By Erin Hallissy
The early 1970s were tumultuous at Saint Mary’s College. Women were admitted for the first time, affirmative action brought more black and Latino students to campus, and tensions among students, faculty and the administration boiled over when popular African American dean of students, Odell Johnson, was dismissed in early 1972.
Weeks later, blacks and Latinos who called themselves “third world students” began a five-day sit-in and fast in the Chapel, issuing demands for more faculty, staff and administrators of color, more financial aid to minority students and programs to meet the “cultural, personal and academic needs of black and Chicano students.”
Maria Elena Durazo was among those students, a teenager from Fresno with little prior exposure to activism. At Saint Mary’s, she felt pride in her Latino culture, joining the Folklorico dance club and Teatro Saint Mary’s, modeled on the Teatro Campesino, and she was eager to push for positive changes for minority students.
The first seeds of advocacy that Durazo planted in the Chapel as a freshman flourished into a lifetime of improving the lives of immigrants and organizing often-overlooked workers in the garment, hotel and restaurant industries. In 2006, she was named the executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a post her husband, Miguel Contreras, held until he died of a heart attack in 2005.
As the first woman leader of the nation’s second-largest labor federation, representing more than 800,000 people and 350 unions ranging from dock workers to television camera operators, Durazo is a political force. She was the first prominent Hispanic Californian to endorse Barack Obama for president, and she is viewed as dynamic and persuasive in her labor organizing skills and her political savvy. Yet Durazo has not forgotten her first successful campaign at Saint Mary’s.
“We wanted remedial classes, we wanted help with retention so we could be able to stay in school,” recalls Durazo, who graduated in 1975. “There were the issues of our ethnicity, so of course we wanted Chicano classes and black studies classes. We very much wanted to succeed, and we wanted all the tools that we needed to succeed.”
Days after the sit-in began, then-president Brother Mel Anderson agreed to most of the demands, and the students broke their fast and returned to class.
“My first experiences in activism were at Saint Mary’s,” Durazo says with a smile. “All of them together had a very big impact on my life, to steer me in the right direction, to see that all of this could work, even if there are disagreements.”
Staging the protest in the Chapel made sense for Catholic students; it was a connection between Saint Mary’s values and their faith, which Durazo’s parents, Felizardo and Ernestina, instilled in her.
“Everything they did was based on their Catholic faith,” Durazo says during an interview in her homey office on the second floor of the labor federation’s nondescript office building in a rundown Los Angeles neighborhood. “They were extremely devout. As migrant farm workers, we went from town to town, and there was always a local Catholic church.”
Durazo says her mother, who died last year, often told the story of when her infant son, Ricardo, fell seriously ill and died while the family was staying in a tent on a grower’s property in San Jose. Ernestina went to the place where she always found solace and help — the local Catholic church. Although he didn’t know the family, the priest took up a collection so the baby could have a proper funeral, says Durazo, who was only 4 at the time but remembers the small casket being taken up the aisle.
“Here we were, strangers in a sense, yet we were treated as if we were well known by everyone, embraced in such a way that my brother had a dignified burial, regardless of us being migrant farm workers and having no money.”
Father Scott Santarosa, the pastor of Dolores Mission Church in L.A. where Durazo worships, says she “comes to Mass here to nurture her own spiritual life.”
“She cares for the poor. She cares for the common laborer,” Father Scott says. “She works on policy and she’s concerned about social justice because it is God’s justice. It’s part of this cohesive framework of ‘what does God want in this world?’ On Sunday, she comes to church and spends time with God and what he wants in the world, and Monday to Saturday she tries to work that out with laborers.”
Angelica Salas of the Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, says that Durazo has never forgotten her roots as the daughter of humble farm workers who labored in the fields herself as a child.
“She engages in these powerful circles,” Salas says. “But when I saw her with hotel workers, she treated them with an incredible amount of respect, maybe more than when she was with people of power. She is that shoulder for workers to cry on when things are going badly, and I see how hard she fights when people aren’t doing what is right.”
Durazo says that people like United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and SMC’s Jack Henning ’38, who died in June 2009 after a distinguished career as the long-time leader of the California Labor Federation, are among her role models. Henning was a member of the Catholic Worker Movement that began in the Great Depression and emphasized the God-given dignity of every person.
“Faith is the root of why we do the work that we do,” she says.
Durazo points to what Chavez and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta told her when she was readying a protest in 1999 at the University of Southern California over worker issues on campus.
“He and Dolores reminded me that he didn’t do hunger strikes. It was a fast, and they made a big distinction because a fast had to do with his own faith,” she says. “It had to do with an issue beyond ‘here’s a dispute with this management or a dispute with this employer.’ You were fasting to strengthen your belief. Very few people really understand that.”
In that fast, which lasted 150 days, a crucifix made of grapevines was passed from one faster to the next, including Durazo, her son, her husband, actor Martin Sheen, students and others until USC agreed to not subcontract out union members’ jobs.
