As a union leader and a child of Mexican immigrants, Maria Elena Durazo was on familiar ground when she appeared at a Saint Mary's College conference on labor, immigration and Catholic social thought on Oct. 30.

Durazo discussed the role that her Catholic faith has played in her life and in pursuing a career committed to workers' issues during her speech at "The Church and the Worker in the Modern World: Partners in a Sacred Trust," a conference sponsored by the John F. Henning Institute. Durazo also expressed support for the locked-out workers involved in a contract dispute with 14 San Francisco hotels.

A 1975 graduate of Saint Mary's, Durazo is the president of the Los Angeles branch of Unite Here, Local 11 (AFL-CIO), representing more than 440,000 hotel and restaurant workers. She is the first Latina to head a major union in Southern California, and she has won several awards for her efforts in justice and civil rights.

At the Saint Mary's College conference, Durazo received the Henning Institute Award for Distinguished Service.

In an interview before the conference, Durazo talked about growing up in a family of migratory farm workers. Traveling from Oregon to California, Durazo, her parents, and her nine siblings picked olives, beans, grapes, apricots and plums. She remembers that it was a constant battle to overcome poverty, and she believes her family wouldn't have gotten by without their Catholic faith and the church's commitment to social justice.

"The Catholic Church was the place that we went to in every town that we ever had to stop in and work in," Durazo says. "The Catholic Church was where we were received with open arms. We were literally strangers and the doors were open to us. I know my parents were somewhat embarrassed about asking for help. But they never felt that it was wrong or shameful when we went to the Catholic Church. The church filled a very real need that our family had, which was how do we get through the poverty that comes from not having food and not having basic things."

Even when not in church, Durazo's family derived strength from their beliefs.

"We had the faith that God is always there for us, in spite of all the obstacles," she says. "My faith is a real anchor in my life. It gives me the strength to get through these things."

Durazo had her first taste of labor organizing while she was student of history at Saint Mary's. She and her colleagues fasted and occupied the campus chapel in order to draw attention to the need for more classes about Latino and African American issues, as well as enhanced remedial programs to help students stay in college.

"That was a great lesson to me, because the response of the administration was not to react in a hostile way. They never did anything to push us out of the chapel. They were actually trying to figure out how to cope with the changes on the campus," recalls Durazo.

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