Sandy Ovalle Martínez is a native of Mexico City. As a table setter, Sandy values curating spaces for people to join together at the intersection of healing, identity, and belonging. Currently, she serves as the Director of Campaigns and Mobilizing for Sojourners in Washington, DC. where she leads the strategy behind SojoAction, the mobilizing arm for Sojourners. Before this, Sandy worked with immigrant and refugee communities, providing direct legal and resettlement services as well as mobilizing faith groups for advocacy around issues that impacted these communities. Sandy has also worked in campus ministry with college students in Texas and California.
She holds an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Patrick: Hey, what's going on. It's Dr. Patrick Reyes here and we have another exciting episode of the Sound of the Genuine with one of the most inspiring women that I know, Sandy Ovalle Martinez, who is at Sojourner's leading the way for Christians who are engaged in social justice work. I'm just so excited that she has come to the show to share her story.
All right, Sandy. I am glad you joined us on the Sound of the Genuine. Good to see you. How are you doing?
Sandy: Great to be with you. So good to be here.
Patrick: I know you're in DC. I know what you do for SoJo, I know like you're leading movements, but that. You haven't been doing that your whole life. You haven't been there your whole life. tell me about your beginnings. Where'd you grow up?
Sandy: I was born in the land of the Mēxihcah, Tenochtitlán, Mexico City - grew up there. And it is the land of the Nahua and the Mazahua. And I am the youngest of three and the only woman of a Mexican family. That probably should tell you a little bit about my upbringing and all the different rules that were imposed on me and the different expectations. I grew up in a middle-class family in Mexico City. I was a very shy person. My brothers are much older than me. They're males. They had their lives together and I sort of came in.... I was one of those surprise babies that come at the end. And so I think I entered the world with a sense of trepidation or a sense of like, where do I belong in something that is already going?
Patrick: And what was that like? I mean, I'm just imagining a baby Sandy coming in and ‘Hey, here I am. ‘What did the family want for you? What was that like growing up with these brothers who, as you know, dudes can be, probably running around doing whatever they wanted to do. So what was that like?
Sandy: It was a very interesting dynamic, I think in some ways, my family had a lot of dreams and expectations of me to fulfill the traditional roles of a woman. They obviously wanted me to go to school and get educated, but also like part of their dreams is that I would get married and that I would have children. I think their project of life often included me forming a family in a very traditional way. Part of like my influential caregivers as well were Maree, who was an indigenous woman that lived with us and Maree helped raise me from the time that I was three years old until I was 16 and migrated to the US. And so Maree was a very influential person because she spent the greater time of her life with me. I grew up in a sense, very distance from my family, because like I said, that project was already going, but Maree was the living presence…the living presence of God, that's kind of what I, what I see in Maree. She would be the hand that was on my back who modeled a lot of strength, who modeled a lot of consistency and presence and who accompanied me through all my growing up years. And so when Maree moved away from our family's home back into her family that was around 2001. My family at that point was a space that wasn't a safe space, wasn't a space of affirmation/acknowledgement of my dreams and desires. So through different family crisises in 2001, I migrated to the US where my oldest brother was living and I came to live with him.
We were in a small little town in Denton, Texas, and that's like north Texas really close to Oklahoma. And I was shocked at what I had encountered, you know, moving from a big city where you eat dinner at 9:00 PM, and then you still continue on with life until midnight, every single day of the week. Coming into a small town was the biggest shock of my life. Coming into a place where 10% of the population were Latinx people and where communities we're highly segregated. We literally had a railroad track that ran in the middle of the community. We had southeast Denton, where communities of color lived and then we had the rest of Denton. It was the moment where I did the most reflection and the most growth in my life I think, because I entered a completely foreign space without my parents and without much guidance into how to move in this new space.
Patrick: I have a curiosity about this move right before you come to Denton - what did you want to do? What was part of your imagination about what you wanted to do as you're getting ready to prepare for this journey? And also, you know, what did Maree want for you as you kind of part ways and you start to branch off on this new phase of your life?
