From Cuba to the Cabinet: An Interview with US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez

He arrived in the United States from Cuba all by himself at the age of 15, armed only with his Catholic faith. After living with foster families and working his way through college, Mel Martinez graduated from Florida State University’s law school in 1973 and went on to a successful career as a trial lawyer in Orlando, Florida. Over the past 25 years, he has led numerous public service organizations, serving as vice president of Orlando Catholic Charities, chairman of Orange County Government, and head of a growth management study commission under Florida governor Jeb Bush. Today, Martinez, secretary of housing and urban development under President George W Bush, is a living witness to the American dream. Crisis editor and publisher Deal W. Hudson recently spoke with Martinez about his early life in America, his experiences as a Hispanic Catholic, and his vision for “faith-based initiatives”—partnerships between government and religious organizations to serve the constituents of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the agency he heads.

Hudson: What was the role of the Catholic Church in your coming to America?

Martinez: It was the Catholic Church that brought me here from Cuba. If it were not for Operation Pedro Pan—in English, Peter Pan—a Catholic organization that rescued Cuban children, I wouldn’t have made it. The Catholic effort to bring children out of Cuba isn’t as well-known as it should be.

I arrived in February 1962, at the height of the Cold War. Just a few months later, in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. This period has been chronicled recently in the film Thirteen Days. I can just remember what tension we were living under in those days, and Cuba became the focal point of that tension. At that time, Cuban parents were afraid that they would lose parental rights over their children—as is now the case in Cuba—so there was a panic that drove parents to send their children alone to the United States. Parents also feared religious persecution and the inability to worship or practice their faith freely. Those issues and events led my parents to make that very difficult decision. Then the Church stepped in. The Church took care of me.

There have been a number of reports lately about the problem of Hispanic immigrants failing to assimilate into American culture. Was that your experience growing up as a teenager in Florida?

Yes, there is a tendency to congregate only with those of your own race. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite so difficult and hurtful for a teenager as trying to fit into different social groups, especially when there is a racial barrier. I was fortunate to be good at sports—especially basketball and baseball. Sports gained me acceptance outside of the Hispanic group. If you’re male, being good at sports means automatic acceptance. If you hit a sharp line drive, then all of a sudden you’re part of the group, and everybody wants you on their team.

Did that experience of being able to fit in tell you something about the American people?

Yes, when people talk about my story and the things I’ve done, I like to give credit to the good people in that Orlando high school who touched my life. Gary Brysser, Rick Stanky, and Tom Simorski took me under their wing in high school, and they are still friends today. Those guys would give me a ride home when I didn’t have a car; they would make sure that I got picked up to go on a double date. That was really something back in those days, and it showed me that America was a very welcoming place.

So they helped you get over the hump?

You’ve got to get over the hump. I think it is wonderful that Americans are not particularly conscious of class differences. Frankly, it is a rare thing. Most people in the world are preoccupied with concerns about class and social status and about the difficulty of rising to the next level.

Did the Church, once you got here, help integrate you? Was the Church part of the transition, or is there some sense in which being a Hispanic Catholic in the United States can still be isolating?

Let me say that I don’t think that being a Hispanic Catholic had a particular stigma affiliated with it, because I was at a Catholic school and most of my friends were Catholic. I don’t think I felt rejection there, if it existed. I was in Florida, which is a fairly different place from many parts of the country, so I don’t know if an anti-immigrant bias might still be prevalent in other places. I didn’t particularly feel it. There is always a lot of joking and things that are not necessarily meant to be hurtful but are more thoughtless than anything else—those things will always be there. If you dwell on careless jokes and eliminate people as possible friends, you could end up isolating yourself from many wonderful people. So I think people need to get over problems like that and move on and look for the good and for the positive.

So did you always see the glass half-full rather than half-empty?

I would hope so. There were some hard days when I thought the glass was completely empty, but that’s when faith comes in. My faith was a constant companion in days when otherwise I didn’t have much. The Eucharist, daily Mass—the opportunity to commune, if you will—made a big difference at very difficult times in my life. These were days when you really didn’t have anywhere else to turn. Those were the days, you know, when we all seemed to say, “Golly, if I just get through this one.”

