n February 8, 1927, Antonio and Francisca Martinez welcomed their fourth child, Juanita Martinez, who was the first in the family to be born in Detroit. Growing up during the Great Depression in Detroit’s Corktown community, Juanita remembers this tumultuous period with great fondness. The entire family was so proud of the older sons serving in the military – Lino in the Air Force, Eloy in the Marines and Margo in the Army. Juanita recalls how she, her older sister (Rosa) and younger brother (George) grew up seeing her parents helping feed the neighbors, housing the homeless, and somehow always being able to provide for everyone.
Education was of paramount importance and as a result, Juanita excelled academically and graduated from Western High School at the age of 16. College was an almost impossible dream for girls at that time, but she helped at home, worked, and then met a debonair man while doing volunteer work at the church feeding the homeless. She did not know at the time that Sebastian Hernandez had seen her walking to and from work every day and had announced to his friends that that beautiful lady was going to be his wife.
On March 17, 1952, Juanita and Sebastian married and in May 1953, their first child (Donna) was born. The following year their second child (Gary) was born but unfortunately passed away a few months later from Crib Death. The death of Gary was devastating, but hope was renewed when their third child (Michael) was born in November 1955.
In 1958 Juanita became the first Hispanic and the first woman to become employed with the City of Detroit’s Department of Buildings and Safety. Eventually she became the first Hispanic and first woman to rise to the position of Housing Inspector, a position she held until her retirement in 1989.
After their children had grown and left home, Juanita and her husband joined forces to try to improve life for others in the community. They worked to create programs and organizations, and supported politicians who shared their vision of equality for minority peoples.
Personal monuments in her life that brought her enormous joy included seeing her daughter give birth to two daughters – April in 1977 and Carol in 1978. Her son brought into the family Sebastian’s pride, aka Anthony in 1981.
To Sebastian’s great joy, Juanita acquired her Bachelor’s Degree in Humanities from Wayne State University in 1987.
The year prior to her retirement, her beloved husband Sebastian passed away from cancer, which slowed Juanita’s work for a short time, but her work never stopped.
As Juanita’s work continued, many began to recognize her contributions to the dramatic changes she was helping to bring about, many of the youth were encouraged and inspired by her to also become active and involved. Where barriers once existed, she was one of the many that worked to build bridges and relationships in the political and corporate arenas (primarily for women, Hispanics, and Native Americans).
Juanita received recognition from numerous agencies and organizations, but two of the highlighted items include being named as one of the Michigan’s 150 First Lady’s, the Spirit of Frida Freedom Award for Grass Roots Community Advocate.
After over 50 years of service and inspiration, and at the age of 94, Juanita finally stepped down from her community work. Struggling with failing health, her son (Michael) walked away from his home and life in Washington State to help her. Her daughter (Donna) helped with legal and administrative work.
On Thanksgiving Day (November 23, 2023), at the age of 96, Juanita peacefully walked into the Spirit World. We believe that she is once again able to dance with her beloved husband and is now able to hear clearly, move easily, and laugh readily once again.