Rey Martinez, Gwinnett’s first Hispanic mayor, talks discrimination, diversity, and supporting Trump

The Loganville restaurateur talks about his political ambitions and how he wants to be an inspiration for minorities
Rey Martinez
Rey Martinez

Photograph by Audra Melton

At the converted elementary school that is Loganville City Hall, Mayor Rey Martinez was beaming. He’d just returned from the Georgia Capitol, where legislators had signed a resolution honoring him as Gwinnett County’s first Hispanic mayor. Even more remarkable, as best Georgia Municipal Association officials can tell, Martinez is the first Hispanic mayor elected in Peach State history.

It’s been an eventful few years for Martinez. A father of two and U.S. Navy retiree, he first became known in the community as the gregarious owner of Rey’s Cuban Café. Martinez won a seat on the Loganville City Council in 2010 and in 2015 was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity. In 2016, Martinez became a vocal leader of Hispanics for Trump.

And in November, Martinez, now 48, won the nonpartisan, part-time mayor’s seat in a overwhelming victory, besting a former mayor’s wife, Donna Jones. He earns $1,000 per month leading the diverse and growing city of about 12,000 residents, including not just Hispanic and black citizens but also pockets of Syrian and Japanese families.

You were born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents and moved to Miami—or “Little Cuba,” as you call it—when you were 10 years old. Did you face discrimination as a child?
I came through Miami’s ESOL program, and some of the teachers said, “No, you’re too slow. You can never pick up the [English] language.” I failed fourth grade because of that. I did face discrimination, but I just kept going. Even here I have been discriminated against. In 2010, [critics] questioned my [military] service: a Martinez in Loganville? That ain’t supposed to happen. [While campaigning for mayor] I had some rough white folks tell me to get out, and some African Americans slam the door in my face.

Have you always had political ambitions?
I was running the restaurant back in 2010. My passion was cooking Cuban food. I remember a couple of people said, “You know, we need someone like you: someone in business, very established in the community, who lives here.” They pushed me. I filed, campaigned with love and passion, and not only did I win, I earned more votes than a couple of incumbents.

Did you take flak from Hispanics for being such a vocal supporter of Trump during the presidential election?
You’re always going to have those folks. But my message basically was, “What do you have to lose?” If you want the jobs back in the country, the unemployment rate to go down, money back in your pocket, why don’t you give this guy a shot? After four years, if you don’t see the economy improving and so on, boot him out. Yeah, I caught some flak. But look what happened—almost a third of Latino voters supported him.

Are you still involved with Hispanics for Trump?
Too busy. I just support his ideas. For example, on immigration: What he’s talking about when he says immigration enforcement is too lax, in my opinion, is that he wants to keep the illegal criminals away from our country. He’s not getting the maids, the sandwich-makers. That’s my approach here in Loganville: What I’m after is the criminals—the people who want to do harm to our immigrants. I think what Trump is doing for Hispanic and African American populations is good. The unemployment rate for Hispanics has dropped, and that’s one of the things I was preaching back in 2016.

Gwinnett’s 39 percent white now, versus 90 percent in 1990, but the vast majority of government is still white. Are you optimistic that will change?
That’s up to the people. I can’t make people run for office. I could tell Hispanics to do it—if I can do it, so can you! Get involved! But at the end of the day, it’s up to them to win. And it takes work. I’m all about diversity in Gwinnett County. But nobody else has stepped up. It’s so frustrating to me, when I go to the Gwinnett Municipal Association meetings [and] I am the only minority there. Ninety-five percent of Gwinnett’s representation is white folks, and I get along with everyone, but deep down inside, it hurts me.

How does it feel to be the first Hispanic mayor?
I did not think about it when I was running. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me, it’s about our next Hispanic generation. If my position as mayor now can be an inspiration for some young Hispanic, Latino, Latina, African American—anybody—I think all the sacrifice has been worth it.

This article appears in our June 2018 issue.