Jesse Martínez

St. James Food Pantry’s Jesse Martínez

Tradiciones Heroes - - Contents - by mary beth libbey

Jesse Martínez’s dark eyes lock on yours when he greets you at the church door. He seems to study your words care­fully. Then some­one yells for him from across the room. He ges­tures to you to fol­low. He an­swers their ques­tion, gives a di­rec­tion, ex­changes some teas­ing words with a smile. Then he shuf­fles on.

Martínez is a bald­ing, mid­dle-aged man in a T-shirt, baggy shorts and ath­letic shoes. His shoul­ders hunch a bit, and his gait slow due to one leg that’s in a brace.

Martínez is the kind of guy you’d pass on the street or in the gro­cery store and not even no­tice. Noth­ing re­mark­able stands out about this man. That is, un­til you talk to the peo­ple who work with him at St. James Epis­co­pal Church food pantry.

“What he does, he does out of love — for God and for his fel­low man,” said Mar­i­lyn Far­row, the vol­un­teer di­rec­tor of the food pantry. “His treat­ment of our vol­un­teers is note­wor­thy — lots of the young adults who work with him stay in touch with him for years. He re­spects them, talks with them and prays with them.”

He can’t tell you when he started work­ing at the food pantry. He can’t tell you when he started to go to church at St. James ei­ther. His friends in the con­gre­ga­tion say it was about 14 years ago, only a few months af­ter Far­row took on the top job.

“I’m not good with time, with dates,” he said.

In­deed, cer­tain ar­eas of life have been dif­fi­cult for Martínez. He had a lov­ing home in Des Montes, he said, with his grand­par­ents, Atilono and Ma­clovia Roy­bal and his par­ents Da­ma­cio and Pres­cil­iana Martínez. Some­times, he said, fam­i­lies hide a “dif­fer­ent child in a cor­ner.” His fam­ily didn’t do that.

And they taught him “re­spect for elders.” He stopped the in­ter­view and said, “One thing I want to say in the ar­ti­cle. Young par­ents need to teach their chil­dren re­spect for their elders. It’s get­ting out of hand. You see them push­ing an el­derly per­son in­stead of pick­ing them up.”

But he said he strug­gled in school at times, and he was put in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion classes at other times. He didn’t learn like other kids. He moved awk­wardly and fell down some­times.

He was teased and it hurt. Kids took ad­van­tage of him and his grandma would scold him for be­ing so naïve.

“She would say, ‘They are mean to you, but you still give them your jacket,’ ” Martinez re­mem­bered. “You deal with it. You learn from it.”

In fact, he spec­u­lated, that ex­pe­ri­ence may be why he finds it easy to ac­cept oth­ers and has long acted on his faith’s teach­ings that one should help oth­ers when they are in trou­ble, espe­cially those who are dif­fer­ent. “I’m dis­abled, too,” he said sim­ply.

Still, he’s held down all types of jobs. He was a su­per­vi­sor at the Moly­corp mine in Questa and a care­taker at El Mi­rador.

Nev­er­the­less, giv­ing to oth­ers has long been an in­te­gral part of Martínez’s life.

Be­fore St. James, Martínez and his wife Elvira started a food pantry in their house in Ar­royo Seco. His rea­son: “Peo­ple needed it.”

He can’t tell you how peo­ple learned to stop by his house for food or how he got the food to give out. No mar­ket­ing plan was needed.

Martínez said that re­tail­ers and food dis­trib­u­tors seemed to just know about his home-based ef­fort. “They just showed up: Smith’s, Cream­land, Taos Farms eggs,” he re­called.

Then a friend, a mem­ber of St. James, told him about the church’s food pantry, and he signed on about a year af­ter he closed their home­grown pantry.

To­day, he’s the St. James pantry’s pro­duce man­ager, but it’s clear that he does much more than that: an­swer­ing ques­tions, di­rect­ing the set-up, check­ing to see if lunch is on the stove.

It’s tough to see how this com­plex op­er­a­tion would work with­out him. “He’s my right hand man,” said Far­row.

They serve an es­ti­mated 500 fam­i­lies each Thurs­day, dis­tribut­ing about 1,500 pounds of food, “much of it the pro­duce that Jesse so beau­ti­fully man­ages,” said Far­row. The day starts at 8 a.m. The church’s am­ple narthex is stacked with ta­bles that in turn are stacked with pal­lets of canned and dry goods, some­times meat, al­ways pota­toes and other fruit and veg­eta­bles. This par­tic­u­lar day, boxes of wa­ter­melon are stacked in the park­ing lot.

Peo­ple have al­ready started to show up, chat­ting un­der the por­tal. Just be­fore noon, the kitchen crew, vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing Elvira Martínez, serve a hot lunch for the 70 or so vol­un­teers who show up ev­ery Thurs­day to help out Jesse and the rest of the St. James crew.

Most of the vol­un­teers are not church mem­bers. Among them are peo­ple who once stood in line reg­u­larly out­side, con­victed of­fend­ers work­ing off some com­mu­nity ser­vice, res­i­dents at a lo­cal drug re­hab fa­cil­ity, the Rocky Moun­tain Youth Corp., school­child­ren and many peo­ple look­ing for some so­cial in­ter­ac­tion.

“Peo­ple come here to get out of their own heads, to get out of the house. You can spend too much time alone,” said one vol­un­teer eat­ing her en­chi­lada lunch. “It’s not good.”

The doors open at noon and stay open un­til the food is gone, usu­ally sev­eral hours. Then, Jesse and Elvira Martínez de­liver food to oth­ers in the com­mu­nity if there is any­thing left. He’ll stop his pickup at the Pue­blo, at the Mcdon­ald’s park­ing lot, at the post of­fice, and then he’ll take a box to in­di­vid­ual homes. That’s why Martínez was nom­i­nated as an “Un­sung Hero” by Stella Mcgin­nis who saw him around town, said Far­row. “She was im­pressed with his kind­ness and cour­tesy.”

Some­times the Martínezes’ day does not end un­til 10 p.m.

But Jesse Martínez said over the years he has been sought out at the church for other rea­sons, not only food. “Some­times peo­ple want to pray with me,” he said. “They trust me.”

It’s not hard to un­der­stand why. When he found out about this re­porter’s daugh­ter was hav­ing surgery soon in Al­bu­querque, he asked her to pray with him. He reached out, held her hands and said a sim­ple prayer at the end of the in­ter­view.

Some might say my jour­nal­ism ethics were com­pro­mised, or that my re­li­gious be­liefs were not be­ing hon­ored be­cause he didn’t ask me what they were, but it didn’t feel that way. It was part of Jesse Martínez’s work, part of his day, part of his faith.

Jesse Martínez of­fers food to guests at the weekly food pantry at St. James Epis­co­pal Church. Mor­gan Timms

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