Genius in Our Midst

A short story about Rueben Mart?nez, Orange County?s first MacArthur grant recipient

By Gustavo Arellano
Published on LatinoLA: October 12, 2004

Genius in Our Midst

The national media will spill much well-deserved ink for the next couple of weeks on Rueben Mart?nez, the Santa Ana barber-turned-book baron who became Orange County?s first-ever Macarthur Fellow this past Tuesday. The prestigious honor, popularly known as the "genius grant," awards Mart?nez $500,000 to spend as he chooses, a sum for which the humblest man since Moses already has big plans.

"I?ll probably get a tune-up for my car," he says before laughing the kind of laugh that springs a genuine smile from anyone who hears it (Se?or Mart?nez drives a 1986 Volvo station wagon with about 400,000 miles on it). "Then I?ll give it a Turtle Wax."

It?s deliciously ironic that Mart?nez is the county?s pioneering Macarthur Fellow. The son of a copper miner, his bilingual Librer?a Martinez bookstore has flourished for a decade in Santa Ana, a mini-opolis whose crumbling schools contributed to its recent crowning as the country?s toughest big city to survive in. With that $500,000 grant, Mart?nez vows to step in where city officials continue to fail and improve the reading lives of students and their parents in the country?s youngest, most-Latino, most-Spanish-speaking city.

But that?s all social planning. Se?or Mart?nez prefers storytelling, so here?s my favorite Rueben Mart?nez moment. Sometime last fall on a Thursday evening, Mart?nez entertained an excited crowd of about 70 inside Librer?a Martinez. He had to: the night?s featured speaker, Latino intellectual writer Rub?n Mart?nez (no relation to Se?or Mart?nez) was late. Or so the crowd thought?soon after my arrival, Mart?nez the bookstore owner received a call indicating that Mart?nez the author would read the following night.

Se?or Mart?nez?s smile vanished. He became quiet. And a look creased across his face that I had never seen before?defeat.

He trudged to the front of the expectant crowd and broke the news, the usually gregarious man now meek and shaking. Se?or Mart?nez was visibly uncomfortable; ever the eager pleaser, he was not used to letting people down.

But, God bless his soul, Se?or Mart?nez didn?t. After apologizing for a good five minutes, he delivered a simple-but-towering soliloquy about the virtues of the spoken word. He urged everyone to return the following night?the right night, he joked. And if you couldn?t return? Just leave your book and we?ll get it signed for you, he assured those with other plans.

Rub?n Mart?nez the author did show up Friday as scheduled. No one left books from the night before?everyone returned. But it wasn?t to hear the lecture?indeed, most people stayed afterwards and chatted with Rueben Mart?nez the bookstore owner: ambassador, mentor, genius.


About Gustavo Arellano:
Originally printed in the OC Weekly. Write to the author at: GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

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