon the experiences from his youth. He was often the interpreter and negotiator for his family, talking to field supervisors about employment, housing accommodations and compensation.

But Martinez wanted to stay out of the fields and have a larger role in the agency. He set his sights on becoming CEO. He studied how the agency worked, moved his way up the ranks and eventually was appointed its leader at age 29. Soon afterwards, Martinez worked to add wraparound programs to the existing services UMOS offered clients. Over the years he has helped expand the number of funding sources as well as its service area. 

“When we were providing services to farm workers, they had a lot of other needs besides just getting a food voucher and medical assistance. They also needed assistance with job skills training and job placements,” he said. “That required more resources. The model was a wholistic approach to families.” 

UMOS now runs more than 40 programs – including a transitional jobs program, food pantry, Head Start and home energy assistance. In addition to Wisconsin, it serves clients in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri. During the pandemic, it was one of 15 agencies awarded a grant to help distribute COVID-19 relief payments to more than 75,000 farmworkers and meatpackers in 13 states.  

Martinez has used his background, leadership skills and influence on the state and national levels as well to help improve the lives of farmworkers. He is chair of the Governor’s Council on Migrant Labor and president of the Wisconsin Farmworkers Coalition, an advocacy organization for migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Wisconsin. Martinez serves as chair of the National Farm Workers Alliance, and a board member of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy organization for farmworkers and their families.

Martinez said his life and the work he oversees is very fast paced. He describes himself as someone who is driven and likes to accomplish things. And while the rights of farmworkers have improved, particularly in Wisconsin, Martinez said conditions still need to be better. That reality has led him to continue with the work. 

“This is not a job for me,” Martinez said. “It is a mission in life. I just happen to get paid.”