Genius in Our Midst

Photo by Tenaya HillsThe national media will spill much welldeserved ink for the next couple of weeks on Rueben Martínez, 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 Martínez $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 (Señor Martínez 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 Martínez is the county's pioneering Macarthur Fellow. The son of a copper miner, his bilingual Librería 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, Martínez 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. Señor Martínez prefers storytelling, so here's my favorite Rueben Martínez moment. Sometime last fall on a Thursday evening, Martínez entertained an excited crowd of about 70 inside Librería Martinez. He had to: the night's featured speaker, Latino intellectual writer Rubén Martínez (no relation to Señor Martínez) was late. Or so the crowd thought—soon after my arrival, Martínez the bookstore owner received a call indicating that Martínez the author would read the following night.

Señor Martínez'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. Señor Martínez was visibly uncomfortable; ever the eager pleaser, he was not used to letting people down.

But, God bless his soul, Señor Martínez 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 rightnight, 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.

Rubén Martínez 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 Martínez the bookstore owner: ambassador, mentor, genius.


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