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Mel Martínez: 1947—: Cabinet Secretary - Cuban Refugee

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Melquiades Martínez was born in 1947 in Sagua la Grande, Cuba. The son of a veterinarian, he was twelve when a 1959 coup brought Communist guerrilla leader Fidel Castro to power on the island. The new government was not supported by all, and one teen in Sagua la Grande was taken before a firing squad after being accused of anti-government activities. Catholic schools were closed, and the atmosphere grew tense as Martínez entered his teens. He once played in a basketball game wearing a religious symbol around his neck, and was taunted for it. "The words 'Kill him, he is a Catholic' had a chilling ring for my desperate and frightened parents," Martínez told a Senate Judiciary committee many years later, according to St. Petersburg Times writer Curtis Krueger.

Uneasy with a Communist government—Latin America's only one for a time—and firm Soviet ally so close, the United States government attempted to subvert Cuban communism in several ways. One of them was helping Catholic service groups launch "Operation Pedro Pan," an airlift for Cuban youth who were then resettled with Florida families. Martínez, with the date of his compulsory service in the Cuban military nearing, became one of 14,000 to participate in Operation Pedro Pan. He was fifteen and spoke only Spanish when he arrived at a refugee center on Matecumbe Key in the Florida Keys. He moved in with an Orlando family, Walter and Eileen Young, and his brother Rafael soon followed. "We looked at ourselves many times through those years and said: 'We may never see our parents again,'" Rafael Martínez recalled in the St. Petersburg Times interview.

At a Glance . . .

Born Melquiades Rafael Martínez, October 23, 1946, in Sagua la Grande, Cuba; emigrated to United States, 1962; naturalized citizen, 1971; son of Melquiades C. (a veterinarian) and Gladys V. (Ruiz) Martínez.; m. Kathryn Tindal, June 13, 1970; children: Lauren Elizabeth, John Melquiades, Andrew Tindal. Education: Florida State University, B.A., 1969, J.D., 1973. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Republican.

Career: Began career as attorney in private practice, Florida, 1973; partner in Martínez, Dalton, Dellecker and Wilson, Orlando, FL until 1985; chair, Orlando Housing Authority, 1984-86; Martínez, Dalton, Dellecker, Wilson and King, partner and civil trial attorney, 1985-98; president, Orlando Utilities Commission, 1994-97; chair, Orange County, FL, 1998-01; named secretary for Housing and Urban Development, 2001, by President George W. Bush. Has also served on the board of directors for Catholic Social Services of Orlando, 1978-86; founder and chair of Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Committee, Orlando, 1981-82; chair of board of commissioners, Orlando Housing Authority, 1983-86; commissioner for Orlando Utilities Commission, 1992-94.

Memberships: Bar of the state of Florida (board of governors, young lawyers section, 1980-81); Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers (director, 1981-85, treasurer, 1986-87, president, 1988-89), Ninth Judicial Circuit (judicial nomination commission, 1986).

Addresses: Home— Orlando, FL. Office— Department of Housing and Urban Development, Room 10000, 451 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20410.

The Martínez sons were thrilled to greet their parents and sister when they arrived in Florida in 1966. By then Martínez had worked and saved $400 to give to his father so the family might buy a car, and had also lined up a job for him in a local dairy. Meanwhile, Martínez was also continuing with his own plans. He finished high school at a local Roman Catholic school with an excellent command of the English language, and enrolled at Florida State University. After graduating in 1969, he entered law school at the same institution. He earned his J.D. and passed the Florida bar in 1973, and began a career as a successful personal-injury lawyer. His first foray into politics came when a law partner was elected mayor of Orlando, and named him to chair the Orlando Housing Authority.

Martínez served in that post for two years in the mid-1980s, and continued to practice law in Orlando. In 1994 he was appointed head of the city's Utilities Commission, and decided to make a bid for the lieutenant governorship in Florida's primary race. He lost, but the experience introduced him to another Florida Republican, Jeb Bush, the son of former President George Bush. Martínez ran once again for office in 1998, and won the top executive post in Orange County, home to Orlando, its booming local economy, Walt Disney World, and a population of 820,000. Because of unchecked growth in recent years, however, the area was beset by traffic congestion and overcrowded schools. One of Martínez's first decisions was to temporarily ban new construction of homes in areas where school districts were being forced to hold classes in trailers. The decision angered housing developers in the region, but Martínez was adamant.

By making budget cuts, Martínez was able to reduce some of the property taxes in Orange County, and set a positive example as a leader when he fired a fire department chief who refused to promote women and minorities. He also became involved in the 1999 media storm over Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy who was rescued after fleeing Cuba with his mother on a raft. She died, but the family in Florida offered to take him in; his father in Cuba, however, requested his return. Martínez backed the Florida relatives, and even took Elian on a well-publicized visit to Walt Disney World.


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