Hidden History: The legacy of Martin Ortiz

Hispanic Heritage Month

Martin Ortiz was born and raised in the El Huarache barrio at 2227 Old Lawrence Boulevard, now known as Broadway Avenue.

Ortiz grew up in poverty in a family of 12 children.

“As a child, he was always adventurous, always inquisitive,” shared Ortiz’s half brother, John.

He recalled Ortiz’s English being limited. Their parents were immigrants and mostly spoke Spanish.

“Through grade school, he had a lot of experiences that were not very good,” said John.

Many of Ortiz’s classmates and teachers teased him.

“There was a sign that was placed around his neck that said ‘I am retarded,'” John shared.

Ortiz endured the taunting and remained positive. However, at 13 years old, John said his brother dropped out of school and hopped on a train with some friends.

“He joined up with hobos and he traveled across the countryside,” he said.

Ortiz worked in fields and small businesses, where he was able to improve his English. He returned to Wichita at 16 years old, enrolled at Wichita North High School, and never looked back.

“He did accomplish exactly what he was trying to do,” said John.

Ortiz was the first Latino student body president at North High. He graduated in 1940 as class valedictorian, but had no plans of going to college — which didn’t sit well with his three friends.

John recalled a morning when one of the friends came and woke Ortiz up, holding a grocery bag with a white shirt and neck tie inside.

“He said ‘Come with me,’ and he said ‘Where we going,” explained John. “He goes ‘I’m gonna enroll you into college.'”

The friends enrolled Ortiz at Friends University, paying for his tuition.

“The only thing that interrupted that was World War II,” said John.

Ortiz joined the Marines in 1942, and served in the South Pacific for the next four years.

After the war, Ortiz earned his bachelor’s in sociology at Whittier College in California, then his master’s at George Williams College in Chicago.

However, Ortiz knew his true calling was in a classroom and went back to Whittier to teach.

In 1968, Ortiz founded Whittier College’s Center of Mexican American Affairs.

“He was establishing programs to recruit Hispanic youth,” John said. “He was helping them with tuition and helping them find jobs.”

Ortiz did for his students as his friends did for him back in Wichita. He nurtured the minds of young people with potential.

Rooted in his experiences back home, Ortiz taught his students “Don’t cry, qualify,” meaning don’t complain or make excuses.

“Then you can compete equally or as best as you can with other people,” said John.

It’s a familiar lesson at Ortiz Elementary School, named after Martin Ortiz.

The school is Wichita’s first school named after a Latino community leader, where every day, students and staff continue Ortiz’ legacy.

“Once you get to a place in life where you can help other people, that’s also part of that life cycle that you want to embrace,” said Ortiz principal Jeanna Hernandez.

For John, it’s still overwhelming to have a school, so close to their childhood home, named after his brother. He said it goes to show the importance of valuing life experiences and turning them into positives.

“He left this ability to inspire people and that’s what he did more than anything else,” said John.

Ortiz died at 89 years old in 2009 from Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia. He is survived by his wife, Linda, who still resides in California.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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