Sandy: One main hope was like, I want to survive it. Like I want to care for myself. Like I want to, to not just survive but I want to thrive, and I think like more specifically, honestly, I don't think I had a big plan other than like, let's get out of here, continue studying and we'll see. I don't think I ever thought I'm about to become an immigrant. I was just escaping and it was a moment of desperation and a moment of my parents are in different households. I'm not really safe in the household where I am, and my main caregiver is going away to her own family and to look for other opportunities and where do I go? And so in that sense, it was like, I'm going to go connect with my brother and see if I can find something there. But immigration changes you so much. And so migration had changed him so much from the person I remembered from seven years before when he still lived with us. I think Maree, in a sense, taught to me about holistic life and about value in presence. Maree taught me about walking together, about knowing stories and she taught me the value of the ordinary, of lo cotidiano - of the everyday. Maree taught me to be rooted and taught me to value the every day, like to savor the every moment and be present. So I think her dreams were about that.
I had a friend that I met years after being in Texas that invited me to join her church. I didn't grow up in a religious home. I was looking for a place to find friends and communities and my college was giving me some opportunities to do that, but also felt like 30,000 students in the state college and not many like me, you know. And I could speak English, I could write it but you know, being a part of a conversation and laughing with people, like I just couldn't, you know, it was like, I couldn't hang with that. So meeting this Mexican friend that was going to an immigrant church was really key. It was in that place, Templo Bethel that I was highly shaped.
I saw faith carried out in ways that I just didn't know where possible. So I think of hermana Tina who was a Mexican woman from Juanawato and she would cook meals to sell at the nursery spaces. So she would take her lonchera, like a cooler, and bring it out to those spaces and she would sell it. And she was very faithful in doing that every morning. And so women would come to her because they saw how prosperous she was, like she was always able to pay her rent. She was always able to provide. And so they would come to her and they would ask her to borrow money. Like they actually would ask her to borrow money. And she was someone who would say, well, how much do you need? And they would say something like $200. And so she'd say, well, what do you have? Are you able to make jello? Like, do you know how to make jello? Why don't we go and buy some jello, cause jello's really accessible. And we made 200 cups and we’d sell them in the trailer park where she was living. And we pray and we put an intention into this jello and then we go sell it and see if God provides and see what we're able to contribute with our labor. And then they would go sell the jello and then, you know, they would have $200.
And so she would empower people to see, like, you don't need to borrow money from me. People would just be in awe and be drawn to her. And so I think experiences like the ones that I had of serving and sharing life with hermana Tina and then she just tells me about all these things that I would see these women come in and seeing that to me, it was a community that I wanted to be a part of. It became the place where I said this is who I want to do life with, because these are people who are tapping into what's being given to them and bringing that into action. Like it was…it was producing, it was…it was flourishing. I was very drawn into that community and that was one of my communities. But then I was also part of my college community. And so when I would go to my college community, it was sort of like this very contrasting space. So in Texas and in many other states, I imagine, there are these places called free speech areas within state colleges. And so ours had one and it was just known for being the place where hatred was dispersed from. In the free speech areas there was a group, the young conservatives of Texas that would often host events. And so I remember one time walking by the space and the event of the day, and pardon my language here, but it was the catch an illegal. And so what they did was they had people running around campus with these bright orange shirts that said illegal on them.
And then you would like literally catch them bring them, or drag them over to the table. These were people that were part of their group, drag them to the table. And then you could exchange one of these people for a hundred grand - the candy bar. I remember walking by that day and just being so appalled and knowing that this was like literally not five blocks from where hermana Tina was living. To witness the dehumanization of the people who had shown me God and the people who had shown me faith in ways that I hadn't experienced was a catalyst for how I started my vocation.
I think that moment was a…it was a very catalytical moment because it made me wonder what do we do with these ruptures that exist in society? What do we do with the fact that this is like five blocks away and people don't know each other like, people are completely unaware of one another living in two different worlds and I happened to inhabit them both. What am I going to do with that? I can join one or the other world, or I can be a part of both in some strategic way. For many years that had been my calling, to serve as sort of a bridge, to serve as someone who was able to mitigate some of the harm that was being done into my community and was able to also advocate and come alongside the needs that were available to our church and to my friends and my siblings.
