Mexican-American journalist María Emilia Martin’s vibrant voice resonated in U.S. public radio for almost five decades. She bid farewell this weekend, surrounded by loved ones, concluding a remarkable journey that included founding Latino USA, the longest-running radio show covering Latino communities in the U.S. She was 72.

María Emilia Martin, the pioneering radio journalist and founder of Latino USA, media educator and tireless advocate for Latinos, Latinas, and Indigenous voices in journalism, passed away due to health complications in Texas over the weekend.

“A legend has left this world to continue her work as a journalist from a place of love and light,” her family said on Saturday.

Martin had been grappling with health issues for the past few months, worsening in the last week after a medical procedure.

“María passed over the rainbow bridge early this morning at 6:43 in a peaceful and beautiful way, with barely a sound and as the ‘perfect’ recording she would have wanted in a room full of peace and love surrounded by her family and all of you at every corner of the world holding her up,” her family said.

Born in Mexico City and raised in California, Martin dedicated half a century to her work on public radio. Her 2020 book, “Crossing Borders, Building Bridges: A Journalist’s Heart in Latin America,” chronicles her journey overcoming racism and sexism in U.S. media. She paved the way for new generations of Latino journalists, particularly women.

In 1975, Martin joined a Chicana group at Sonoma State University known as “Mujeres por la Raza.” KBBF, the first Latino-owned and operated community bilingual public radio station in the U.S., invited the group for an interview.

“I was just discovering KBBF myself. When I turned on the dial to 89.1 FM, it was the first time I heard something that reflected my reality as a bilingual and bicultural Chicana,” Martin remembered.

Located in Santa Rosa, California, KBBF offered “Mujeres por la Raza” to host a weekly show on Friday nights.

“We were totally green radio producers and in some ways, we did not know what we were doing and in other ways, we did have an agenda, which was to allow the women listening to the radio to access information they might not have access to through other means. We had many ideas that included music, poetry, and guests. We were playing radio but with a very serious agenda.”

The “Somos Chicanas” radio show marked Martin’s debut as a journalist and producer. It was a ground-breaking bilingual program centering on Chicana women. Afterward, she became one of the first Latina news directors in the U.S.

During the 1980s, Martin covered the social conflicts in Nicaragua and other countries in Central America. She earned the title of NPR’s first Latino Affairs editor.

From Latino USA to Guatemala

In 1992, Martin left NPR and collaborated with the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas in Austin and the Ford Foundation to develop a news and public affairs radio program focusing on Latino communities.

Photo courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.

“We had to have editorial control […] I wanted to have it sound professional and just so compelling that it would be an addition to public radio. It wouldn’t be something that there would be resistance to,” Martin said later in an interview about her vision for the show. 

They named the show Latino USA and Martin handpicked Maria Hinojosa as its host. 

“María was one of my first teachers and journalist inspirations. She taught me to be absolutely fearless as a Latina, breaking in and pushing through. She could see something in me that I could not,” Maria Hinojosa said. “She pushed me to understand that my privilege in this world meant I had a responsibility: To do the very best journalism on the ground but also to remain humble and use my heart. Her sign-off was love and light and she gave me both. She changed my life and I will forever be grateful to her.”

The show launched in May 1993. Then-president Bill Clinton attended Latino USA’s launch party.

Martin was at the helm of Latino USA for a decade. As Latino USA marked its 30th anniversary on the air this year, the show acknowledged Martin for her enduring legacy and pivotal contributions to U.S. journalism.

In the early 2000s, the relationship with KUT Austin, the radio station that housed Latino USA at the time, soured and Martin said she was forced out of the show she founded. 

She relocated to Guatemala to produce a 26-part bilingual radio documentary series, “Después de las Guerras: Central America After the Wars.”

Martin said the project “tried to reintroduce the reality of Central America to a U.S. public radio audience at a time when people had forgotten about Central America ten years after the end of the wars.”

Educating Younger Journalists

Beyond her role as a journalist, Martin was a passionate educator. She obtained a master’s degree in Journalism from Ohio State University, served as a board member for Youth Radio and played a pivotal role in training journalists on multimedia, radio production and digital skills in the U.S. and across Latin America with her non-profit organization Gracias Vida Center for Media.

Photo courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.

She taught in places like West Virginia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, and Bolivia, where she worked closely with local journalists, helping them cover various topics, including elections, culture and religion.

“I tell my students that when people tell you their stories, they are giving you a gift, they are opening up their hearts and their souls, and you have to let them know that you appreciate that, in whatever way it is,” Martin said in an interview.

In 2015, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists inducted Martin into their Hall of Fame. It was one of over two dozen awards and recognitions Martin received in her career for covering Latino issues and Latin America. She was also awarded prestigious fellowships, including a Fulbright, the John S. Knight Professional Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University and the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship granted by the National Endowment for Democracy.

In recent years, Martin immersed herself in promoting independent journalism and education. While still based in Antigua, Guatemala, she frequently traveled to Austin and San Antonio, Texas collaborating with “The Esperanza, Peace and Justice Center.”

The Center focused on enhancing Central America’s coverage on U.S. public radio and elevating the skills and opportunities for rural and indigenous journalists in Guatemala, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

She never stopped reporting. As of July of this year, Martin was featured on NPR and Latino Rebels, providing insights into the Guatemalan presidential elections.

Martin was called MEM —María Emilia Martin— by her closest friends. In the days leading up to her departure, she received an outpouring of messages from colleagues, fans and friends expressing encouragement and celebrating her remarkable life and legacy.

“She will be terribly missed by her huge network of fans and friends, on both sides of the border and around the world,” Martin’s family said after passing. 

Featured image courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.

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