SJMC Senior Lecturer and Assistant Director Gilbert Martinez is known by many students for his life-questioning lectures and incomparable humor. But few are aware of what Martinez has been missing for the past 21 years of his life, or to be more precise, whom.
Martinez spent his summer preparing to present research to scholars in Okinawa, Japan which happens to be the birthplace of his mother. Although traveling across the world for business, Martinez will soon find the lost puzzle piece to his ancestry.
Martinez and wife with Okinawa family.
It started at the beginning May with an invitation to the Fifth Annual Symposium on International Business and Social Science. The conference has always been in Japan but what caught Martinez’s attention was the exact city it was taking place in, Okinawa. Martinez was thrilled to finally have a perfect opportunity to reunite with his family that he hasn’t seen in 21 years. His last trip to Okinawa was with his mother and siblings in 1995; unfortunately, six months after the trip Martinez’s mother passed away. After her death, Gilbert lost all contact with his Japanese roots. “When it comes down to it, half of my life was empty for 21 years because we really just lost touch,” said Martinez. Gilbert knew the search for his family wasn’t going to be easy but with hard work and good friends he knew it was possible.
Martinez’s first thought was to contact some friends who lived in Tokyo; one personal friend and a Texas State University alumni who is a Tokyo correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. After a few online searches in Japan there were still no major leads. Martinez then went through a box of old papers and found his mother’s old address book that contained the names of his cousins and uncle. Although it seemed like a major breakthrough, the information fell short since his uncle had passed and all of his cousins were married women with new last names. The biggest clue was found by Gilbert’s sister in-law who had his mother’s old wallet. In the wallet was a card to a flower shop that his family worked at in Okinawa and is still a thriving business today. Even though the staff of the flower shop had no knowledge of Martinez’s family, they were determined to help find them. He sent a picture of his trip from 1995 to the employees with hopes that they would recognize at least one of his family members. It just so happened that one of Gilbert’s cousin Kiyomi was featured in the local paper for becoming the first female fire captain for the Okinawa City Fire Department. The flower shop employee showed up to the fire station, asked if she was the girl in the picture and it was a match! Kiyomi even expressed she had been searching for Gilbert and his siblings as well.
After spending a few days at the symposium, Gilbert was finally reunited with his family. Martinez was overjoyed to see his aunt Yoko, who was his mother’s only surviving sibling living in her 70’s. Through mannerisms, gestures and movements he saw so much of his mother in Yoko and the rest of his family. Martinez said, “My biggest take a way (from the trip) is the importance of family. Even when you lose touch, even after 21 years have passed, family is family; there is nothing like it in the world.” Over two decades of separation and searching from both ends, Gilbert and his Japanese origins were joined once again.