She was a trailblazer, a journalist, a teacher, and a mentor. She was the custodian of our stories. You probably recognize her voice if you listened to Latino USA or NPR at some point. But Maria Emilia Martin was more than a voice; she was a stalwart representation. And that is what matters. 

Maria Martin, an inspiration to many Latina journalists, passed away last Saturday of complications after a medical procedure. She was 72.  

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She leaves a powerful legacy as an award-winning multimedia journalist and a professional dedicated to shedding light on Latino issues and diversifying the U.S. media.

Maria Martin understood the importance of telling stories like ours 

Born in Mexico and brought up in the United States, Martin was the child of a bilingual marriage — her mother was Mexican, and her father was American of Irish descent. 

Her background gave her an acute understanding of issues that concerned U.S. Latinos and Latin America and a sharp focus on her work. 

She spells it out in her book, “Crossing Borders, Building Bridges: A Journalist’s Heart in Latin America,” which recounts her journey as a child living in two countries and as a Latina in the media.

“In many ways, the borders I have crossed all my life and the bridges of cross-cultural understanding I’ve attempted to create through radio all began in my family,” she wrote

Martin believed there was a “greater need for radio and media to play a substantive role in bridging cultures and creating understanding through fair, accurate, and inclusive information.” 

Image courtesy of Amazon.

Understanding that Latinos are not monolithic, she wanted to create a vehicle that would portray the whole of our experience 

This was no easy task because only some traditional media outlets considered Latino news essential or profitable. But she knew better. 

After obtaining a Master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State University, she started working as a journalist in the 1970s when there were hardly any Latinas in U.S. newsrooms. 

Martin was one of the first Latina news directors at the only U.S. bilingual radio station — KBBF, in California. She went on to work at NPR editing “Latin File.” She became the sole “Latino Affairs” editor on NPR’s national desk shortly after that.

“These weren’t the easiest years of my life as I attempted to make Latino and Latin American issues a greater part of the network’s coverage,” she wrote in her book.  

In the 90s, while still at NPR, the Austin member station KUT came up with a groundbreaking proposal. Why not create a weekly radio journal of news and events that interest Latinos? 

She took a leave of absence from NPR, and “Latino USA” was born 

Martin created a place, as she explained in her book, “for Latinos to feel at home — where Puerto Ricans could learn about Mexican-Americans and Cubans about Dominicans and Central Americans and vice versa.”  

“Imagine the sounds of Calle Ocho and the Bronx and the fields of Fresno. These stories were crying to be told. But also the need was for Latinos to perhaps have more solidarity with each other,” she said in an NPR interview.

Today, it is the longest-running Latino public radio program and podcast. It’s now under The Futuro Media Group and syndicated nationally. 

Since its inception, the show has won countless awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s Edward R. Murrow Award

Besides developing a cadre of watershed programs like “Latino USA” and Después de las Guerras: Central America After the Wars, Martin received a Fulbright and several Knight Fellowships, including the John S. Knight Professional Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. 

In 2015, Martin was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists 

After leaving “Latino USA,” Martin founded her own media, Graciasvida Center for Media, a nonprofit based in Texas and Antigua, Guatemala, where she lived. 

Its purpose was to nurture independent journalism that had the public’s interest at its heart. 

Throughout a long and arduous career, the values of inclusivity, diversity, and reflection of all of society’s voices guided Martin’s journalism. That is her gift to all Latino journalists who dare come after.