Martínez was born, Antonio Jose Martín, in Abiquiu in 1793, when New Mexico was a very isolated and desolate territory of the Spanish Empire. In 1804, the Martín family, including his father Severino and five siblings, moved to Taos, a prosperous outpost, where they came to be known as Martínez. During his upbringing, Martínez's father taught him the importance of ranching and farming at the Hacienda Martínez in Northern New Mexico. In 1811, Martínez married María de la Luz, who died giving birth to their daughter less than a year later, when he was only 19. Their child was named in honor of María de la Luz. Six years later Martínez moved south after much thought and correspondence with the Bishop of Durango. He decided to travel there in 1817, and become a priest, enrolling in the Tridentine Seminary of the Diocese of Durango. Martínez not only excelled at the seminary but also in understanding the ideals of liberal Mexican politicians and teachers of his day, including Miguel Hidalgo. After six years, Martínez was ordained, and he returned to New Mexico, where after a few years in other parishes, he became the parish priest of Taos and from then on was known as Padre Martínez.
While Martínez was in Durango, the Mexican War of Independence had taken place and New Mexico became part of independent Mexico. Under Spanish rule, trade with the United States was limited. In 1821, under Mexico's rule, the Santa Fe Trail was opened and trade encouraged. Anglo traders, including Kit Carson and William Becknell, began pouring into New Mexico. Around 1824 or 1825 Martínez's daughter, María de la Luz, died. This event, coupled with the many other situations occurring, and the responsibility to his people and homeland, started Martínez on his quest for social change in New Mexico. In 1826, Martínez started a coeducational school, employing teachers at his own expense. Martínez also opened a minor seminary to prepare young men from the area for the Durango Seminary.
In 1831, 1833, and 1836 he served as a deputy in the Departmental Assembly of the Territory of New Mexico and influenced decisions there. In the early 1830s, Martínez obtained a printing press and began to print religious and educational material, including a children's book, an arithmetic book, and a guide to Spanish orthography. Martínez also oversaw the printing of the first newspaper in the area, El Crepúsculo de la Libertad ("The Dawn of Liberty"), founded in 1834.
In 1843, while Santa Anna was the President of Mexico, Martínez wrote him and argued that the nomadic Native Americans should be taught farming and mining because their primary staple, the American Bison, was in danger of extinction. Martínez's request was ignored.
Perhaps the most important issue of the Mexican period from 1821 to 1846 was that of Spanish and Mexican land grants to individuals and groups of families. The inconsistency between the Mexican (and previously, Spanish) administrations' systems of recordkeeping and land distribution left many New Mexicans bitter. Manuel Armijo was governor of New Mexico during much of the Mexican period and lavishly distributed land to Canadian, American, and Mexican clients. He approved more than half of all land grants made by the Mexican government. Many skilled businessmen and land speculators took advantage of Armijo's liberal land-grant policies. Charles Bent, a well-known and wealthy frontiersman, merchant, and land speculator had great interest in acquiring property in New Mexico, especially in and around Taos. Martínez and his brothers are known for resisting Bent and his collaborators from fulfilling their desires in Taos. Many land-grant issues exist to this day.
See also, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), article 10
In 1841, the newly formed Republic of Texas recognized the difficulties New Mexico was facing and decided to take advantage of them by sending an expedition to invade New Mexico and possibly annex the territory. The invasion failed, and the Texans were captured by Manuel Armijo. This event, in addition to the numerous Americans already living in New Mexico, led many to believe that New Mexico had weakened and become ready for invasion. The Mexican-American War began in 1846. Stephen W. Kearny led 1,700 American troops into Santa Fe without encountering any resistance. Before the invasion, Martínez had witnessed the animosity towards Native Americans and Mexicans displayed by the Anglos living in New Mexico. He encouraged his students to study law and it was to them he delivered his famous quote.
Within a year of the American occupation, the Taos Revolt occurred. Charles Bent, the newly appointed American governor of New Mexico, was killed in the uprising. American forces quickly regained power, instituted martial law, and executed the rebels involved. Many, including Kit Carson, believed Martínez himself took part in some way in instigating the rebellion, but nothing has been proven. In a letter to a friend in Santa Fe, Martínez stated that the American reprisals were too harsh and would hinder future relations between New Mexico and its new rulers. Despite the problems, Martínez was able to adjust to the administration and for seven years played a dominant role in the conventions and legislative sessions of the new Territory.
With the new government came new leadership, both political and religious. Jean Baptiste Lamy, a Frenchman nearly 21 years younger than Martínez, became the vicar apostolic of Santa Fe in 1851. Martínez supported Lamy until January 1854 when Lamy issued a letter instituting mandatory tithing and decreeing that heads of families that failed to tithe be denied the sacraments. Martínez publicly protested the letter and openly contested it in the secular press. From then on, Lamy and Martínez clashed over many issues, such as the effects of frontier life on Catholic standards, and women’s issues. The two also argued over interpretations of canon law. The situation culminated when Lamy wrote a letter explaining that he felt New Mexicans faced a sad future because they didn't have the intellectual liveliness of Americans and their morals were primitive. These comments outraged New Mexicans. The clergy of New Mexico wrote a letter directly to the Pope, expressing their concern about Lamy. Martínez was not involved in the letter but continued to write communiques criticizing Lamy for the Santa Fe Gazette.
In early 1856, Martínez offered his conditional resignation, but admitted his parishioners in Taos, New Mexico to his private chapel in his home and ministered to them from there. On October 27, 1856 Lamy suspended Martínez. In response, Martínez antagonized the pastor that Lamy sent in his place, persuaded a neighboring priest of his goals and gained the allegiance of approximately a third of the parishioners in the two parishes. Finally, in April 1858, Lamy excommunicated Martínez. Martínez never recognized the validity of the excommunication, and continued to minister to his supporters until his death. Martínez also continued to write about Christianity, publishing his famous work, Religión, in which he called for small honoraria for priests in New Mexico, because of the heavy demands associated with New Mexico's isolation. He also explained the problem of denying sacraments to individuals because of their financial status. Lastly, he condemned the Inquisition and all the actions associated with it, including the many excommunications.
Father Antonio José Martínez died on July 27, 1867. His body is currently buried in Kit Carson park in Taos. Enscribed on his tombstone are the words, "La Honra de su País" - "Honor of his Homeland". A 10-foot statue of Martínez by sculptor Huberto Maestas was unveiled at Taos Plaza on July 16, 2006.
American merchants and traders within New Mexico were uncomfortable about the new government and funded a Mexican army led by Manuel Armijo to put down the uprising. The Martínez family had grown wealthy through trade and would have become a critical subject had the rebellion survived. Martínez not only helped fund the Mexican army, but also offered his services to Armijo as chaplain of the army until the termination of the revolt in early 1838, when the old administration was restored with Armijo as governor. Upon suppression of the rebellion, Armijo ordered the execution of José Gonzales, but not before directing Martínez: "Padre Martĺnez, confiese á este genĺzaro para que le dén cinco balazos" or "Padre Martĺnez, hear this genizaro's confession so that he may be shot five times". Martínez heard Gonzales's confession and then handed him over.