Growing up in his childhood home in Buffalo New York, Mark Rogovin was raised by parents who taught him the struggle for worker's rights, and the value of organizing and union membership at an early age. Mark's father Milton organized optometric workers (he organized his future father in law's eye glass store, which endeared him to Mark's mother Anne but not his boss). Anne joined a teacher's union in suburban Buffalo. Together they shared with Mark a love for art, theater and music that highlighted the accomplishments of working people, including Milton's own documentary photography of steel workers and miners.
Mark attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and worked in Mexico with world famous progressive muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros on his last mural, the March of Humanity. In 1968, Mark came to Chicago to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, and after completing his graduate degree, he opened the Public Art Workshop on the city's west side in 1972. Bringing art education to children, at a time when resources for these programs were being slashed in schools, was a priority for the center. Besides painting murals he co-authored the book, Mural Manual, the only step-by step- guide to painting community and classroom murals.
In 1981, Mark co-founded Chicago's Peace Museum and was the museums first director. The organization not only created a home for celebrating peace and justice, but defined the very nature of justice — economic justice, and those who work to create it in our society.
Mark was later a champion for the Paul Robeson 100th Birthday Committee, not only in Chicago, but the campaign that resulted in resources for classroom teachers across the US and a postage stamp honoring this hero of working people who fight for justice and freedom. Mark worked for four years with the committee and co-authored Paul Robeson Rediscovered: An Annotated Listing of His Chicago History from 1921 to 1958. Mark serves as the curator of the photography of Milton Rogovin. In this role he plans, organizes and executes exhibits, films, publications and educational initiatives utilizing his father's photos, which highlight the daily lives of working people in America.
In collaboration with the Illinois Labor History Society, since 1994 Mark has worked on publications, projects, research and events relating to the Haymarket Martyrs monument and other historic monuments and markers of working class heroes in the Forest Home cemetery, These projects include two versions of the publication The Day Will Come, a smart phone tour of the Radical Row, assisting with website improvements, spearheading a fundraising drive for rubber molds to ensure that historic monuments will be safe from theft, contacting organizations to help with the restoration of headstones and monuments, and identifying records and burial sites of key Haymarket family members.
He continues to develop projects to protect the history and the legacy of the people buried at the Haymarket monument and in the area surrounding the martyrs to ensure that visitors are aware of the stories that their lives represent.
And on a sunny day, when he's driving by and he sees someone standing at the Haymarket monument taking pictures or wondering around, he'll turn into the cemetery and offer an impromptu tour. He just can't resist the lure of another convert, to the history of the eight hour day.
Refugio Roman Martinez was born in 1903 in a town called Villa Cecilia, on the outskirts of Tampico, Tamaulipas in Mexico. Martinez had relatively little formal schooling before beginning work as a tinsmith, but over the years, he took part in a variety of self-education activities. He moved to the United States in 1924, where he settled in Chicago, married an American citizen, and went on to have two American-born daughters.
His entry to the country in 1924 was part of the migration of approximately one million Mexicans into the United States in the period between 1900 and 1930, many of whom were coming in response to the demands of American employers. He worked for some time in the meatpacking industry at Swift and Company in the Union Stockyards before losing his job when the depression hit. Mexican immigrants began working in large numbers in the Union Stock Yards as early as the 1920s, mostly as laborers in the packinghouse freezers, and on the killing floor butchering livestock. Many of them, like Martinez, lived and worked in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
While Martinez had gained a political mindset in Mexico’s political upheaval before migrating to the United States, much of his radicalization and orientation toward labor activism came out of the Great Depression and his experiences working to try and provide relief to struggling communities. In 1932, he joined the Communist Party through his involvement with the Unemployed Councils, whose efforts to provide aid to those seeking relief during the Depression were important to the working class and immigrant populations of the city.
In the course of his activism with the Unemployed Councils, Martinez often clashed with the police, and ended up arrested on multiple occasions. However, finding himself dissatisfied with the Communist Party, Martinez dropped out after only seven months of membership, although he continued his work with the Unemployed Councils. Over the following years, he was involved with a wide variety of political, labor, and community organizations, including the Frente Popular Mexicano, which tied Mexican nationalism in Chicago to demands for immigration and labor improvements.
