The woman who once left everything behind is now bringing everything to the table for her community.
It’s a common misconception that aging means ‘slowing down.’ But for Rita Martinez, this could not be further from the truth.
A volunteer in the Health Centre’s Seniors Drop-in Program, Rita’s energy and compassion can be seen every Wednesday when she helps make coffee, serves snacks, and acts as translator for native Spanish speakers in the group.
What she’s been doing for decades and what she does best: foster community.
Rita’s journey to her current roles of mother, grandmother, and community volunteer begins in San Salvador, El Salvador. “The year was 1979. Political and civil unrest began against the military regime that had ruled El Salvador for the past 50 years.”
By 1982, fighting between guerrillas and government forces was creeping into the capital. In early 1986 after her husband Manuel was abducted, the decision was made to leave. Manuel left first, followed by their eldest two sons Louis and Miguel, and was finally joined by Rita and their two youngest children, Rita and Erick, five long years later in the summer of 1987.
“We left everything behind: our house, our lives, our memories and careers, in the hopes that our children would grow up in a peaceful society, so that they could have opportunities for a better life,” Rita remembers. “It was very hard.”
When the Martinez’s arrived in London, they were one of the first Latin American families to settle here.
“I felt frustrated,” Rita says. “Nobody spoke Spanish. Some days I cried; I wanted to go back home, but our family was here.”
After living in Vancouver from 1994-95 so Manuel could practice medicine, a tumultuous series of events saw the passing of Manuel to pancreatic cancer, the birth of Rita’s first grandchild, and the death of Rita’s youngest son, Erick, in a motor vehicle accident.
Rita and her children were able to find strength in community, and, roughly two years ago with all of her grandchildren in school, Rita found herself with free time. “A friend told her to go to the Health Centre,” her daughter says. “She liked it and my mom ended up seeing lots of older women from the Spanish community there.”
Every Tuesday, Rita calls the participants in the Seniors Drop-In Program to remind them about Wednesday’s get together, which also serves up an education component: everything from diabetes, to nutrition, to fire safety.
Rita has also become the group's Spanish translator. She's able to communicate clearly to the group, taking into account that although the Latin participants share a place of origin, different backgrounds and education levels can affect vocabulary. Rita's goal is to provide a translation that might not be literal, but is sensitive and accessible in its consideration of background. As she's done so often in her life, Rita takes into account people's histories and experiences to create community.
I've suffered much, but I'm very proud of my children and grandchildren. And volunteering at the Health Centre helps me to continue living a healthy and happy life. I love to help other people. That's been my job, always.