IN SEARCH OF AZTLÁN
María Elena Durazo Interview
August 25, 2000
Q: María Elena, tell us how you first got interested in labor and
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. Were 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. Marys
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--its not some made up thing. Theres real roots
here in this country. So I sort of went from "heres a nice
idea, trying to connect us," to like "it's real." Theres
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
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." Theres something intentional
about it, and I felt much much better that I wasnt 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 didnt have friends that I grew
up with. My friends were my family. When we'd go through certain things,
I didnt 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 couldnt 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. Im 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 couldnt they finish high school? Why couldnt
my dad make enough working in the fields, and all of us working in the
fields, so that they didnt have to drop out of high school? And
then I remember, more than anything, leaving to go to college, and my
dads 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 didnt 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 didnt
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 thats
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 dont 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 shes 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 cant just sit back and let somebody else do it
Push, break down, be smart, be creative, be militant, and challenge whats
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,
thats 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. Lets 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 its how are we going to change this society? To be a
lot more respectful of working men and women?