While Martinez was active in politics on a large scale, much of his most important activism took place on the neighborhood level, where he was an important presence in the community. He was a co-leader of the Mexican Civic Committee, which worked with neighborhood people on various issues, including problems with the immigration service. Along with Jose Rodriguez, Martinez, he organized Mexican packinghouse workers in the Back of the Yards, and expanded their reach through working with community organizations such as the University of Chicago Settlement House, the Catholic church, and the YWCA.
After being active in the labor and organizing community for years, Martinez joined on as a staff member for the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee in 1938. As a staff organizer of the PWOC, Martinez was part of their efforts to coordinate between different ethnic communities and institutions for the purposes of union organizing and CIO recruiting. In his new position, he worked alongside varied immigrant, African American, and native-born workers to found an organization which represented Chicago’s diverse working-class population.
As a PWOC organizer, he began by working with Swift Company activists, including numerous Mexicans who worked on the loading docks and pickling departments. Although Martinez and many of his fellow Mexican labor leaders were inspired to get involved with labor unions in the United States because of their political grounding in Mexican radicalism, working with the SWOC brought Martinez more deeply into American life and led to his close relationships with a variety of multi-ethnic allies. Because of his meatpacking experiences working at Swift, close ties to community organizations, and language skills, Martinez was a particularly strong organizer for the UPWA, as well as an influential leader in Chicago’s Mexican American community.
Just as immigrant union leaders today are a critical force in the labor movement, working to gain respect and dignity for working-class communities, Martinez and his fellow UPWA activists were important in the fight for better conditions for immigrants and laboring people in the 1930s and 1940s.
In spite of Martinez’s lifelong commitment to working with diverse communities to build a better and more equitable society in the United States, with the advent of the Cold War, he came under extreme repression. During the Cold War, the Immigration and Naturalization Service aggressively targeted the CIO through its immigrant leaders, who they persecuted strategically. Martinez’s harassment by immigration services began as early as 1938, continuing until his eventual deportation in 1953 under newly restrictive immigration legislation which introduced new anti-radical provisions for deportation.
In the process of being interrogated by the INS for potential deportation, Martinez pointed to his family and long years of residence in the United States, and argued that “I am willing to prove my loyalty through my activity.” The Chicago labor community echoed this sentiment, and were eager to come to the defense of one of their strongest fighters. When his deportation was ordered, his community and union rallied around his cause and sought to defend him, stating in a leaflet that, “Martinez has proven himself a good American by his devotion toward a better world for everyone.”
Martinez’s deportation was part of a broader effort to clamp down on progressive CIO unions and to dissuade more radical labor activists from standing up for workers’ rights. As the Martinez Defense Committee of the UPWA explained, “The real aims of the Department are to weaken the packing-house workers union and to intimidate Mexican American and foreign born workers from being active union members.” However, because of the anti-radical culture of the Cold War, Martinez’s case, like that of other labor and community leaders, was met with a great deal of resistance by those who believed his activism to be “un-American.” The UPWA hired labor lawyer Eugene Cotton to defend Martinez, but in spite of strenuous efforts on his behalf, Cotton lost the appeal.
In December 1951, Martinez suffered a stroke which left him partially mute and paralyzed. After 12 years of harassment and court proceedings with the United States government over his deportation case, Martinez was deported in 1953. Martinez’s lawyer and friend Eugene Cotton informed the INS a week after his deportation that as a result of the hardship suffered by deportation after a recent stroke, he had died in Mexico after his arrival.
While Martinez’s legacy of union activism was exceptional, his deportation was not—between 1951 and 1954 the INS deported over one million immigrants, including many for their labor activism. Although the official records stated that he was deported for his past involvement with the Communist Party, the government was largely motivated by his union organizing in the Chicago meatpacking industry. Others active in his union faced arrests and police harassment, but immigrant labor leaders were particularly vulnerable to repression from the police and the immigration service.
As we look to the intersection of labor struggles and immigrant rights in today’s political landscape, we can proudly remember the brave activism of Refugio Martinez, a labor and community leader who devoted his life to improving conditions for working people, both native-born and immigrant. A big thank you.
-Written by Emily Pope Obeda