When did you meet your wife, Kitty?

I met Kitty at Florida State University in January 1969. It’s a corny story, but I’ll tell you anyway. I remember meeting her in class, and then, the following Sunday, I was standing in the back of the church, having arrived a little late, perhaps, but I was at the back, and there was Kitty up in front of me. I thought, “Oh my gosh! She’s Catholic. This is great!” I decided then that I was going to marry her.

We dated for a little over a year. She called her parents one day to say, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Her parents didn’t know what to expect. The dinner went well, and they were wonderful and very welcoming. We were married in June of 1970. Since then we’ve had a wonderful relationship with her family. We’ve been one family, and that’s been great.

What did you learn from her?

I’ve learned a lot from Kitty. I’ve learned a lot about personal discipline and about faithfulness to issues and beliefs. I’ve learned a lot about the English language. She’s been not only a friend but a true partner in life. I have learned a great deal from her example of giving and her steadfastness. I’ve learned from her the love of life and her commitment to the issue of protecting life. I could go on and on.

You were well-known, especially in the Orlando area, as a Catholic executive. Did being known as a Catholic executive ever cause you any conflict that you had to deal with?

I think that there’s always a tendency for people to treat someone who is not ashamed of his or her faith with a little suspicion. I think that one of our jobs, though, is to be winsome in our faith so that we can be effective in the world in which we live. I think that people appreciate and respect an example of moral leadership and a consistency of issues.

You used the word “winsome.” Does that mean using a light touch?

That means being positive about your purpose, what you believe in, and why you’re animated by your faith rather than just being restrictive and focusing on the things that your faith keeps you from doing. You know how people think, “I believe in this, so therefore I can’t do that.” It should be, “I believe in this, so therefore I’m animated to move in this direction, and you ought to follow because this is the way to go.” Being winsome is about having a positive outlook.

Do you think that a lot of Catholics are quick to judge and to criticize, rather than looking for what’s good?

I think what we need to do is try to look for what’s good and build on that. We could get depressed sometimes by the state of faith in our society. But I had one priest who was a teacher, a young Asian, who talked about this issue of whether there were enough people in the pews who really believed in what the Church taught. He said, “You know, Jesus didn’t ask for an army of 500—He only had twelve. And He did quite a lot with just twelve, so it isn’t about numbers.” We need to concern ourselves with being faithful to what we believe in and moving forward in that, rather than looking for a huge crowd to follow us.

Is this something that Hispanics are going to bring to the culture of America, even the culture of the Catholic Church? Are they going to bring a more celebratory and positive attitude?

I think so. I think that we are also very comfortable in the faith. When you come from a place where you’ve always been in the majority faith, you feel and act a little differently from people who come from a place where we’ve been in a minority. And I think that, for minorities, it is a very positive feeling. Minorities are not—not that anybody would be ashamed of their faith—but I think that we’re not at all apologetic for doing what we do.

Music in Hispanic worship is very positive and very exciting, you know. Sometimes it sounds like a party, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yes, it can be a very celebratory sort of atmosphere.

Do you ever think that we Anglos are a little bit boring?

We Hispanics understand that we sometimes can be a little overexuberant. But I think the Church does need animating. I mean, I’m one who always likes reverence and peaceful worship, and I think that what goes on in the Eucharist is pretty serious business, but at the same time, it’s not something to get somber about. If we really believe in what we say we believe, that’s a pretty joyous moment.

What does HUD do?

HUD’s goal and mission is to try to provide safe and decent housing for people in America and to help our communities—urban, suburban, and rural—to become more livable places for people. That’s a huge, huge task. We have a $30 billion budget and 81 offices around the country. And we don’t run every housing program—the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] does a few and the Department of Agriculture does some as well—but, frankly, we are the place where housing happens.

The FHA [Federal Housing Administration] is under our jurisdiction, and most people who know nothing about hardwood know what the FHA is. Most Americans finance their house at some point in their lives through the FHA, and it all comes through our tutelage.

