Martin Luther King Jr Unsung Hero Awards

J.R. Martinez uses adversities to inspire at Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

On Sunday evening, members of the SU community gathered at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner to reflect on overcoming life's adversities.

J.R. Martinez has endured through many challenges: he has served in the Army, starred in a soap drama and won Dancing with the Stars. But just looking in the mirror was once one of the hardest things to do when a roadside explosion during his tour in Iraq left 30 percent of his body burned.

Photo: Eric Jackson
The 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unsung hero award's dinner, hosted on January 29, honored A. Peter Castro, Dr. Robert Fangio, Vincent Love, and Shewa Shwani for their excellence in serving the community.

“I asked myself why. Why do I look like this, why did it happen to me and of course I didn’t know why,” Martinez said, who was only 19 when the explosion happened.

Martinez said he was using his pain to provide an example of someone who has overcome the many adversities and echoe the words of Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke in front of crowd of 1,000 people in the Carrier Dome on Sunday as part of Syracuse University’s 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

Before Martinez gave his keynote speech, there was a performance of the Black National Anthem by the Black Celestial Choral Ensemble, as well as a video from Chancellor Kent Syverud that discussed the future of our nation and contained clips from when MLK spoke at Syracuse in 1965.

Sgt. Ryan Beauford of the Department of Public Safety has been on the MLK committee for over 17 years and is proud to say he’s seen how far the event has grown since starting in a residential dinning facility.

“It’s an opportunity to see members of the community not wanting things from one another and just be together to celebrate,” Beauford said.

Martinez began his speech by paying homage to Dr. Charles Willie, a SU professor and former classmate of King’s, saying it was an honor to be in the presence of someone of his stature. 

His speech then continued to talk about while though one may face adversity in their life, they are always in a position to bring about change – like himself, when he was angry and struggled with his reality with the burns. It was only after visiting with another burn victim that Martinez began to cope with his new life and started to begin motivation speaking. 

“There’s no such thing as a disability, “ Martinez said. “If you choose daily to diss the ‘dis’, then truly the only thing left is ability.”

Martinez admitted that while over the past few years he has been fixated on being an advocate for veterans and overcoming adversities, he realized he couldn’t be disconnected from his reality; that he was a Hispanic kid who grew up in the South.

It was then Martinez told a story about receiving a Facebook comment from a man, ironically from the same hometown as Martinez, which stated, “If you just went back to where you came from, we wouldn’t have to deal with y’all.” Simply because he was the child of an immigrant mother was he susceptible to hazing and violence, Martinez said. 

The event ended with the presentation of The Unsung Hero Awards. Each year the University awards individuals and groups that act in the spirit and nature of King, but whose work often is overlooked.  The winners are not only students or faculty from the University, but also individuals from the community of Syracuse.

Fifth-grader Abigail Ortman was one of this year’s recipients. Abby was recognized by one of her teachers for her work in tutoring some of her classmates and working as a bus-monitor after school. Ortman is also her class president and is extremely involved with bringing change and respect to her school. 

“They call me the to-go girl,” Ortman said. “When I get there in the morning, they always ask me ‘can you do this?’ and they always keep me busy.”

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