In 1974, a 29-year-old Lupe Martinez became the CEO of Milwaukee-based United Migrant Opportunity Services. For the past 47 years, he’s been at the helm of the nonprofit advocacy group where he first started as an outreach worker in 1969.
In his years as CEO, Martinez has overseen a massive expansion of UMOS, which along with advocating on behalf of migrant workers and negotiating with migrant employers, provides employment, education, housing and health services to migrants. When Gov. Tommy Thompson privatized the state’s welfare program in 1996, UMOS bid for a chance to provide those welfare services and was awarded the contract. UMOS’ budget, employees and scope expanded astronomically and has continued to grow since, with the pandemic only adding more.
Martinez, who is 76 and has no plans to retire, continues to oversee UMOS’ work from the corporate offices in Milwaukee, while UMOS has expanded to operate programs in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas. He sat down with Milwaukee Magazine to discuss his life and work.
How did you come to Milwaukee?
Both my parents were born in Mexico. They came to the U.S. at a very young age. I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. My dad would work odd jobs here and there. In the spring, they would pull us out of the school, and we would migrate to the Midwest to do migrant work. I was the translator in the family. I would manage the money, do all the shopping for groceries, pay all the bills. There was a lot of discrimination going on in terms of the type of housing that they put us in, the wages and things like that. I learned firsthand how difficult it was for a migrant farmworker to deal with an employer. We came to Wisconsin as migrant workers when I was 7 or 8 years old. We decided to sell our house in Texas and buy a farm in Plover, Wisconsin. Later, we bought a second farm in Junction City.
When did you get involved with UMOS?
One of my first jobs was at a metal stamping company. This was back in 1969. The plant manager asked me if I would consider being his assistant. I said, “I really love this place, but somehow the oil and the dirt and I don’t go really well together.” I had to find something else. One night I was working second shift. I picked up a newspaper. I looked at an ad, and it said this agency UMOS was looking for someone bilingual, who preferably had knowledge about migrant farm work. Well, that’s me, so I applied for the job and they hired me right away. I was 24 years old.
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What did you do during your first years at UMOS?
The first thing they did was send me up to Door County to work with the migrant farmworkers picking cherries. From there, they moved me to central Wisconsin where people were picking cucumbers. Besides providing material assistance to them, I had the opportunity to do some advocacy on their behalf whenever they needed it.
How did you go from an entry-level job to CEO?
One day, I sat down with the CEO and his assistant, and I said, “I’m thinking of moving on.” He said “I don’t want you to go. You’re a good worker. Tell me what position you would like in this agency.” And I said, “I would like your position.” He said, “Well, that position is occupied, but when the time comes and you think you’re ready, by all means, go for it.”
I developed a five-year plan to learn everything that I could about the agency. I wanted to know as much or more than the CEO. I worked as a teacher’s aide in the education department, and then director of education and regional director. In 1974, the CEO left, and I moved up. I was 29.
What were some challenges of taking over the top job at such a young age?
When I would go to meetings outside of the organization, they’d say “Can I talk to your manager? Where’s your dad?” I struggled with the age situation, but someone told me it’s not how old you are, it’s what you know and what you do. In other words, don’t tell me how good you are, show me.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned as a young CEO?
No. 1, always keep your hand squeaky clean. Make sure you follow the rules or regulations. No funny business. Surround yourself with people who are as smart or smarter than you. I always surrounded myself with people who had much more experience. When I first started out, everyone in my administration was significantly older than I was. I learned from their advice.
What would you say have been some of your successes with UMOs?
When the W-2 program became available during the Tommy Thompson administration, they were changing AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] as we knew it. They privatized the program, and when they privatized it, they allowed for-profits and nonprofits to apply. We went for it, and our agency budget ended up increasing by about 1,013%.
The organization when I took over had maybe two or three different grants that we administered. Right now we’re in excess of 40 different programs that we’re managing.
How has the work of UMOS been affected by the pandemic?
The organization almost doubled in size in 11 months, not only in dollars and cents, but in employees as well. The nature of the services that we provide is exactly what people needed during the pandemic. Migrant workers are an essential industry in this country, like meatpacking. A lot of them were getting infected because they were in close proximity. The employers, for the most part, were not providing any protection.
There was an employer in Wisconsin that made national headlines – Seneca Foods. They would not allow our outreach workers to come into the plant. They were saying they didn’t want to spread COVID. Well, we found out that they were not providing adequate protections within the plant, and they didn’t want to let us see it. So we filed a complaint with OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. They came in there and nailed them. But people were leaving the plant. Some of them made it back to their homes, others never made it; they died on the way there. The unfortunate thing is that this plant was doing what probably many other plants around the country were doing as well.
How well do you think Wisconsin treats migrant workers compared to other states?
Wisconsin, I must say, is probably one of the best. In the early ’70s, there were very few protections for migrant farmworkers. The state Legislature, working with UMOS, passed a law that created the migrant labor council. [The Migrant Labor Law provides work agreements, guaranteed minimum hours and working and housing condition protections to migrant workers.] If you look around the United States, only a handful of states have a law like Wisconsin.
What changes in immigration law would you like to see over the next few years?
I belong to a number of organizations that are working on immigration reform. One of them is called Farmworker Justice. We have a lot of people who have been living here and working here going on many years. And the economy needs these people because they need the workforce. What these people need to do is go get themselves legalized. So, if that is a path to citizenship, that’s what’s important.
But others are the DACA kids [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. The parents are in Mexico, they’re here. They don’t know any other country – they only know the U.S. So I think that under the Biden administration, they’re helping them out. Immigration reform has always been a very sticky issue, a very hot potato, for many years. Some changes have been made, and other times it just remains stagnant.
What do you envision for UMOS’ future?
Much of what’s been happening the past 10 years is requests coming in from out of state saying, “We like the program you have in Wisconsin. Might you be able to replicate the program in our state?” Missouri was the first one. As of this year we took over employment training in Illinois.
Now we have UMOS in South Texas, and it’s bigger than UMOS in Wisconsin, Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota combined. We like to do things that we’re good at, and we’re very proud of the performance of our organization.
Is there anything that you would change if you had a chance to start over?
Well, I probably would have retired a long time ago. You know, when you’re young and you start working, everybody wants to retire at 55. You’re going to go golfing and do all kinds of stuff. And then I reached that point, and it didn’t happen. Then I reached the age of 60, it didn’t happen. I reached 65, it didn’t happen. All of a sudden, it’s never going to happen. I’m still here.
We have a really good team at UMOS. I pride myself on being able to build that team over the years. Trying to juggle all of these programs is very tense. There’s a lot of teeth grinding and biting your tongue and all of that. It’s like a roller coaster ride that never stops.