In this undated photo, labor leader Maria Moreno speaks with migrant farmworkers in rural California. (George Ballis/Take Stock via AP)

The tale of Maria Moreno, a hell-raising union organizer

In October 1920, Maria Moreno was born to an itinerant Mexican minister and an Apache tribeswoman in rural Texas. She grew up working on a farm and went on to raise hell — in addition to 12 children — becoming the nation’s first female farmworker hired as a union organizer.

Moreno didn’t play nice with labor leaders like César Chávez, who complained of her “big mouth.” So while her efforts to raise wages and win strikes predated those of Chávez, it was only recently that a filmmaker unearthed her legacy, showcasing it in the 2019 film “Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno.”

The film tells how Moreno — a Dust Bowl migrant to California with a second-grade education — began speaking out against injustice in 1958. Having lived with her husband, four sons, and eight daughters in a 15-foot shack, she offered public testimony about how one son went blind from malnutrition. “I’ve been a worker all my life,” she told a government panel. “I know how to do a man’s job like a man and I’m not ashamed to say it. … I’m talking you the truth, because the truth been hided.” The speech led to the reversal of a policy that denied food assistance to migrant workers.

A year later, Moreno was hired as a union organizer. Her outspokenness didn’t sit well with male bosses, who eventually fired her. She later headed into the Arizona desert with her young children, a move some interpreted as a retreat. But Moreno began a new life as an itinerant preacher, ministering to migrants from one town to the next. In that sense, labor historians have said, her organizing never stopped. It just fell out of the spotlight.

— This entry was written by Ashley Harrell, a journalist and guidebook author based in Humboldt County.

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