A Utah-born activist untangles a violent family history in her memoir

Yvonne Martinez traces the roots of her family’s pain to the patriarch, killed by a Utah posse in 1922.

(She Writes Press) Yvonne Martinez is the author of the memoir "Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman." It chronicles the Utah-born labor activist's experience "transforming transgenerational trauma into resilience and post-traumatic growth."

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As family stories go, the one Yvonne Martinez learned about her great-grandfather — killed 100 years ago this month by a Utah sheriff’s posse — is a compelling one.

It’s one of many family stories, Martinez said, her grandmother Mary told her before her death. Those stories, she said, uncovered a history of domestic violence and abuse woven through generations in her family.

“You can be on top of a story or you can be inside the story,” Martinez said in an interview. “When you’re inside the story, that’s where the pain is, and sometimes the joy, too.”

Martinez, a longtime labor activist born and raised in Utah, transformed those stories into a memoir — or, as she put it, “a living project” — with the title “Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between A Whore and A Working Woman.” The book will be released Tuesday by She Writes Press.

The book, written in essay format, is a keen observation of transgenerational trauma — and how Martinez was able to recognize that trauma and use it for the better in her activist work.

Martinez referred to the idea of trauma and resistance being a double helix, “bound together and both passed down.”

The ‘Millard Bandit’

As a child, Martinez heard stories about her great-grandfather, Cirilo Rico, the family patriarch who was killed on Oct. 2, 1922.

Her great-grandmother, Mercedes, told stories of hiding Cirilo under a tarp, and that he was being chased by a deputy for breaking out of jail after he took lard and salt. As the family’s version goes, Cirilo also killed a “Mormon deputy” who was sent after him.

It wasn’t until Martinez went to university, along with help from an uncle, that she was able to track down stories in back issues of The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News about her great-grandfather.

The Oct. 3, 1922, edition of The Tribune features a story about Cirilo Rico’s death. The article called him the “Millard Bandit.” (It also misspelled his first name.)

(The Salt Lake Tribune) A headline from the Oct. 3, 1922, edition of The Salt Lake Tribune, reporting on the death of Cirilo Rico at the hands of a posse in Millard County on Oct. 2, 1922.

“Rico’s skull was virtually reduced to bits by the sure aim of the posse members and the top of the head was torn off,” according to the Tribune report from Delta.

Rico, then 29, had escaped Sept. 21, 11 days earlier, from the Millard County Jail in Fillmore. A report in the Salt Lake Telegram — the Tribune’s afternoon paper back in the day — said he was accused of shooting and injuring a lawman in Lynndyl. Rico, the Telegram report said, had been shot in the leg when he was apprehended.

On Oct. 2, according to The Tribune, Rico shot Floyd L. Rose — a car salesman deputized that day by Millard County Sheriff Frank H. Black — three times with a rifle. After the third shot, the report said, Rose fell into Black’s arms. He died a few hours later.

Black quickly organized a posse of 90 men, The Tribune reported. When the posse found Rico, the report said, Rico “opened fire on his pursuers, but his shots went wild. In a moment probably fifty guns answered the bandit’s death challenge.”

Just before Rico died, The Tribune reported, he tossed his hat into the air “as a signal of surrender.”

Martinez said her family’s history illuminated this part of the story, with a detail not known to the public.

“The inside story was that he knew that they were going to come after him, so he told his wife not to look for him, but just his hat,” Martinez said. Rico’s final act, throwing his hat, was for Martinez’ great-grandmother, Mercedes, a sign of love as the posse approached to kill him.

Rico’s death was a pivotal event in Martinez’ family history. It also answered other questions. In her family there was lore that the lawmen threw Mercedes in jail; Martinez theorized that it was because she had harbored Cirilo. At the time, Mercedes was pregnant with a daughter, named Cirila after her father; the girl died from bronchial pneumonia a year after she was born.

Trauma, and how to use it

The story of her great-grandfather’s violent death explained a lot, she said, of “the impact of all of that revealing, the trauma and the recovery and how people dealt with it.”

In a way, Rico’s death prompted an ongoing cycle of trauma that would seep down through generations. “There’s sort of a tragic undertone, and one of the things that sort of moved me to write this was, as a young adult, there was family trauma … that carried on for generations,” she said. “It didn’t feel right.”

Other family stories Martinez examines in her memoir touch on the generations of her family that lived in Salt Lake City — starting before the Great Depression and continuing later, when she was a child — and facing life as Mexican American Catholics in an environment dominated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Martinez said she faced her own hurdles with domestic violence in her immediate family. She lived with her great-grandmother, Mercedes, until she was seven years old. She left her mother’s house at 18.

“I think generationally, because I’ve done a lot of my own healing work,” she said, “one of the things that’s wonderful about it is that going through the trauma sort of reveals the resistance and the resilience, because they did survive.”

She added that she doesn’t think that anyone is fully healed in the family. It’s an ongoing process, she said.

Martinez said she has some good memories, mixed in with the hard ones of living in Salt Lake City before her stepfather moved the family to Los Angeles.

Beyond the regular things kids go through, she said, she and her family had a rougher time because they were Catholic. She said there was one incident when she was in school, when she brought a rosary for show and tell — and when she came back for recess, she found it under her desk, broken into pieces.

There are other poignant moments in the book — like when her stepfather didn’t stand for the national anthem at a Dodgers game, and the people nearby used a racial slur against her family. (Her stepfather, she said, was a big fan of Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, who is Jewish and made national headlines when he declined to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series in observance of Yom Kippur.)

Enduring the taunts in Dodger Stadium, Martinez said, “was a moment of tension and fear, but much later, when I understood more, I could see that was his way of holding onto whatever dignity he could.”

In her labor activism, Martinez said, these traumas have made her more equipped to listen to others.

Though the book is deeply personal, it also can be, she said, a “blueprint for a fight” for activists, and for others, a sign that we can pass along both trauma and resilience.

“They took it in and they persevered and they moved on,” she said of her family. “It doesn’t mean it’s not still there. It can definitely obstruct you.”

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