For Maria Zavala and her young son, J.R. Martinez, the road to Dalton was a long and difficult one winding from her native El Salvador through Shreveport, La., and Hope, Ark., before leading north and east to the city he claims as his hometown and the place his mother says she will not leave.
“In the 1980s, El Salvador was like Mexico is today,” said Maria, the pretty, petite mother of Martinez, an Iraqi war hero, television actor, motivational speaker and current champion of ABC TV’s popular series “Dancing With the Stars.”
“There was so much crime there; I almost got killed two times in one day,” she recalls of those turbulent days nearly three decades ago. “We were very poor and struggling every day just to raise our children. We were dying of hunger. I love my country, but I am scared. I just wanted to make it to the United States. I leave my two little girls (Maria, 5, and Anabel, 2); I leave my mother and in 1982, I come here.”
“It is my idea to stay one year and then return for my girls,” she recalls. “I want to live at home and have a store, but it wasn’t like that.
“It took 20 days to get to Houston. There were 23 people; 20 men and three women. I made it, but not all did,” she said. “Children here don’t appreciate this country — it is a land of blessings.”
Maria ended up in Bossier City, La., near Shreveport. “I get involved with a guy. I get pregnant and there was J.R. (Jose Rene) I wanted to raise this child, but nine months later, his dad walked away.”
“I was not legal, I couldn’t drive, I didn’t know English,” she said. “It was very hard.”
She eventually learned English from her young son, as he was learning it. “He was my teacher, my counselor, my physician, my hero,” she said. Maria became a United States citizen in 1988.
In May of 1984, Maria got a job working at a restaurant, The Italian Garden, and put her young son in day care. “It was not good day care,” she remembers, shaking her head. On days when she had no child care, her boss allowed her to bring young J.R. to the restaurant where he charmed her co-workers and restaurant patrons.
“The waiters and waitresses loved J.R. who they called ‘Nene’ (for his middle name, Rene). When he was four years old, they would tell him to take water to the customers and they would give him tips.”
Two years later, she took her young son back to visit El Salvador — J.R. had $60 he’d collected in tips that he wanted to give to his grandmother, cousins and sister, Maria. His other sister, Anabel, died when J.R. was 4 and she was 7. They never met in life.
J.R. and Maria spent his first nine years in Shreveport and the next nine in Hope, a town Maria says was “not big enough” for her ambitious boy.
“J.R. says, ‘This town is so little for me; I don’t like it,’” she recalls. “He says, ‘I have a lot of ‘friends,’ but they are not doing good things, so I don’t have any friends.’” That changed Memorial Day weekend of 2001 when a girlfriend who she describes as being “like a sister” persuaded Maria and J.R. to come visit Dalton.
The trip began inauspiciously when J.R., who was driving, turned the car around to avoid an Arkansas roadblock. “He wanted to get to Georgia in a heartbeat,” she remembers. The car was stopped and due to a couple of unpaid tickets Maria didn’t know about, J.R. was led off in handcuffs.
“We’re not going to Georgia,” the mom said sternly after her son was released. “Oh yes, we’re going,” said her insistent son.
And go they did. While Maria napped after the night-long drive, J.R. explored Greater Dalton and visited Fort Mountain. “Well Mama, do you like it?” he asked his mother. “We’re going to move here, yes?” he pleaded.
“He looked at me like he wanted to cry,” she remembers, laughing. They returned to Hope Memorial Day Monday and while Maria rested, J.R. began packing. “He just wanted to get out of Hope, Arkansas.”
By mid-June, J.R. took a bus back to Dalton and got a job driving a Hyster for Shaw Industries. Two weeks later, Maria joined him here. Within a few weeks J.R. had earned enough to pay off his tickets and settle his score with Hope. “I want to go where they are going to love me,” she recalls her son telling her.
He found the love in Dalton where he enrolled in Dalton High School and played football as a Dalton Catamount, establishing a relationship with Coach Ronnie McClurg that would sustain J.R. and Maria through darker days ahead.
“Coach (McClurg) helped me and prayed with me over the phone,” said Maria, recalling the days in 2003 in the San Antonio, Texas, military hospital where J.R. was treated for the burns that ravaged more than 40 percent of his body and where he endured 33 surgeries.
It was April 5, 2003, that Maria received the call that J.R.’s Humvee had driven over a landmine in Iraq. “Your son has been in an accident,” she recalls the Army official telling her. “He is alive; he is breathing through a machine.”
Four days later, Maria found herself on a plane to San Antonio. “I remember thinking ‘If the clouds can hold me, then I want to jump out of the plane, because on the ground is only pain,’” she said.
When she arrived at the hospital, she gazed through a window to see her comatose son surrounded by machines, tubes and wires. She recognized him only by his feet. “They tell me, ‘Cry as much as you want right here, but once you walk through the door, you’re not going to cry. He can hear you; you have to be strong for him.’”
“I dressed in the gown and the mask; everything is covered — my shoes, my hair. Germs can kill,” she recalls of the early days of J.R.’s recovery. “From here down,” she said, gesturing to her neck, “I was crying. But from here up, I was talking. Talking to J.R., telling him everything is going to be fine. Then I go to the window and I pray, ‘Lord, prove to me you are really there.’”
For 19 days, J.R. remained in a coma. When he emerged, he told his mother a remarkable story about the day of his accident.
“My little sister came to see me,” she said he told her, referring to Anabel, the sister in El Salvador he never met; the sister who died when J.R. was four years old. “When they put me in the helicopter, I looked down out of the window and I could see the helicopter. I started to get up and someone pushed me back — it was my sister.”
He continued, “She said, ‘J.R., you can’t die — you have to go back. My mama needs you.’”
“She is an angel; she is the angel for him,” Maria says. “She sent him back because she saw the pain I had when she (Anabel) died.”
“I think ‘The lord really loves me — I already give him one of mine; he won’t take another,’” Maria remembers.
J.R. attacked his recovery with vigor. “They said he might not walk; they said he wouldn’t be able to drive for one or two years. By June, J.R. was driving all over the place. They don’t know J.R.!” Maria says.
“You see him dancing today, how strong he is — I was there at the hospital when he had no muscles, when he was learning to walk, when they couldn’t even touch him because of the burns,” she recalls. “Now I see him dancing and I am amazed.”
“When I first see him dancing, I think he is going to be the winner,” Maria recalls. “But I was worried. I don’t worry that he isn’t going to win; I just think ‘Please, don’t let him drop the girl!’”
Maria is acutely aware that she was spared the anguish so many other mothers have endured with the loss of their soldier sons and daughters. “I can hug him; I can love him — but what about those other mothers? I thought so many times, ‘If J.R. does not make it, how can I live?’”
She is proud that her son has taken his circumstances, his positive personality and his drive and put them to use to inspire and lift others to a higher place. She is proud he has challenged conventional standards of beauty and shown the world that true beauty comes from within.
Maria lovingly caresses a framed photograph of the strapping young J.R. as an 18-year old Catamount football player, but when asked what she sees when she looks at a current picture of her son, she glows. “I see a good looking guy who has something special; he has beauty inside.”
Maria Zavala still lives in Dalton and says, “Dalton is my hometown; I want to live here.” She will be riding with her son in Saturday’s parade for J.R. Martinez Day: A Welcome Home Celebration.
J.R. Martinez Day: A Welcome Home Celebration
11 a.m. Parade lineup begins, Waugh Street
1 p.m. Parade begins, downtown Dalton
2:30 p.m. Doors open at trade center for Celebration Rally
3:15 p.m. Celebration Rally begins
4:30 p.m. J.R. meets friends, fans and North Georgia neighbors in Banquet Hall