Patrick: I mean, if you have this clarity, where you want to be a bridge, you can see the deeply problematic situation that you're in, like literally on a state campus and as a state college graduate myself knowing that that 30,000 person campus isn't really preparing leaders to be bridges. You know, it's normally like you're a plug in some system, whether it's education or healthcare or whatever, you know they're plugging you into some sort of pre-professional track. What do you do with this? What are you studying at the time? Like where do you take this question? How do you wrestle with it? How do you work through this in the context of where you were?
Sandy: Yeah, I changed my major five times in college, so I ended up getting an interdisciplinary degree, which was a social science degree. So I ended up focusing on history, sociology and anthropology because those seemed like the areas where I wanted to take it. I remember sitting in my first sociology class where they were talking about race and class and religion and all of these different identities that divide our society and like can help us categorize our society. And I was like amazed because in some ways I wasn't having those conversations in Mexico. Like I just wasn't. Because in Mexico I was just another Mexican person that happened to be at the center of society. I'm a light-skinned Mexican woman. So I did not experience the margins there. So the way that I processed through these was by choosing to continue to relate and choosing to pick the side of those of were on the margins.
I think for me, that was a space that was way more welcoming, that was a space that became my family, you know? That was like a Pentecostal church so I was going like five times a week into the church, you know, for a few hours at a time, to the point that my dad was just like, you know, if you weren't going to church, you could probably do better in school! But all that to say is that is where I saw movement. That is where I saw life. That is where I saw belonging. That's where I saw loyalty, but not just a loyalty that was blind loyalty, but a loyalty that believed in the individual that called in the individual to restoration, that called individuals to shift in their lives and to be in life, to being contributing members of society
And it was a place that afforded dignity to the people that visited. And so that is a place that I wanted to be a part of, that was a place where hermana Tina was a deacon. You know that was the place that saw her more fully. Like she was a waitress at the IHOP that was like right next to my campus. Like that place did not see her. Right? But I could see her. Like I could see her there, I could see her in the church, and she's my friend to this day. That's a little bit of how I process.
Our community also had a lot of encounters with la migra and la policia. It was a time where there was a lot of collaboration between ICE and our local police departments. So they were raiding places of work, they were stopping my friends because their headlights were not there. I was someone that had some flexibility, that had access to the English language and flexibility in my schedule because I was a college student. So I accompanied our pastor multiple times to hearings that my friends were not able to be present in because they were in detention centers, and led letter campaigns to support friends and whatnot. I think I was privileged to not face the same threats. I had to wonder what do I do with this privilege, with the privilege of being able to have access to the English language, with the privilege of being able to have some form of protection in this country. And I'm also able to deeply understand this life because we come from the same spaces - maybe not from the same social locations in the same spaces but we're able to worship in the safe space and you know, we shared ancestral bonds that were there. Like we shared bonds of understanding how the world works. And so that is what helped me in that and what I chose in that moment.
Patrick: This is all tied to being a college student. You mentioned privilege around being able to have the visa, and being able to come to the court hearings and stuff, but I have to ask - So you're going to a Pentecostal church, you're working on degrees in sociology, anthropology, and history. All those privileges and access that you have immediately stop once you graduate. So what was that like, that transition? Like when you're doing all this good work as a student, as you move out of that moment in your life where you're on this college campus and you're thinking, okay, now that I'm not going to be studying any more of these things and thinking through these as a profession, as a vocation, as a call. And also navigating that moment where students status no longer kind of provides you the ability to travel and think through these things at a systemic level. What do you do post-graduation?
Sandy: There was two things that were important to me in that moment. one of them was that I really wanted to walk with people that were in my same shoes, like people who were navigating those two worlds. I was seeing people in our church that were growing up, going off to college and college was not a space that affirmed their faith or that affirmed them in general. But then church was also losing, it was no longer relevant either for the spaces that we're working. And the frameworks that we provided at church, they just proved not functional for the situations they were encountering in college, like the ones that I've described, right?
Like we didn't have frameworks for interpreting what was happening or how to engage those moments through our faith and with our faith in mind. And so it was almost like we were presenting this binary choice. Either you walk into church and live this life of the church, or you walk in like your college education life, where you have access to other types of teachings and whatnot, but like those two spaces were like incompatible and it's almost like you had to pick one. And so what I was trying to do was like let me be a campus minister where I can help people navigate the two worlds.
