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Poet or Smuggler? : Demetria Martinez Says She Was Writing an Article; U.S. Attorney Says She Aided Illegals

May 26, 1988|VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writer

The pale hands of Albuquerque poet and free-lance journalist Demetria Martinez trembled as she held the poem that has come to symbolize her status as newest cause celebre of the American Sanctuary movement.

But that first image of frailty changed as Martinez--wrapped in a black rebozo--recited her poem, "Nativity: For Two Salvadoran Women, 1986-1987," to the audience filling the pews of a former Presbyterian church, now slightly haggard Pacific Symphony Concert Hall in Santa Ana.

Your eyes, large as Canada, welcome

this stranger.

We meet in a Juarez train station

where you sat hours,

your offspring blooming in you like cactus fruit,

dresses stained where breasts leak,

panties in purses tagged

"Hecho en El Salvador,"

your belts, like equators, mark North from South,

borders I cannot cross,

for I am a North American reporter,

pen and notebook, the tools

of my tribe, distance us...

Martinez, 27, was in Southern California to accept a first prize in poetry from UC Irvine's annual Chicano Literary Contest, but few in the audience were unaware of the larger legal and journalistic furor swirling about her.

The first journalist to be indicted in a Sanctuary case, she is accused of conspiring to smuggle two Salvadoran women across the U.S.-Mexican border under the guise of doing a story about them. Ironically, part of the evidence the U.S. government plans to use against her is the poem she decided to write, in lieu of a story, about her experiences.

They began, Martinez claims, in August, 1986, when Albuquerque Lutheran minister Glen Remer-Thamert invited her to accompany him to Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua to meet two Salvadoran women seeking sanctuary in the United States. Because both women were pregnant and due to deliver in December, Martinez envisioned a Christmas story for the Albuquerque Journal alluding to Joseph and Mary's flight from Egypt to Bethlehem. Martinez said she walked the short distance across the international border between El Paso, Tex., and Juarez with Remer-Thamert and rode a bus with him to the train station, where they met Cecelia Elias Alegria and Inez Campos-Anzora.

Martinez, who writes a regular column for the National Catholic Worker and is a free-lance columnist and religion writer for the Albuquerque Journal, said she identified herself as a reporter for the Journal and made notes of their conversation.

After the interview ended, Martinez and Remer-Thamert returned to El Paso. Although she acknowledges knowing of arrangements to spirit the women across the border, Martinez claims to have no knowledge of how this was done or who was involved. She said the group later met in El Paso and Remer-Thamert and another individual Martinez claims she could not identify drove the Salvadoran women back to Albuquerque. Martinez said she was driven back to Albuquerque in a separate car except for one hour she rode with the women. Remer-Thamert has acknowledged seeking food, shelter and medical help for the women, who later gave birth in Albuquerque. Alegria gave her daughter up for adoption, but Campos-Anzora, Martinez said, kept her child. Officials with the U.S. Attorney's office acknowledged that both women remain in the country, but declined to disclose their whereabouts or their legal status here.

The moment Martinez crossed the border, however, she also stepped over the line into controversy and the tough choices a writer must confront when poet, advocate and journalist occupy the same mind and body. On Dec. 11, Martinez, Remer-Thamert and a Salvadoran named Luis Arturo Ventura-Rivas were indicted by a federal grand jury on nine counts of conspiring to smuggle Central American refugees. Their pretrial hearing has been set for June 7.

But the charges against Martinez--who often writes about the Sanctuary movement and those who provide refuge for people claiming to flee political terror and war in Central America--have generated the most heat, giving her notoriety few poets could attract with verses alone.

U.S. Atty. William Lutz, who has acknowledged to the press that he traveled to El Salvador in efforts to personally prosecute the case, has said that the First Amendment does not automatically shield reporters who take part in criminal activities.

Lutz declined to comment on the case to The Times, citing a New Mexico statute preventing prosecutors from discussing a case before trial. But he was quoted last month in the Dallas Morning News as saying, "Our position is that she was an active participant in a crime and that this is not constitutionally protected activity." Citing the example of a drug dealer who also writes about his crimes, Lutz added: "If that were the case, every defendant would claim to be a free-lance writer."

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