From my house, Jeff and I only have to walk two blocks north to arrive at the East Austin home Mike Martinez shares with his wife, Lara Wendler, sons Alejandro and Diego, two dogs, and three cats.
Mike and Lara are no strangers to Austin. Mike moved to the city in 1988 and after being elected president of the Austin Firefighters Association in 2003, he segued into local politics, serving as an Austin city council member for 8 years and campaigning in the 2014 mayoral race. Over the course of his career, he’s focused on worker’s rights and labor issues, particularly for minorities. Lara was born in Austin and also works in government as the Chief of Staff for longtime Texas senator, John Whitmire.
Mike’s interest in politics stems, in part, from his experience growing up as a Hispanic kid in Caldwell, a town 80 miles east of Austin. As he and his wife prepare carne asada and grilled brussel sprouts in their open, family-style kitchen he explains how he and his sister were banned from swimming in the local city pool because of their race.
“It was a city pool,” says Mike, “but when we started going they converted it to membership only.”
“How old were you when that first started happening?” asks Jeff
“So, you were old enough to be aware that ‘they’re keeping me out of this pool.’”
“Absolutely,” Mike says firmly. “It was subtle at first. They’d say, ‘You’re going to have to start paying $1.50 every time you come.’ That’s a lot of money in 1974! But we’d come up with the money. And then it was, “Your mom is going to have buy a membership and it’s $100.’ So, she borrowed the money and paid. And then it was, ‘Actually, it’s $100 per person.’ I remember mom’s paycheck back then. She was a secretary at Keller Aluminum Chairs and she was so proud when she hit $100 a week in take home pay.
Jeff does the math in his head. It's just over $5,000 a year.
“But she took us back to the swimming pool,” says Mike. “The lifeguard—I’ll never forget it—said, ‘Just stop coming here. Tell your mother to stop.’ So we walk home and we call mom at work and say, ‘They really don’t want us to come anymore.’ She comes home and picks us up. Takes us to the pool and stands there and says, ‘Get in the water.’ And my sister and I are like, ‘no.’ And she says, ‘GET IN THE WATER.’
“Like the Rosa Parks of Caldwell,” says Jeff.
“But we ended up not being able to swim there,” says Mike. “I mean she was protesting, calling the mayor, calling lawyer hotlines. Every night when she was putting us to bed she was talking to someone trying to get answers...”
At this, Lara chimes in. Her first awareness of race was also connected to a swimming pool. She grew up in Old West Austin, close to Clarksville, the oldest surviving freedomtown west of the Mississippi. During the summers, the neighborhood pool—which was shared by both white and African American kids—served as her unofficial daycare.
“One day my mom forgot to pick me up,” she says. “She had three kids, worked full time, my dad was gone, and she literally forgot to pick me up.”
After the pool closed and the lifeguard left, the only person left with the 10-year-old Lara was Popeye, an African American kid from Clarksville. He told her, “I’m not leaving until your mom gets here.”
“He stayed with me and stayed with me,” says Lara. “And she never came and she never came. So he said, ‘I’m going to walk you home.’ He carried his bike on his shoulder—he was a big black boy—and started walking me home through white West Austin when a cop stopped and wanted to know what he was doing. I could not fathom why this cop was stopping him. This guy was walking me the whole way home. He was protecting me. That was the first time I realized some people are treated differently based on the color of their skin.”
From the kitchen, I look out towards the backyard where their boys are playing beside an aqua blue swimming pool. I ask Mike, “Do you think your mother and her determination influenced your trajectory in politics?”
He nods his head. “Absolutely. I’m here and who I am because of her and what she did for me.”
Photography by Jasmine "Bobby" Oliver