When Natalie Martinez reports from inside of one of Chicago’s many ethnic communities, she sees a little bit of herself in every story. The Emmy award-winning journalist for Chicago’s NBC affiliate grew up in an immigrant household, and that’s something that makes her reporting a little more personal.
Born to a Ukrainian mother and Dominican father in Buffalo, New York, Martinez was raised with a strong work ethic, and an appreciation for the struggles of past generations.
“[My parents] met in the melting pot. [My mother] moved from Ukraine through Belgium when she was three. [My father] moved from Dominican Republic, the youngest of nine, with all of his brothers and sisters. It’s literally a melting pot story — that’s how they met. Their families came from their respective countries and then you get this mutt mix,” said Martinez with a laugh when she recently spent the afternoon with Ukrainian Chicago Magazine.
Martinez’s mother, Emily, was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Belgium. Along with many others, her family had been brought there from Ukraine by Nazi forces to work in labor camps. After the end of the Second World War, the danger of returning to the Soviet Union left them without a home, or really much else.
“The times there weren’t pretty,” said Martinez.
“The stories I had are that they were always hungry — they were working women. When I think of what she endured there, like everybody else who was in their position in the time of war, they had everything taken from them — she was working, starving.”
Martinez took those stories to heart, especially when it came to setting her own life goals.
“What I took from their experience there is the resilience to make something out of really nothing. Just literally coming with what they had, coming off the boat,” she said.
“It gives me an appreciation for anyone, no matter where they came from, those who really make something happen when they have no reason or expectations.”
Martinez recalls a story from her aunts from their childhood in a small house in the Black Rock neighborhood of Buffalo.
c“There were ten of them in this tiny little house, and they were plucking a bird, and they found a way to make stock and soup — chicken noodle soup. One of the girls would make noodles herself, and they would make chicken noodle soup for ten people from one little bird. It was just amazing.”
At the age of eight, Martinez and her mother moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where her grandmother Klementine found work. They lived in a typically Ukrainian co-dependent household, where the grandmother, or Baba as she was endearingly called, was the head.
“Being the only daughter that wasn’t married, my mom and I moved there to take care of her and help her adjust. Then we never left,” said Martinez.
Though there are not many Ukrainians in Omaha, Martinez always heard Ukrainian growing up.
“It was all Ukrainian that they spoke in the house, for the most part,” said Martinez.
“I spoke a little bit of Ukrainian. They always spoke Ukrainian in the house, so that’s how I learned it. They didn’t teach out of a book or anything like that.”
Martinez came to see life in Omaha as a golden opportunity, one where she could aspire to whatever she wanted to, despite the multiple jobs her mother and grandmother had to work. Martinez became a state champion cheerleader and solo dancer, and realized that hard work and humility were the keys to her success.
“Omaha was a really great place to go to high school and grade school. It was a really great opportunity, especially for a single mom, where it would have been much more expensive to send me to a good school. There, public schools at the time were rated top ten in the country, so we just fell into place with that,” said Martinez.
“Mom got really lucky and we did too, because we were with Baba.”
As she entered high school, she started to get to know her father’s Dominican side of the family. She found interesting parallels in the immigrant experiences in both sides of her family.
“My mom and dad come from two strong moms, who really were the matriarchs of their families, really strong women. My grandmother from Dominican Republic brought nine kids and had everyone speaking English outside of the house, but allowed them to speak Spanish inside. Baba did the same. She had her girls and brought them over hoping for everything every other immigrant wants. Even if it’s not the American dream, it’s the American life,” said Martinez.
At first, her way of living the American life was by taking over her father’s dental practice, and she spent two years studying in college back in New York State. It wasn’t until later that she was introduced to the world of broadcast journalism.
Martinez says it was her college sweetheart’s brother who introduced her into the industry at social gatherings.
“I always ended up talking to his eldest brother at these events and asking him where he was going what he was doing. He was the chief photographer at the ABC station in Buffalo, so I found myself saying, ‘Oh, I read about that, I heard about that on the radio today, I saw that in the paper.’ Then I realized that I was constantly asking about his job, and asked myself, maybe I have to be doing this,” said Martinez.
“My questions were continuous and my excitement for the industry in general was pretty evident, so I just went with it, and changed all of my credits that I could to journalism and took communications classes.”
After juggling work in radio and television across upstate New York, her glowing personality and evident journalistic talent had her quickly recruited by Chicago, a market to which most reporters spend years aspiring to.
“This is the longest I’ve sat still ever in my life. Like I said, we moved around, from Buffalo, to Omaha, then from one, to two, to three different jobs in the business all over upstate New York. Then moved over here with every intention to go over to New York City, but then I fell in love with Chicago.
So I told my agent, this is home. Here I am fifteen years later, and I keep signing new contracts,” said Martinez.
Moving to Chicago, with its large Ukrainian community, gave her a new perspective on appreciating her heritage.
“The most important thing is Ukrainian heritage, and having both parents from two totally different countries — one, an island-dweller, and another from the Eastern block — having them come from such modest backgrounds really helped , and makes me want to see that more from people in different communities, especially those with immigrants. There’s a lot of that in Chicago. It’s what Chicago is based on.”
“Who knew that we would be caring so much for a country that’s seems a million years away, when right now, people are worried about what’s going on in China or Greece. This is still going on. I absolutely think about those things when I go into any community,” said Martinez.
When Martinez interacts with Chicago’s Ukrainian community, it gives her heritage and today’s conflict in Ukraine a real human element.
“When I go to our church in Ukrainian Village, just talking with people there, when we happen to be walking by, and we saw all of the boxes being packed up, on a random day. ‘Oh, we’re packing these up to send to Ukraine, because the community comes together still, even though all of this started over a year ago,’” said Martinez.
“I keep Ukraine in my headlines in my Twitter. There are constantly Russian military issues going on in Ukraine. That’s something they’re always dealing with.“
Though Martinez has never been to Ukraine herself, the more it’s been on her mind, the more she wants to.
“Do I keep track? Of course, just like with everything else around the country — just with a little more attention focused because of my heritage and because I have an interest in going back. My aunt will go with me, and I hope that will be relatively soon,” said Martinez.
Martinez hopes to learn more about her grandmother by visiting Ukraine and the life she led there, and likewise fought to keep her children sheltered from.
Martinez’s Baba, who recently turned 95 years old, has difficulty recalling many of those stories.
“I want to go to where they lived, where she spent her childhood, I don’t know what to expect. I would like to go everywhere, to Kyiv, to where [Baba’s] sister spent time in Lviv most recently. There’s a teeny-tiny apartment my aunt visited last time, and saw her sisters. I want to go to their church, and the places they spent the most times themselves,” said Martinez.
In the meantime, Natalie Martinez continues to grow closer to Chicago’s Ukrainian community, and building her professional reputation with a third Emmy on the way.
“I feel drawn to immigrant communities that are trying to do more and are still trying to do something for their home country, which Ukrainians are doing. We have a strong Ukie base, it’s not as big as some others, but it’s a strong Ukie base. I think it’s important to always be part of what’s happening, as much as possible.”
By Julian Hayda
Photos by Ksju Kami Photography