Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Yvette Martinez, Governor Haslam's press secretary, talks about Mexican-American family, military, hard work, faith, and taking risk

Yvette Martinez, next to Governor Bill Haslam as he talked to the media about incoming Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman in 2011
Yvette Martinez has led quite a life leading up to her most recent job as press secretary to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. In this exclusive interview about her road to that job and where she's going from here, Martinez's biography spans the military, the church, family illnesses, famous Knoxville tragedies, hard-working parents Amos and Edna, and an anecdote showcasing one of Governor Haslam's hidden talents.

"I am one of 4 children, 3 girls and 1 boy," says Martinez, who lives in Middle Tennessee and was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. Both of her parents had been born in New Mexico - "My parents were both born in Roswell, NM and are Mexican-Americans," Martinez tells HispanicNashville.com. Her mother's parents never left the Land of Enchantment, living in Roswell for most of Yvette's childhood before becoming ranchers an hour's drive east in Hondo. Her paternal grandparents, however, moved to El Paso from New Mexico before Yvette was born. They became leaders (he a preacher and she a teacher of theology) at the Latin American Bible Institute, which was at the time located in El Paso and has since relocated to San Antonio.

Left photo: Yvette’s maternal grandmother Eleanor “Nora” Salcido. Her grandchildren in the photo (L-R) are Yvette, brother Joe Villarreal Jr., little sister Denise Mercado (who like Yvette went into the Marines) and older sister Eleanor Rios.
Right photo: Yvette at 7 years old

In these excerpts from our interview, Martinez describes her family in terms of work, health, perseverance, and faith:
We grew up poor but each of us inherited our parents' great work ethic.
My dad (Amos) served in the Army and was stationed in Korea when he was called to come home to help take care of his family when his father became terminally ill. He went into the grocery business and eventually owned his own grocery store in South El Paso. He lost the store when I was a teenager and he started a new career as an over the road truck driver which he loved until he lost his vocal cords and larynx to throat cancer. Doctors believed his cancer was caused by second hand smoke from riding with another truck driver who smoked for five years.
My mom (Edna) was only 16 when she married my father. Shortly before my parents divorced she went into the work force as a certified nurse’s aide. She worked in nursing homes in El Paso and Mescalero, New Mexico which took a heavy physical toll on her body. I asked her repeatedly why she put her body through so much for so little money and she said because no one will take care of her patients like she does. She can’t physically do that job anymore and she really misses taking care of the elderly.
My father’s parents were heavily rooted in ministry and their faith. Neither one of my grandparents lived to see their sons embrace that lifestyle, but my father is beginning that journey now. My mother is also at the beginning of her faith journey. 
I asked Martinez how her parents' roots affected and/or influenced her own childhood and youth, and how those roots are relevant to her life now. We also covered the fact that she has both German and Mexican heritage, and that her father once told her that her "grandfather (five greats ago) came across the U.S. Mexico border, paid five dollars for his citizenship and changed his name." But Martinez considers that story more legend than fact. She's more confident of the family history she's experienced herself:
Both of my parents started with Spanish as their first language.  My mother remembers being slapped on the hand with a ruler for speaking Spanish at school, so she eventually stopped speaking it all together.  The only time we ever heard our parents speak Spanish was around Christmas time when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying.

When I told my mom I was moving to Tennessee, she asked me “Do they like Mexicans there?” I told her, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” I am not afraid to be different or to be the only Hispanic in the room.  I have taught my children that it’s ok to be different and if people say things that may sound insensitive or ignorant, that is a perfect opportunity to patiently educate others about who we are and how much we actually have in common.  I have also repeatedly said to my children and to classrooms full of students, don’t be afraid to live and work outside of your comfort zone.  Familiar isn’t always what is best for us especially when God is trying to grow us past the limits we set for ourselves.  
As for Martinez's own faith, she tells HispanicNashville.com, "I started my journey to deepen my faith when I was 14 years old and I strongly believe that God has guided my entire career."

Navy Achievement Medal
That career started when Martinez enlisted with the Marines when she was 17, "went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina then went to Camp Pendleton" in California. At Camp Pendleton, she was subsequently put to work in communications and training:
While I was stationed there, Desert Shield, Desert Storm erupted and I handled casualty reporting, classified messages, discharges, awards, and training incoming troops to handle these types of administrative duties in Saudi Arabia (overseas).
Martinez spent four years in active duty before returning to El Paso with an Honorable Discharge and also a Navy Achievement Medal.

