Long before she became one of Illinois’ first successful Latina currency exchange owners and even longer before she ran a Mexican restaurant in Oak Lawn, Carmen Martinez was a lonely teenager in gray Chicago who missed her Isla del Encanto.
She’d grown up surrounded by waving green fronds and flowers, sleeping with the doors and windows open to bring in the night breezes of Humacao, her village in Puerto Rico.
At 16, she and her family moved to an apartment in Chicago. “It was like being in a cage,” she said in a 1996 broadcast of “This American Life.”
The only thing that warmed her cold days was listening to Spanish-language radio. A voice in the night gave her special comfort. Juan Moreno Franco played music on WOJO and read poemas de amor — love poems. One evening, with fire and longing, he recited the verses of “El Brindis del Bohemio” — “The Bohemian’s Toast” — which ends with a man’s tribute to his mother, who is, “in the night of my life, star.”
Young Carmen fell in love that night with the voice on the radio.
“She called the radio station,” said the couple’s daughter Nora Moreno Cargie, who recounted their history on National Public Radio’s “Accidental Documentaries.” “They talked on the telephone, went out.”
It didn’t matter that Moreno Franco was 10 years older. Carmen told her mother if she wouldn’t let her marry him, she’d run off and do it anyway. Three months after their first date, they were married.
But the marriage began to crumple. He spent too much time away from home, often with other women, and started to hit her, according to Cargie.
“Finally,” their daughter said on “This American Life,” “after months of continuous abuse, my mother took a gun and shot my father in the mouth.”
The bullet lodged in his jawbone, and he survived, lying to the police that he’d been teaching his wife how to use the gun.
As Mrs. Martinez remembered it, he’d tried to take her gun, which she’d gotten for protection. “She said: ‘It’s licensed to me. I need it back,’ ’’ their daughter said. “They struggled over it.”
They reconciled “for a while,” Cargie said on NPR.
When her father heard Cargie tell the story of the shooting on “This American Life,” he told her he’d been abused as a child. “The only way you know how to love is if you are shown love,” he said.
He died about 20 years ago.
After the couple divorced around 1980, Mrs. Martinez struck out on her own, opening a currency exchange near Milwaukee Avenue and Central Park Avenue, her daughter said. When she lost that lease, she opened Azteca Currency Exchange on 26th Street.
Azteca had three service windows. Her family joked that the one she worked at must have been an advice window, as so many customers lined up to confide to “Doña Carmen” about their heartaches or problems with their children.
She charged less than most other exchanges, and the Puerto Rican-owned business thrived in a Mexican neighborhood.
“She was very fond of Mexican history, culture and traditions, which endeared her to the predominantly Mexican community,” said U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Illinois. “Her involvement with the Little Village Chamber of Commerce helped strengthen this commercial district.”
“She was fearless,” her daughter said, recalling one time, on the sidewalk outside the currency exchange, her mother saw “gang-bangers beating up on a kid.” One took a knife and sliced at the victim’s ear. Mrs. Martinez ran outside, “literally hugged the kid and said, ‘I’m telling all of your mothers.’ ”
In 1991, the magazine Hispanic Mujer honored her as a top businesswoman.
On a visit to Puerto Rico, she met her grade-school sweetheart Hernan Martinez. “I’m not going to let this train pass me again,” she told her daughter as she researched the piece for NPR. They were married 25 years ago.
He’d been a chef at Disney resorts in Florida. She was a gifted cook. After selling Azteca, they opened Senor Pancho’s Mexican restaurant in Oak Lawn in the 1990s.
Mrs. Martinez, who’d lived in Alsip and Humboldt Park, died of lung cancer May 13 at her daughter’s Massachusetts home. She was 77.
She loved the music of Agustin Lara and salsa queen Celia Cruz. Mrs. Martinez made tasty arroz con gandules — rice with pigeon peas — and creamy flan and “was cooking for my family up until the last month of her life,” her daughter said.
Besides her husband and Cargie, Mrs. Martinez is survived by her daughter Norma Milligan, sons Juan Moreno, Jose Moreno and Alejandro Moreno, sisters Carmen Mercedes and Aida Iris, brothers Jose and Marcos, 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
Cargie said of her mother: “She showed us we could do anything.”