- After growing up in an unstable home, Cristina Martinez found herself in an abusive marriage.
- She made the tough choice to leave and immigrate to the US, where she’s become an award-winning chef.
- This article is part of “Me, First,” a series about successful women who prioritize their passions and well-being.
Cristina Martinez is a chef, a restaurant owner, an immigration activist, and a mother. Now, she’s becoming an advocate for victims of domestic abuse.
The owner of South Philly Barbacoa has amassed a long list of accomplishments, appearing on best-restaurant lists, landing an episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” and, most recently, winning a James Beard Award. But when she was asked about the most pivotal moments in her life, the Mexico native chose to talk about her decisions to take herself out of abusive situations.
“I believe that one of the greatest talents I have had as a woman is that sixth sense,” Martinez told Insider in an interview translated from Spanish.
For Martinez, 52, the most powerful moments of her life have involved listening to her intuition. She said the gut feeling of knowing when to leave was what pushed her out of her parents’ home at the age of 17, and then out of her husband’s home to come to the US. Neither decision was free of consequences.
Growing up in a culture of silence around abuse
Martinez grew up in Capulhuac, Mexico, where she lived with her mother, father, and four siblings until she got married at 17 years old. It was there that she learned how to make barbacoa, the dish of slow-cooked lamb that has propelled her to culinary stardom.
She said she had many happy memories of her father, including his love of preparing barbacoa, but added that there were dark moments.
“My dad was an alcoholic, and I felt every time he drank that he was going to harass me,” Martinez said. “I was always on the alert when he was drinking and drinking.”
As a kid, Martinez said she felt like she had no one to turn to. Her mother thought the verbal harassment was normal, she said, and the environment she grew up in was one of shame and silence when it came to abuse. She couldn’t share “those kinds of things that are so delicate and deep that they hurt, not even with my sisters,” she said, adding: “I didn’t know what reaction my sisters or my mom would have.”
I’m still strong. I’m still fighting so that these things don’t happen to other families.
So when she met a man who asked her to marry him after just 15 days, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to remove herself from her father’s home. Unfortunately, she said, she didn’t stop to weigh the consequences.
Martinez said her first husband, who was also a victim of childhood abuse, ended up being physically violent toward her, which continued a cycle of abuse that left her feeling trapped, like she was in a prison. The abuse went on for nearly 15 years as the couple had four children together.
“I couldn’t go to my mom. I didn’t have friends to tell what I was going through with my partner,” she said. “The aggression was also increasing to the point where I returned to that sixth sense, in which I saw that if I stayed there, I would end up in a wheelchair, paralyzed, or bedridden.”
A difficult decision to leave home
Around 2006, Martinez decided to take the leap and move to the US. There, she worked as a dishwasher and a pastry chef so that she could send money home to her daughter Carla to pay for boarding school and help her escape the pattern of abuse that she herself had been trapped in.
Martinez’s decision to leave Mexico didn’t come without a price. Because she’s unauthorized to live in the US, she can’t return to the country and hasn’t seen three of her children in more than 10 years. (The fourth came to live with her in Philadelphia in 2012 but died two years later.) Carla is now an emergency-room nurse and has been denied a visa to visit her mother four times.
After she lost her pastry-chef job because of her immigration status, Martinez started cooking barbacoa and consommé in her apartment with her husband, Benjamin Miller, whom she’d met at work. On “Chef’s Table,” the couple said they started selling the dish out of their home on Sunday mornings.
“People came to the apartment, needing to eat and feel at home,” Martinez told the filmmakers. “They were immigrants like me.”
As the couple transitioned South Philly Barbacoa into a restaurant space, it began generating media attention. In 2017, Martinez received her first James Beard Award nomination for best chef, mid-Atlantic. She won the award last month.
The chef has been happily married to Miller for 10 years, and the pair opened a second Philadelphia restaurant, Casa Mexico, in 2020.
Speaking up about breaking the cycle
Martinez has been a passionate advocate for immigrants unauthorized to live in the US. She told her story on a Spanish-language podcast for Univision and, along with Miller, founded the Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights, which pushes for amnesty for workers and has provided free meals to those in need during the pandemic.
Speaking out about abuse has been harder. Martinez said her two sons in Mexico continued to perpetuate the cycle she grew up with. One is physically abusing his partner, she said, adding that the other had an addiction to crack cocaine.
“I am a mother who does not want her granddaughter to live with a man like my son,” she said.
She said she’s opening up about her experience for the first time because she wanted people to understand the challenges of breaking the cycle.
“The fact that my children are not so conscious does not defeat me,” she said. “On the contrary, it gives me more strength because at the moment of sharing everything, although they see me far away, they know that I am fine.”
Ultimately, she said, trusting herself and leaving Mexico was the best decision she could have made. In the meantime, she wants her children to see that she is, and will remain, a safe haven for them if they choose to lean on her. And she hopes her story serves as an example to anyone grappling with listening to their intuition.
“I’m still strong,” she said. “I’m still fighting so that these things don’t happen to other families.”
Emma Sifuentes contributed to this story.
Anyone affected by abuse and in need of support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). Advocates are available 24/7 and can also be reached via live chat on thehotline.org or by texting “START” to 88788 or “LOVEIS” to 22522.