María Elena Durazo Interview
August 25, 2000

Q: María Elena, tell us how you first got interested in labor and activism.

A: I first got the idea of connecting the fact that we were farm workers--our family were migrant farm workers--when my next oldest brother went to Fresno State. We’re from the San Joaquin Valley, basically. And so when he went to Fresno State, he immediately got involved in all the Chicano activities and started letting me hang around with him. That's how I [got to go] to the Chicano Moratorium and different things. Prior to that, we were farm workers, and that was the end of the story. We had to just work, and that was what I knew.
When I was in college, I really became much more involved at St. Mary’s up in the Bay Area. Hooked up with Chicano professors and students and MECHA. [Eventually] I hooked up with folks who were in CASA.

Q: When did you first hear the word "Aztlán," and what did mean to you?

A: I first heard about Aztlán and the idea of Aztlán when I was in high school and my older brother was taking me to different Chicano events. The first time I heard the word "Aztlán," I didn't understand it. When I went to college, and really started getting into the Chicano Movement, I really believed that there [was] an Aztlán. And I think that was real important to give me the confidence, that the demands that we make are connected to something here in this land. But it is real. It has some real roots in this country. And that made me feel a whole lot more confident that our people, coming from Mexico, here in this country--it’s not some made up thing. There’s real roots here in this country. So I sort of went from "here’s a nice idea, trying to connect us," to like "it's real." There’s a real part to Aztlán and the Chicano Movement, and our struggles here. So I went through a real change in what I conceived of it.

Q: How did you feel about being a part of the march and working with the Farm Workers?

A: I felt like there was a way of articulating in bigger terms what I, [and] especially my parents, had been living through. So, every day, when my dad was trying to negotiate with the contratista, what the price ought to be that they paid a family of ten, working out there. Up to this point it was us by ourselves. And then when the connections [with the Chicano Movement] started being made [I thought] "hey wait a minute--this is going on with a whole lot of people." There’s something intentional about it, and I felt much much better that I wasn’t just out there by myself, or my parents weren't just out there by themselves being victims [of] one particular grower. We were connected to something bigger. There was a struggle. I could have the opportunity to fight back. I had the opportunity to do something about it, versus just being a victim. Our people have fought back about it. And now I can be a part of fighting back, and making some real change, so that my parents, [and] other parents, don't have to go through this again. So, I felt relieved that there was a real way for our people to fight back. In the fields, I never felt like there was a real chance.

Q: Being an intelligent woman, being educated, you could have chosen many careers, and you could have gone the route of the material world. Yet you decided to devote your life to improving the lot of working people. Why is this so important to you?

A: There are certain things that stand out in my life in terms of what my parents and our family have gone through, and at the time, for whatever reason, because we were such a tight-knit family and we traveled together, as migrant farm workers, my dad would load us up on the flatbed truck and we'd go from town to town and pick whatever crop was coming up. And we moved from school to school. So I didn’t have friends that I grew up with. My friends were my family. When we'd go through certain things, I didn’t understand that it was a more deliberate, bigger thing that was going on with a lot of people. [I didn't understand] it was wrong. And so when we were in San Jose, and I had the very next sibling to me, my mom's youngest at the time, I was about four or five years old, he died, when we were working in the camps at San Jose. Because my mom didn't have access to health care. And all I know, in terms of my vision, is seeing a small coffin. And that my parents couldn’t afford to bury him. They had to go to the local priest to have him buried. I think about my dad when he had to negotiate with the contratistas, and we'd all be sitting around. We knew we had to work really really hard. And the contratistas were chintzing us down to what were pennies for them. But it was food on the table for us. I’m number seven in the family, but only the second in my family to go to college because my older brothers and sisters had to work. They had to drop out of high school to work to support the rest of us. I mean, why couldn’t they finish high school? Why couldn’t my dad make enough working in the fields, and all of us working in the fields, so that they didn’t have to drop out of high school? And then I remember, more than anything, leaving to go to college, and my dad’s apologizing, saying he was really sorry. And I'm like, what are you talking about? And he says because, you know, I would have wanted that you didn’t have to go through scholarships and financial aid to be able to get through college. He says, I would liked to have done this, myself. And I thought, why is my dad apologizing? Why should any man, any person, who worked hard from sun-up to sun-down have to apologize to their kids, because their kids are going away to college and they didn’t have all that they could for them? And those are the sorts of things that no human being should have to go through when you work hard. And so I know my parents were hard-working. I know all of us were hard-working. And like them, there are hundreds and thousands and millions of Mexicanos here in this country and other workers that should be treated with a lot more respect and dignity and for the value of their work. And that’s what I think about, and that's what moves me to do whatever I do.

Q: What are your duties as president of Local Eleven?

A: Well, I think that my duties every day are tasks. But I think that my role as president of Local Eleven is to is to tread new ground in the area of struggle. Struggle for workers in this industry. The overwhelming majority are Mexicano and Latino immigrants. How do we push our struggle so that they get the respect that they deserve? To be able to raise their kids with dignity? And so, I see my role as pushing that struggle. Pushing it in a creative way, pushing it in a smart way, pushing it in a powerful way even though our resources are limited. I think about what Cesar Chávez said as far as common people doing uncommon things. I believe in that, and so I think my role as the president of this union is to push those kinds of strategies. But don’t let our people accept what goes on every day. And push them and challenge them.
And they get mad at me. They don't like what our program and our strategy is. For example, a housekeeper says she’s treated wrong. I have to challenge her and say I'm not going to go do it for you. You need to be the one that's a leader in your workplace. You need to be the one to face the boss. So they can’t just sit back and let somebody else do it for them.
Push, break down, be smart, be creative, be militant, and challenge what’s out there about what our people deserve. A dishwasher deserves as much as a Yale graduate in raising his or her family. And so I think that's, that’s my role, and in connecting with those outside of our union movement, that are part of a bigger movement. Academicians and church leaders. And leaders of all kinds. Saying we want the same thing. Let's push it. Let’s get the most that we can.
And also believe that people will change. People are not stuck where they are today. You've got to believe and have faith in people, and I think that mostly it’s how are we going to change this society? To be a lot more respectful of working men and women?