I joined Cru, and that was its own animal because joining a white ministry that, for starters, wasn't supportive of Pentecostal faith, you know, like they didn't know how to engage that. And I think in a lot of spaces that are more conservative, they learn to demonize the traditional ways of healing, the traditional ways of knowing God and our traditional practices that are often more welcome and manifested in some Pentecostal spaces. So it was a huge like break, but I think I was really seeking to belong and it felt like in that space, I was provided with a certain sense of belonging…well sort of. I was promised that I could go into a workspace where I would have community. And that was really valuable. And I was promised to go into a space where I could live out my vocation and also get paid for it.
Like, it didn't live up to that but that's the choice I made at that moment. And I think it was formative in the ways that it continued to push me down this place of like, can you be in both? I value people that are in those spaces where you are bridge builders and where you were called to do that, and where you have to navigate the tensions between communities and are able to help mitigate that. People like that are necessary and they build up our communities and are so helpful, but I don't think that everyone is called to do that. I think it is a job that is exhausting and that without proper support you end up doing a lot of work for people that are refusing to do the work of bridge building themselves.
Eventually I stepped out of that and in regards to like what…I think in some ways coming into that conservative Christian White Evangelical space I had to leave behind some of my analysis from college. Leave that aside. Like I don't think there was room for that. I think in many ways I tried to be in dialogue with Raza, councils in different college campuses, to be in dialogue with F.U.E.L, which was the organization for undocumented students in the campus where I was serving and to try to dialogue around faith and social justice and the intersections of that. But those were always like, sort of like side projects that weren't necessarily supported by the formal job that I had or the formal titles that I had. So those first years right after college were just…they were very painful, actually. They were very painful because I think I left a space of safety in my church. I moved away from that city and entering that other community, that more white evangelical community to be with them, they were highly welcoming and I loved a lot of people in there, but it was also not affirming of my multiple identities, right? Like sometimes there was just an ability to see me as only a generic Latina woman and I'm more than that. Like I have leadership gifts that are just leadership gifts. Like yes, they're informed from the perspective of where I come from, but they can inform anyone. They're not just restricted to be like, oh yeah, you can speak that to like Latina women like you. You know, it’s like I had other gifts that weren't affirmed. I had a lot to offer that wasn't seen because I was seen through a lens that really made me small, a lens that really put me in a box again. You can offer the poster picture, the affirmation we need for our diversity statements or our diversity work but don't try to change us too much, you know. And so they were very painful, I think, because so much of me was seeking to belong. Like we can find that belonging beyond our vocation and beyond the spaces where we work and whatnot. But that came with time because I think part of me was like trying to mesh all in like the one package of like, I can live out my vacation and get paid for it, belong, have all the things in this one space, and that's too much pressure on any space.
Patrick: So you left. I mean, knowing that you're able to think a little more holistically about vocation and about your call and what you want to do and who your community is going to be, how you're going to get your gifts affirmed, that they are absolutely important for those just beyond our communities. So what'd you do? What was the next thing knowing that Cru’s not it, where'd you go?
Sandy: The next thing was going back into immigrant rights, but more formally. In the other spaces I was doing it because that was just being a part of my community meant that. I joined an organization that provided legal services to immigrant communities and also we did refugee resettlement. And so I spent the next year or so of my career doing a lot of learning what the laws were, learning the legal processes that will get someone to have a certain status in the US, making sure that people understood their rights, that communities knew how to defend themselves when raids came and then advocating so that those raids would end and that, you know, funding will not go to the spaces harming our communities. Yeah, so I served there for many years and but eventually I just realized, like my former colleague of mine, Matt Sorens who used to say, you can keep helping the person on the road that has been mugged and you pay for that. But the next day, if that happens again and you find another person and the next day that happens again and you find another person and like, at some point you're gotta ask, like what's wrong with the road, you know? And you gotta install some lights and get some people to do community walks so then the road is safer and all those things. And so I think to me, that that point came with what I was doing to say like, I want to go more into spaces where we are fixing this road where we are seeing who keeps throwing people in the water and like, let's stop this. So that's what led me into Sojo [Sojourners] - that and like a very real thing that I was highly underpaid in my previous job. It wasn't until I said, Hey, I'm moving to a new space and they're offering me this much, that they like tripled my salary overnight. And so it just kind of felt like oh, you could have done this. I just took what they gave me, you know, I think I just settled for what they gave me.
