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Mel (Melquiades Rafael) Martinez was the first Cuban-American to be elected to the United States Senate, serving as the representative for Florida from 2005-2009. Born in Sagua La Grande, Cuba on October 23, 1946, Martinez immigrated to the United States in 1962 at the age of fifteen, through what was later known as Operation Pedro Pan. This initiative, sponsored by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and the U.S. government, coordinated the exodus of over 14,000 children from Fidel Castro’s Communist government in Cuba between 1960 and 1962. For four years, Martinez lived with two different foster families in Orlando, Florida, as he struggled to learn English and adjust to a life away from his family and homeland. His parents and younger sister remained in Cuba, and his younger brother lived with relatives in Miami. Martinez was reunited with his family in Orlando, Florida in 1966.
Martinez worked his way through college and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Florida State University in 1969. Encouraged by one of his undergraduate professors to pursue law, he proceeded to earn a Juris Doctorate degree from Florida State University in 1973. Martinez practiced law in Orlando for twenty-five years until 1998, when he won the election to serve as Mayor of Orange County, Florida. After two years in this position, Martinez was tapped by President George W. Bush to serve in his Cabinet as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), becoming the first Cuban-American to serve in the Cabinet of a President. As HUD Secretary during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Martinez was responsible for overseeing funds appropriated by Congress for the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan. He served as HUD Secretary from 2001-2003. Martinez also served as a key advisor to the President on Cuban policy, and was named co-chair of the Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba alongside Secretary of State Colin Powell.
During his service as United States Senator (R-Florida) from January 4, 2005 until his resignation on September 9, 2009, Martinez focused on issues including U.S. policy toward Cuba, immigration reform, housing and the protection of home buyers from bad loans and predatory lending practices, the protection of Florida’s environment, and the modernization of the United States military through increased shipbuilding. He developed a reputation for bipartisanship by partnering with fellow U.S. Senator for Florida Bill Nelson (D) on restricting offshore drilling in Florida’s waters and with U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Barack Obama (D-Illinois) on immigration reform. Martinez was the ranking member of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging and served on the Armed Services Committee, the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. During his tenure, his office assisted more than 36,000 Florida families through casework, written correspondence, and other efforts.
Martinez is the author of "A Sense of Belonging: From Castro’s Cuba to the U.S. Senate, One Man’s Pursuit of the American Dream" (Crown Forum, 2008). In his inaugural address as a U.S. Senator, he said, “I came to America from Communist Cuba so I might have a better way of life. I wanted to live the American Dream where if you worked hard and put your mind to task, anything was possible.”