A pivotal scene in J.R. Martinez’s autobiography, Full of Heart, describes the moment that Martinez looked into the mirror for the first time after surviving a bomb that hit his Humvee while he was serving in U.S. Army in Iraq. He had suffered burns to 34% of his body—and those were just the visible wounds. Martinez’s devastation at the reflection in the mirror manifested as rage. He was only nineteen. How was he supposed to get through the rest of his life looking like Freddy Kreuger? Today, seventeen years later, Martinez will be the first person to tell you that his scars have purpose and have gained him entry into rooms that he never would have entered otherwise—including the auditorium at the Delaware Contemporary. Martinez was there on Thursday evening, September 24 th , to kick off Wilmington Library’s speaker series and to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. In a world where anyone can broadcast views on social media, the Wilmington Library is conscientious about bringing speakers who have a voice, a conviction brought on by experience and not just access to a microphone. J. R. Martinez fits that profile.
Recovering from his injuries led him to work as a motivational speaker which led him to acting on All My Children and then to competing for and winning the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy on season 13 of Dancing with the Stars. But JR Martinez’s story is more nuanced than it would outwardly appear. It is because of the complexities in his story that the conversations he is having now, in the fractious and inhospitable days of 2020, are his most profound to date. His scars may give him entrée into the room, but it has been his enigmatic array of experiences and his ability to listen that allows him to bridge political divides that few find possible these days. Martinez’s story didn’t start with the bomb in Iraq. He was raised in the south by a single mother, who was an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. He experienced poverty as a child, witnessed his mother’s abuse at the hands of men, and when he was old enough, enlisted in the Army against his mother’s wishes. He knows the jobs that undocumented workers take to survive—jobs that Martinez, himself a natural-born, American citizen, would not take. He can speak to the plight of the immigrant—in English or fluent Spanish, argue both sides of the Colin Kaepernick question, and talk about police reform, but despite the fact that he is an able speaker, he would rather listen and encourage others to do the same. Because of this, the event at the Delaware Contemporary was structured as a conversation, not a speech. As such, Martinez took questions from the evening’s moderator and from the audience. He was open and intensely vulnerable. At times he veered from topics at hand into his emotional struggles as a son, as a father. He described meeting his father for the first time just last year in Mexico when he was 36. (Martinez joked that exploring his paternal family history may possibly be fodder for another book.) His vulnerability may be another key reason why people feel comfortable coming to him with their woundedness–corporeal, political or otherwise. Ending the conversation, he urged us all to hang on when life doesn’t make sense and to listen and pay attention so we don’t miss opportunities for life post-COVID.
One image stuck in my mind as I listened to Martinez speak: that of the mirrorball trophy he won on Dancing with the Stars. Here was a man who had a face-off with his own damaged reflection in the mirror. It was arguably the low point of his life. And what was the symbol of his great triumph? A mirrorball trophy. That same reflective glass, fractured, becomes a vehicle to boomerang light and positivity into the world. The analogy may be a little corny, perhaps. But I had entered the auditorium at the Delaware Contemporary feeling the crushing weight of the election, economic pressures, and the general malaise of confinement, but I left feeling a lot lighter. I suspect that was true for many of my socially distanced fellows in attendance. Not an easy task in 2020.
J.R. Martinez is author of Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit (2012, Hatchett Books). He also produces the podcast, REBIRTH, in which he sits down with a lineup of special guests for conversations on life, new beginnings and overcoming adversity.
The Wilmington Public Library Speaker Series continues on October 30th from 6-7:30 PM, with a virtual conversation with Dr. Cornel West where he will discuss current events as it relates to social unrest and political climate on other outstanding issues. Then on Thursday, November 6th from 6-7:30 PM, the library will host an evening with Rakim in the Commons of the Wilmington Public Library. Hailed as one of the greatest MCs in Hip Hop history, Rakim will share his story and meteoric rise to iconic status. Registration for that event opens at 12:00am Monday, October 26, 2020. For more information on these and other library events check out Delaware Libraries website and click on their calendar of events.