And so when I looked at my responsibilities today and I analyze it from someone that manages and hires people today, I think of like that was not a fair situation. The job had a lot more responsibilities for what I was being compensated. For my next opportunity was the first time that I negotiated a salary and the first time that I felt very adult in saying like, no, this is what I'm worth. And when I said, I am leaving, it was the first time that they said like, this is how much we value your contributions and upped my salary but it was a little bit too late.
Patrick: As I think about the folks who are listening to this, young adults and all that stuff, as you think about your passion, your call, however you define it - in direct service advocacy, organizing work that's deeply rooted in gospel wisdom, you know, this is what Jesus did, that also means if you find it as a career or as a job, that people are often taken advantage [of] and/or I did it as well, settle for the least amount because I feel so called - I will pour my whole life into it. And that can be absolutely draining. It doesn't honor your gifts for leadership and your gifts as not just a woman of color but as a leader in the community.
And getting into that next step where you're able to live into your vocation and say I know what my gifts are, I know what I'm worth, let's talk about how I can bring these gifts here is really important. As you move out of this direct service role or direct service institution, where do you end up and what does that work look like? And how do you tie all this together with both your own story, those people who matter to you, but also your faith? Let me like, I'm thinking about how do you live out these multiple calls and these multiple communities at the same time…serving as a bridge, which I know you said you don't do all the time now, but you do bridge a lot of spaces.
Sandy: Yes. I like sort of default to being a bridge builder. So fast forward, I think when I left, I got an opportunity at Sojourners. Like it really was out of a sense of what I was learning. I was learning to advocate for myself. I was learning that I could do other things. When I graduated college, I had to get a visa So, so that's, that's another component that I think for immigrants, some things you have to do when you have to do, because that is the way that you can like stay in some places in the ways that you want to stay. Like I thought if I become undocumented, I'm going to be arrested at the time I was very anxious about that.
But I share this because, my real ability to stay in this country was tied to a visa and was tied to an employer. If I ever lost that job, I was going to lose my ability to remain in the United States. It was hard because at that point I had lived in the US for 15 or so years and I didn't know what my vocation could…how I could live that out if I were to be sent back. Like I had no clue. That really conditioned me to be very compliant in my jobs and be very compliant in the spaces that I inhabited. I think the world was beginning to see things in me that I still am not seeing. And I think, I had to have others see that. That's been like, part of this process.
I'm leading campaigns at Sojourners, campaigns that advocate for the rights of people, the rights of the land, for economic justice and climate justice, for gender justice, immigrant justice, et cetera. And I get to be a part of a team that…it's moving in really great directions. Like I'm really excited for the work that we do in equipping others to understand what is happening in the public arena, in these areas to develop the skills, to be able to enter into those spaces and demand that we get the justice that we deserve, demand that the image of God that's been bred in us, it's honored and it's respected in us and in the spaces that we inhabit.
Patrick: That's so powerful. And as we think about, I mean I use this with our team at FTE, thinking about what even this series is supposed to be - the Sound of the Genuine - it's so many times for people of color, marginalized folks, especially in faith spaces, we're given windows. We can look in on someone in the church or in that institution that we want to work at or that place that we admire that we think is living out that vocation, but that can never be us. And what we're trying to do is lift up those mirrors to people so that way younger Sandy sees what all of us see, which is yes, come and be my boss, Sandy, whenever you want. You got the leadership skills, the qualities, you're making movement happen in this country in a faithful way, which is just…it's inspiring. You're downright inspiring in the way that you lead and it gets me to this last question.
And as I think about our conversation about where you've taken us from Mexico, from Nahua speaking folks, cultural traditions, from Maree who sees in you your power, from family of folks back in Texas, you know, and this moment where you're coming into your own leadership at Sojourners - I am curious how much of your vocation, your own sense of call is guided by these notions, like internal I have to survive. There's a pragmatic piece of this. I just got, I got to do this. I want to do this. This is how I feel called. How much is fueled by God and how much is fueled by these voices who seem to really be naming what all the rest of us see in you, which is the powerful, fierce, brilliant woman that I get to talk to here?
