Anita Nanez Martinez was born in Dallas, Texas on December 8, 1925, the fifth of six children born to Jose and Anita Nanez. She lived in the Dallas neighborhood known as “Little Mexico”. From her early childhood, Martinez demonstrated a passion for community advocacy and volunteerism. At the age of 14, she led her first campaign, collecting signatures for the pavement of Pearl Street in “Little Mexico.” She was the first member of her family to graduate from high school and attended courses at SMU’s Dallas College, a downtown extension program popular in the 1930-40s. She married Alfred Martinez, of the El Fenix restaurants, in 1946, and together the couple raised four children: Al Joseph, Steve, Priscilla, and Rene.
Her passion for her community and improving West Dallas led others to nominate her for a spot-on the city council. In 1969, she was the first Mexican American elected to the Dallas City Council and the first Mexican American woman elected to a city council in a major city. Anita served on the council from 1969-1973. During her time in office she fought to build a recreation center for West Dallas and pushed for numerous urban improvements, including new library branches and street repairs in low-income neighborhoods. In 1975, a recreation center was built in West side of Dallas. This center was the birthplace of the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico (ANMBF), an organization which sought to display the customs of Mexican dance, and to give children the opportunity to learn and develop pride in themselves and their culture. In 1990, ANMBF produced its first season of professional dances employing dancers trained in Mexico. ANMBF is considered the largest professional Ballet Folklorico Company in the United States. In 2020, the company celebrated its 45th year.
Also, in 1990, the Anita N. Martinez recreation center went through a $1.968 million-dollar expansion, tripling the center’s size. This expansion allowed for expanded educational, vocational, cultural, and recreational opportunities. Funding for the expansion came from a 1985 capital bond campaign. Martinez and the Ballet Folklorico danced and campaigned across the city, gathering 70,000 signatures in a petition drive.
This year, at its commencement ceremonies on May 14th, Southern Methodist University presented the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree to Anita N. Martinez, honoring her dedication to enriching the civic and cultural life of the city.
The Anita Martinez papers held in the Archives of Women of the Southwest are comprised primarily of manuscripts, newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, and ephemera concerning Anita Martinez’ efforts to build Ballet Folklorico. A substantial portion of the collection also concerns her activities as a Dallas civic leader, first U.S. Mexican American councilwoman, Republican party activist, and founder of the Anita N. Martinez Recreation Center. Correspondence to figures such as George H. W. Bush, Anne Richards, Henry Cisneros, Ross Perot, Stanley Marcus, and others are prevalent throughout the collection. A large and detailed scrapbook for the years 1965 to 1972 chronicles her term as a Dallas city council member and her appointment by President Nixon to The National Center for Voluntary Action.
Contact Samantha Dodd, curator of the Archives of Women of the Southwest for additional information or assistance with accessing the collections. For access to these collections or to learn more about the women of the southwest, be sure to visit the DeGolyer Library and check out our books, manuscripts, pamphlets, and photographs.