Her communications experience soon dovetailed well with journalism. She started her private sector career as a radio sales assistant for KTSM AM, FM, TV, "making $5.75 an hour," recalls Martinez. Moving up the ranks to account executive, she appeared on camera for the first time as a KTSM weather anchor. Landing in the public eye suited her. Her next four jobs were on camera, at KDBC-TV and KFOX-TV in El Paso, at KPTM-TV in Omaha, and WATE in Knoxville. Along the way, she traveled to Bosnia for KFOX, "did 13 to 17 live shots a day" for the Omaha station, and won an Edward R. Murrow award at WATE, for a story about her daughter, who is now 17 and "doing great," according to Martinez, despite the scare she describes below:
Bailey's Bravery was one of the toughest stories I ever covered. Bailey is my daughter and when she was 5 she was burned by boiling water while trying to help my husband cook dinner. The Shriner's Burns Hospital in Cincinnati took care of Bailey and our family while they treated her for first, second and third degree burns. They didn't charge us for her treatment, and they do this for every child they care for, so I did a series on the whole journey and Shriners.
Left photo: Yvette and husband John, who is a high school athletic director and head basketball coach
Right photo: Yvette Martinez with daughter Bailey, who is in high school, and son Brandon, a UT-Knoxville undergrad, in Martinez's office at the Capitol.
Martinez then took a temporary detour from journalism and followed her grandparents' example of working in the church, but with a focus on media. At Grace Baptist Church in Knox County, Martinez says she "learned to shoot video, edit, increased our television ministry," and launched a magazine and website.

When Martinez went back to working in TV journalism, she ended up covering some of the most sensational stories ever to hit East Tennessee. She tells HispanicNashville.com that after joining WBIR-TV in 2006, she covered
  • the murders of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom;
  • the deadly love triangle of Eric McLean, his teacher Erin McLean and her student 18 year old Sean Powell; and
  • the 'black widow' case of Raynella Dossett-Leath.
The stark contrasts of the work of a TV journalist
Left photo:
Yvette Martinez describes the circumstances of her conversation with Deena Christian (in red): "Deena’s daughter was Channon Christian who was carjacked, raped and murdered in January 2007. The men around us were investigators in the case and this was outside the courtroom during one of the trials against one of the five defendants."
Right photo: Martinez and Knoxville WBIR anchor legend Bill Williams narrated a Christmas production at Salem Baptist Church in Knoxville.
    She was hired away from the Knoxville station to communicate messages from the outgoing mayor/incoming state governor, Bill Haslam. In addition to being the printed and spoken voice of the Governor's office on a variety of issues, Martinez also amplified the outgoing channels of communication:
    I also worked on Governor Haslam's video outreach to keep Tennesseans informed. If you go to his Youtube channel you will see some videos I shot, produced, edited and posted on behalf of the Governor. ... I believe all of my different jobs offered a variety of training that brought me to this point. I hope when people look back on my life they will see there are so many advantages to taking chances and getting out of those familiar comfort zones.
    The one anecdote from her tenure with Governor Haslam that she believes sums up the former Knoxville mayor is this tale of hospitality:
    I do remember a time in East Tennessee, the Governor was attending a breakfast event at a small restaurant when he decided to pick up a pitcher of water and he went around serving people who were enjoying their breakfast. The waitress took the pitcher from the Governor and he then picked up a pot of coffee and continued to serve customers. He is down to earth and continues to have a heart to serve.
    As of this month, Martinez has transitioned from the Governor's office into another state communications job, as Assistant Commissioner of Outreach and Communications at Veterans Affairs. As the Assistant "Commish," Martinez will be getting the word out about veterans' rights and benefits. To pull that off, she'll bring a wide variety of past skills that have enabled her to "write, assist the media, shoot and edit video, shoot and edit photographs, organize events, emcee events and tweet all about what's happening right now," as Martinez describes her previous on-the-job experience.

    "I am a passionate communicator with a Marine history so the new role is a perfect fit," Martinez said. "Now I'm off to my next adventure!"

    Follow Yvette Martinez on Twitter at @yvettem_tdva

    Yvette Martinez

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