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Chicagoans of the Year 2013: Lulú Martinez

Immigration Reform Activist

Photo: Jeff Sciortino; Hair and Makeup: Heather Schnell/Ford Artists

Immigration Reform Activist

Student, University of Illinois at Chicago

Lulú Martinez doesn’t remember the day her family crossed the border illegally from Mexico into the United States. She was, after all, three years old.

Her parents settled in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park, and Martinez settled into American life, graduating from the prestigious Walter Payton College Prep in 2008 and entering the University of Illinois at Chicago. As one of the nation’s 2.8 million undocumented youth, Martinez says that she “knew that I couldn’t vote or get a passport or access scholarships.” Out of fear, she stayed quiet.

That changed in 2009 when her friend Rigo Padilla faced deportation to Mexico, and Martinez helped spearhead protests on his behalf. “We [undocumented youth] started realizing that the more public we were about our status, the more militant our actions, the more we could put pressure on people,” says Martinez, now 23.

So she volunteered in June to join a risky act of nonviolent protest organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. She and eight other undocumented students—a group that came to be known as the Dream 9—presented themselves to federal agents in the border town of Nogales and were tossed into a federal detention center in Arizona. She spent 15 days there, eight in solitary confinement because she handed out information about a legal helpline to other detainees.

After a national media blitz, Martinez was released and invited to apply for asylum (her next court date is early 2014). Now back at UIC, she continues to organize, currently on behalf of Marcela Espinoza, another Chicago woman who has recently been detained. Says Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center: “Lulú is part of a powerful movement of youth who have been critical in moving the fight for immigration reform forward.”

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