Meet Maria Moreno: The First Farm Worker Woman in America To Be Hired As A Union Organizer

By Bill Berkowitz Feb 28, 2018

Before César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, there was Maria Moreno, a union organizer whose story all but disappeared from history until the discovery of lost photographs taken more than 50 years ago by George Ballis, one of the leading photographers of the farmworker movement. It was a discovery that sparked the search for a woman that time had forgotten.

The story of Maria Moreno—a migrant mother of 12, who was elected by her fellow Mexican-American, Filipino, Black and Okie farmworkers to represent them—the first female farm worker in America to be hired as a union organizer, is now being told in a new documentary, "Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno."

As Laurie Coyle, the film’s director, told Colorlines: “The search for Maria guides this documentary, where ghosts fade in and out and magic underpins a rawboned reality. In the end, whose stories get told may hinge on memories, coincidence and—in Maria’s case—an insistence on pursuing a path that touches the lives of others. From California’s great Central Valley, to the Arizona desert and U.S.-Mexico border, the journey yields buried treasure…and stories told with passion and humor.”

Ahead of the March 1 world premiere of "Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno" at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California, Colorlines talked to Coyle about the inspiration for the documentary, Moreno’s organizing journey and how her legacy lives on.

Let’s start with the basics: Who was Maria Moreno?

Laurie Coyle: Maria Moreno was a migrant mother who was driven by her 12 children’s hunger to become an activist in the late 1950s. She was born in Texas in 1920 and came to California during the Dustbowl Migration. Her father was an orphan of the Mexican Revolution and her mother was Mescalero Apache, so Maria was Mexican American, indigenous and a U.S. citizen.

What motivated Moreno to become an organizer? How did she get hired?

Coyle: The 1958 flood in Tulare County, California, left more than 300 farmworkers displaced and without work. According to county regulations, farmworkers weren’t eligible for food assistance. Many of them were going hungry, and Maria’s eldest son stopped eating so that his younger brothers and sisters would have a little more to eat. He went blind temporarily and had to be hospitalized. Maria started speaking out, and Ron Taylor at The Fresno Bee covered her story. Maria’s testimony created such a stir that the county welfare agency reversed its policy and offered food assistance to the farm workers. Word about Maria got out, and in 1959, when Norman Smith was sent by the AFL-CIO to launch the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, Maria Moreno was one of the first organizers that he hired.

Describe the conditions that farmworkers faced that led her to start speaking out and organizing.

Coyle: In spite of the unprecedented affluence in the post-World War II years, Maria Moreno’s family and other farmworkers were living in conditions that hadn’t changed since the Depression. Farmworkers had been excluded from the rights won by most industrial workers in the 1930s, such as the right to organize and bargain collectively, minimum wage, social security and unemployment. Child labor, which had been outlawed decades earlier, was still common in agriculture; families depended on their children’s labor to make ends meet, and most of those children attended school irregularly. They lived in rural ghettos and segregated migrant camps, often without heat, running water or toilets. Life was especially difficult in the long winter months after the harvests were done. At the time Maria started organizing, farmworkers were making 85 cents per hour, or a piece rate that amounted to less, well below the minimum wage. At that time, farmworkers were demanding $1.25 per hour. The government never set wage standards for farm labor, and the growers never committed to a living wage.

The movement that César Chávez headed up in the 1960s-’70s pushed through reforms like the right to collective bargaining, a minimum wage, disability, unemployment insurance, and drinking water and toilets in the fields. But these gains applied only to California farmworkers, not the nation. Today, only one percent of California’s farmworkers are covered under a union contract, and those who aren’t frequently don’t benefit from farmworker protections.

Why did it take so many years for Moreno’s story to be told? 

Coyle: There are many answers to that question! Over the past few decades, virtually everyone doing farmworker research was focused on César Chávez and the United Farm Workers [UFW]. Although the photographs of Maria Moreno that I found weren’t literally buried or lost, nevertheless, most everyone visiting the Take Stock archive where I found George Ballis’ photographs was looking for images of Chávez and the UFW, so in some sense Maria Moreno was invisible. I, too, went there looking for photos of César Chávez, but digging deeper, reaching further back in time, I found the Moreno photos and they were riveting. Likewise, the audio recordings of Maria and her union were in the stacks at the Walter Reuther Library in Detroit. But nobody had ever listened to the recordings or catalogued them because everyone was looking for documentation of the Chávez era. Having a woman, especially a farmworker woman, as spokesperson for AWOC [Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee] in 1960 was extraordinary—this was before second wave feminism or the civil rights March on Washington. There were other farmworker women activists, but they weren’t known outside their community. What you find is largely a matter of what you are looking for, what you deem important, and Maria Moreno was not on anybody’s radar.

Then, there’s the question of labor politics and union rivalries. Maria Moreno went to work for the AWOC in 1959. Her effectiveness as a speaker and organizer is attested to by the fact that the Okie, Arkie, Black, Filipino and Mexican-American AWOC members elected her to represent them. This was at a time when rural California was highly segregated, with farmworkers living in segregated camps and working on segregated crews. In the fields, growers pitted the different ethnic groups against each other to break strikes and keep wages down. As UFW Co-founder Gilbert Padilla said, AWOC was a pioneering thing, and Maria was ahead of her time.