The issue of housing has significant social ramifications. Certainly it connects with the social teaching of the Catholic Church. How do you see yourself guiding HUD in terms of what you know about Catholic social teaching?

It’s a very exciting time to be secretary of HUD and to be in an administration that really believes that people, because of their faith commitment, are inclined to do social works, which we know is a very basic core of our social teaching in the Catholic Church. This president wants to bring such people into a mainstream partnership with the government to help those in need, help places that are hurting, and help people that are hurting. So we have an office of faith and community initiatives here.

It is also an exciting time to be thinking of the potential for what HUD can do in the future. As I have traveled the country, I have been overwhelmed by the work that’s going on out there by faith-based organizations. What we need to do is enhance their opportunity to serve and help them in what they seek to do. So the housing needs of America are not just going to be the problem of government. They’re going to be the problem of people who care about their neighbor, who in partnership with government can get a lot done about helping their neighbor.

How do you understand the assertion that “people have a right to decent housing”? The reason I ask you that question is because some people probably interpret Catholic social teaching to say, “People have a right to housing,” in the sense that they are entitled to the government providing them housing if they demand it. How do you see that issue?

I think the question isn’t really, “Do you have a right to housing?” But it’s our role as government to do what we can to facilitate opportunities for people to have housing. Let people make their own choices and decisions, and then let those private supporting organizations assist those who have a need for housing. I think that’s really the right way to approach it. It shouldn’t be the kind of thing where the government can dictate that you now will have a house, because then it will also have to dictate the color of it and the size of it and who gets to live in it with you. I would just as soon not have that kind of a burden. I lived under that system once. I didn’t like it.

So the government’s obligation is to provide as much opportunity as it can.

That’s right.

In terms of the role of HUD in overseas programs, you recently spoke to the United Nations Habitat program, and there is an issue there of how refugees should be housed in a way that best keeps their families intact. How do you address that problem?

First and foremost, the fundamental unit of society is the family. Everything begins with the family. Without a family, you cannot build communities that are worth living in. You have to have a strong core of a family. Maintaining the integrity of a family is fundamental, and the way to build a society is on that basic unit. From there, we can create communities. If the family is not well—if there is sickness, separation, and fragmentation—then you will have a community that also has those elements. I think that when you have a strong unified family, only then can you begin to build a strong community. The family nucleus becomes even more important when you’re a refugee. When people are displaced, they need their family unit more than ever.

As you’ve gone around the country and addressed different groups, how have Hispanic groups received you as the new secretary of HUD?

It’s exciting and a lot of fun because I’ve been very well received. I think they are pleased with the fact that they can identify with me as an immigrant who speaks their language. They also sense, I think, that I’m honored to represent them. It’s something that I enjoy doing, and I continue to meet with Hispanics whenever I can. It’s particularly important for young people to have an opportunity to see someone who has made it in this system, someone who started out very much as they did. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to have a role model. I hope I’ll always live up to that. It is important for them to have someone they can look up to.

Do you think it’s fair that you are looked on as a role model?

I take that as a responsibility of the job. I ought to be a role model. I think to say otherwise would be to shrink from part of my responsibility. The president wants me here because I can do the job at HUD and because I can help his Cabinet, but also because he thinks it’s important that I am a person whom the Hispanic community in this country can look to with a sense of pride.

What did the president say to you when he asked you to take the job?

He said that he knew that I was someone who could make tough decisions. He knew that I was someone who would have the strong ethical background to run a department like HUD. Those were the things that really were at the core of his concerns here. He also said that I would have an understanding of people in need of housing because of my own life experience.

The president actually broke down when he introduced you as his choice for HUD secretary. I think it’s the only time I’ve seen him do that. How did you feel?

That was very moving, because I think he has, for some reason, been very touched by my story—where I came from and what I have been able to achieve. I think it encourages him to see that the country has someone with my background who has achieved what I’ve achieved, and it gives him a sense of hope for the future, because he knows about the large segments of Hispanics who live in this country. He also knows that our country is a country of immigrants, and I think he just appreciates the plight of those who have come from another place.


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

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