Sandy: It's a mix. I think in some ways I'm learning to listen to my intuition, listen to my body, listen to that wisdom that speaks within us a lot, and to follow. So I think that that guides a lot of where I'm going. I could name that both as like my intuition, but also part of it as the spirit of God in us speaking, and that wisdom -divine wisdom – that’s speaking within us. That and communities are really shaping where I'm going, but you know, all these communities are pulling back. I think the way that I see my vocation shifting and being pulled by these different places, like I sense a deep pull towards ancestral connections, a deep pull to be a table setter - someone that sets tables and curates spaces where people can connect with that divine wisdom and with ancestral wisdom that is available to us. And so I see myself as a curator of those spaces and I think that is coming both from a sense of this formative experiences from the way that I was raised by Maree from the way that I was then adopted into a family by hermana Tina and from the way in which my own intuition is saying like, this is where you go, this is where you fit. And so I'm having the opportunity to create a fellowship for what we're calling rising leaders. I see that space of like, yes, I get to set the table here and invite others to come and bring their own table setting, right?
Like bring their own water or tequila, whatever it is that you're bringing into this table. Bring your molé, bring your arepas, bring your stories, bring your conversations. And I'm really excited about this opportunity to be able to walk with others, to help us strengthen our leadership capacities and also strengthen our abilities to navigate the movements that we're part of and to develop the resiliency, the relational resiliency that we need, like the resources that we need to keep in touch with one another, I'm not necessarily into the individual bridge builder that is holding that tension. But in like, how do we together in this relational net that we create, create strength for all of us to sustain ourselves and to be able to fight for the justice that we dream of and that is available to us - not from a place of struggle all the time, right, but from a place that says, like, this is joyful, like, how do we get to be? And not just advocate, but how do we get to live in to joy, to live into spaces where we're more free, where we're not always trying to compete. To make our communities the thriving communities that we need, like we need all of your gifts. We need all of you.
That's where I see my vocation going. And I think it's a mix. It's a mix of the formative experiences and intuition that I'm sensing. And an intuition that is a little bit more calm. Like it's an intuition that now knows like you are taken care of. And to use the phrase that everyone's using, you know, your grandmother's prayers are still protecting you, but it's true. And you know the hopes that my parents had and then were able to give me to the best of their ability, like are being fulfilled in here. The hopes that my community had are being fulfilled in here. And you're safe. You don't have to find a space where you belong. You can create that belonging space with others. You have the ability to shape that. And so I'm not just trying to appease that like anxiety within me, but I'm walking from a place of more security of like, I'm seeing that mirror and I'm welcoming with mirrors into spaces.
I'm not just looking for others to pull up mirrors. I'm not looking for someone to build me up so that I can be reflected on a mirror. I know that I can be reflected on a mirror and I want everyone to walk in, like with our mirrors together and be able to reflect that glory, that image of God, whatever you call it, whatever that magic that is in us.
Patrick: Wow, that's incredibly inspiring. As I think about it, Sandy, your ancestors are rejoicing at the work that you're up to, the life that you're living, whether you're surviving or you're setting that table or pouring jello to make ends meet, our communities are better for it that you are building us up and celebrating our lives and building those walls of mirrors so we can all see our beautiful collage shining back at us. Cause that is a beautiful image. I'm grateful, our descendants are going to be able to sit under the trees you're planting and drink from the wells you're digging. So thank you so much for being here and thank you for all that you are. Grateful to know you and grateful for this time.
Sandy: I'm grateful too! Much joy, much abundance to everyone. And thank you so much for the invitation.
Patrick: Hey, we want to thank you for listening to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine and Sandy's story. I want to say thank you to our team Heather Wallace, Elsie Barnhart, Diva Morgan Hicks and @siryalibeats for their production on this. If you have a story that you would like to share or someone that you want to see on this show, then head on over to our website, FTE leaders.org, and go to the contact us page and let us know who you want to see on this show. And as always if you're enjoying this, subscribe, give us a review, and share this podcast with a friend. We'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.