Labor issues, particularly for immigrant workers, have been Durazo’s passion, which is not surprising given her upbringing. Her father immigrated to America from Mexico during World War II, later sending for his wife and their two oldest daughters. The couple had nine more children, and led a difficult life, traveling from field to field, following the crops in California and Mexico.
“We didn’t have shelter in the way that we should have been able to afford shelter,” Durazo says. “We squatted near a river here or there; we lived in the grower’s barn. There were so many things that were wrong with the picture. My parents were just really good human beings. And they had their faith, but that wasn’t enough. They still weren’t treated in the way they should have been treated.”
Her parents wanted a better life for their children, and they stressed education and independence, particularly her father.
“He felt that one reason in particular for women was that you never want to be so beholden to a man that you’re not able to take care of yourself,” Durazo says. “And that kind of shocked me because he was so traditional in his culture and in every way. But he felt very strongly that each of us had to get an education.”
The family eventually settled in Fresno, where they joined Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and Durazo went to San Joaquin Memorial High, where Christian Brothers taught. An older brother went to Fresno State, but Durazo chose Saint Mary’s.
“I was nervous about going to a big university. I wanted to feel more comfortable in a smaller venue,” she says. “And my dad was extremely rigid and strict with us, and he felt more comfortable that I would be going to a Catholic school.”
Her goal was to be a lawyer, but even before she graduated her interest in advocacy grew, especially in the area of immigrant rights. As a student, she helped striking immigrant workers at a tortilla factory in Richmond.
“The whole issue of immigrants eventually connected me to the labor movement,” Durazo says. “That was where my passion was — how immigrants are treated — because I saw my own parents and what it was like in the fields for them. I really felt there was an advocacy role that I could play.”
Durazo earned a law degree from the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles in 1985, going to night school as a single mother with one son, Mario, from her first marriage. During the day, she helped organize garment, hotel and restaurant workers — primarily immigrants — who barely survived on poverty wages with no benefits.
“They worked hard, but the way they were treated was something that just should not be tolerated,” Durazo says.
Her work, and her compassion, have impressed many. Salas says it is not unusual for people who grow up in poverty to distance themselves from the poor as they get into positions of power like Durazo, who by 1989 was the president of the Los Angeles local Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers union.
“In some of these jobs you can become aloof, especially when you run in circles with elected officials and people with power and influence … and not be able to connect to workers on the ground,” Salas says. “I don’t see that from her.”
Durazo says she is inspired by laborers, remarking “I went into their homes and was treated so well — ‘sit down, eat’ — it reminded me of my mom and dad. They just had this faith in life and they knew something was going to get better at the end. They knew it, as hard as it was”.
Father Scott says some may not know that the petite, smiling and soft-spoken Durazo is one of the most powerful people in Los Angeles “because she’s so unassuming and down to earth.” He recalls seeing her at the Labor Day 2009 Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels with her infant grandchild, Seneka.
“Here’s this powerful woman, a labor leader. I know she’s tough, but I saw such a tender image of her in the first pew playing with her granddaughter.”
Yet Salas says that Durazo also has an iron fist in her velvet glove. She is a passionate advocate and a true leader.
“She’s very challenging of workers and of her peers,” Salas says. “She challenges a lot of local leadership, including the mayor and council members, to be elected leaders, not representatives.”
Durazo learned from strong leaders around her, including Chavez and one of his deputies, Miguel Contreras, whom she married in 1988. Durazo had worked her way up to president of Unite Here’s Los Angeles local by 1989, and she went on to become the first Latina on the union’s international board of directors. Contreras had started organizing for UFW and by 1994 he was named head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. The couple had a son, Michael, who graduated last year from Cathedral High School in Los Angeles.
“Miguel and I were very complementary to each other because the things he loved to do, I didn’t like to do as much,” Durazo says. “He loved politics, and he was very good at it. I liked to do more of the rank-and-file organizing.”
When Contreras died suddenly in 2005, the federation waited a year, and then named Durazo acting leader and later permanent leader.
Dennis Kelly, president of the San Francisco teachers union and a 1967 SMC graduate, says Durazo shone in the role.
“She’s a very powerful and dynamic speaker,” Kelly says. “She’s there on her own merits, not because she was Miguel’s wife.”
In fact, Durazo received the Henning Institute Award for Distinguished Service from Saint Mary’s in 2004, an award that Kelly will receive in June. The Institute, inspired by Henning’s work, is a center for the study of Catholic social thought, with an emphasis on human work and its centrality to the common good.
Durazo says she was pleased when she found out that Henning graduated from Saint Mary’s.
“I am very grateful to Saint Mary’s. It was difficult being from a poor farm worker family to get into the world of a university. But that campus provided me the safety to be able to learn and grow and reinforced the values that my parents and my family had learned through our religion.”