Although embraced by the rank and file members of her union, her outspokenness got her into trouble with labor bureaucrats at the AFL-CIO, which was funding AWOC. Concerned that AWOC was calling too many strikes and that the AFL-CIO was running up legal bills defending them, George Meany, the AFL-CIO’s first president, decided to bring the union to heel and sent in an enforcer who fired Moreno and some other organizers who were considered too independent. After that mini purge, most AWOC members just drifted away. But the Filipinos maintained control of their local committees and it was they who started the 1965 grape strike. Eventually, Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), and AWOC joined forces and merged into the UFW.

What was Moreno’s relationship to Chávez and the UFW?

Coyle: People often ask me why Cesar Chávez didn’t recruit Maria to work with the NFWA. I’ve heard different explanations, including one that Cesar was a devout Catholic and Maria was a devout Pentecostal. Over the course of my research, I found a letter and a recording with Chávez referring to Maria Moreno’s “big mouth.” I’m sure that gender bias played a role, as well as rivalry between their unions.

There’s the saying that history belongs to the victors—since Maria’s movement went down to defeat, that’s why she’s been forgotten. Beyond that, however, the standard narrative of the farmworkers movement has always been focused on César Chávez. But that’s beginning to change, as we can see from the enormous success of Peter Bratt’s recent documentary about Dolores Huerta. I began shooting "Adios Amor" before Peter began shooting "Dolores." But making a film about an unknown woman is more of an uphill battle than making a film about a woman who has been a national figure for years. The point is not to replace the history of one famous man with the history of one or two famous women—the point is to be thoughtful about how the narrative is shaped, and whose stories are represented.

There are many women who have made and continue to make significant contributions to social justice struggles but have remained anonymous. It was possible for me to tell Maria’s story because the images and recordings made by photographers and journalists (George Ballis, Ernie Lowe, Henry Anderson, Ron Taylor) captured her story. Their documentation of her life and work may have been overlooked or forgotten, but their remarkable record of her life and work survived. Maria Moreno and AWOC planted a seed. It’s a seed that still needs nurturing today.

What inspired you to make the film? Describe the journey you were on.

Coyle: The first time I saw Maria Moreno was 20 years ago when I was lead researcher and associate producer for Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles’ documentary, "The Fight in the Fields-César Chávez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle."

As a producer of history documentaries, finding a treasure trove of photographs I wasn’t looking for was tremendously exciting. I wanted to know more, but life as a working mother and freelance filmmaker intervened. Years later, after working on, and in one case directing, numerous documentaries about illustrious men, I returned to the provocative photographs to find their mysterious protagonist. When the search began, I didn’t know what I would find or whether Maria Moreno would still be living. With a measure of luck and a lot of work, I traced her life and legacy.

On a personal note, "Adios Amor" represents a homecoming for me. The year that Maria Moreno was pushed out of the labor movement, my parents uprooted our family of nine from the East Coast and moved to the Bay Area. In those days there were still traces of the farms that had been the heart of the Santa Clara Valley. The public library in our town was built in the middle of an apricot orchard, and we would collect the apricots that fell to the ground. But we knew nothing about the lives and struggles of the workers who grew the food on our table. Not until the California grape strike started and my Dad began volunteering at the farmworker clinic in Delano. Mom was busy raising seven kids, taking night classes and protesting the war in Vietnam. I dedicate "Adios Amor" to their memory.

Why was I driven to tell this story? I want people, especially young people, to fall in love with history. I appreciate the importance of STEM education, but history and the humanities are getting the short shrift these days. Knowing where we come from and whose shoulders we stand on is empowering. I hope that "Adios Amor-The Search for Maria Moreno" will inspire viewers to launch their own journeys of discovery, to ask how is history shaped and whose voices are represented. How many Marias walk among us? It’s for us to draw a circle around their stories and invite them to speak.

What are some of the issues that women working in the fields face today? 

Coyle: Today, over 80 percent of farmworkers are immigrants and more than half are undocumented, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. With the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and spike in immigration raids, farmworkers live in fear of deportation and family separation. Most farmworkers are married, and/or have children, yet six out of 10 live apart from their families. In spite of gains made in California, nationally, farmworkers continue to be excluded from minimum wage, overtime and disability regulations. Although child labor laws set 16 as the minimum age, the minimum age for farm work is 12. Farmworker annual income is $11,000 for an individual and $16,000 for a family, well below the federal poverty level. And although farmworkers have taxes withheld from their paychecks, less than 1 percent use welfare, 2 percent use social security and 15 percent are Medicaid recipients.

In addition to these conditions, farmworker women have been the victims of widespread sexual harassment and assault on the job. They have suffered these grievances in silence because reporting it would risk their jobs, their reputations, and their ability to feed their families. But that is beginning to change. Farmworker women’s organizations such as Lideres Campesinas and the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas have been advocating on these issues for years. Recently, they joined with the emerging #MeToo/#TimesUp campaign, publishing an open letter titled "700,000 Female Farmworkers Say They Stand With Hollywood Actors Against Sexual Assault." Farmworker women are taking the lead in the campaign to raise awareness and provide legal defense for victims of sexual violence and harassment.