News Column

Dionicio Morales: Opening the Door for Opportunity

January/February 2007, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine
Dionicio Morales accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award from Gloria Molina at the 16th Annual EOY Gala.
Dionicio Morales accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award from Gloria Molina at the 16th Annual EOY Gala.

After spending most of his 88 years fighting for racial equality, Dionicio Morales' dedication has not wavered, nor his optimism.

In accepting Hispanic Business magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award, the founder of the 43-year-old Mexican American Opportunity Foundation took the opportunity to call on people to take a stand against what he believes are unfair immigration practices in the United States.

"At a time when we're beginning to feel closer to this American dream, this immigration turmoil hits us," Mr. Morales said at the 16th annual EOY Awards Gala. "Because of the situation with immigration, everyone in this room has responsibility to become alert.

"I've been to universities and high schools and I saw these kids walk out of schools with passion and I say to them, 'We have a dream now, the dream I had in the early days and now we're faced with comparable bigotry, but it's going to be easier now.'"

Described by some of his admirers as the "urban Cesar Chavez," Mr. Morales has worked for more than 40 years to create employment and educational opportunities that otherwise would not be available for Hispanics.

"He gave others, like me, the courage to create change and to challenge the underlying assumption that the Latino community cannot determine it's own future," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Born in Yuma, Arizona in 1918, the first of 11 children, Dionicio Morales came of age during the Depression in the then-rural community of Moorpark, California. Mr. Morales's parents were immigrants, who like thousands before them, had settled in one of Southern California's agricultural towns to work in the fields.

As the Depression intensified, many people lost their jobs. Competition for work worsened anti-Mexican sentiment. Los Angeles County set up a fund to finance their expulsion, for example, and 200,000 Mexicans had left the country by 1931.

Those who remained suffered numerous hardships. Deplorable living conditions of field workers and lack of adequate health care contributed to widespread tuberculosis. Mr. Morales nearly died of the disease, and he lost seven brothers and sisters to the illness.

In school, Mexican children were separated from Anglo students, herded into classrooms with dirt floors. If students were heard speaking Spanish, their mouths were washed out with soap.

"I learned at age 7 that even though I was American at birth, I was beginning to feel that my life was never going to be easy," Mr. Morales wrote in his autobiography, Dionicio Morales: A Life in Two Cultures. "There were silent rules about being an American that had nothing to do with being born in this country."

Mr. Morales refused to accept those "silent rules" and made it his life's work to change them.

The injustices led him to dedicate his life's work to bettering the plight of Mexican Americans.

While a student at Santa Barbara State Teacher's College, Mr. Morales become a compliance officer with the Bracero program, which brought workers across the border to labor in fields and factories originally depleted by Americans entering the military. That's when he first met a young Cesar Chavez.

He would go on to work as a probation officer for Mexican-American youth and eventually a labor organizer in East Los Angeles. His early years in East L.A. helped lay the groundwork for the formation of what would become the" target="_blank">Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF), which he founded in 1963.

The organization's primary mission giving Mexican Americans the necessary job training they needed to get out of low-wage occupations, which had long been the only option for many Hispanics.

Since its inception, MAOF has grown to become the largest social services provider in the country, serving more than 100,000 Californians and providing child care for an estimated 8,000 children each day.

An early episode in his life illustrates Mr. Morales's low-profile yet determined approach to nonprofit management. Mr. Morales had spent two frustrating years trying to fund what would become the MAOF. His fellow board members urged him to liquidate the organization, whose only assets were $22 in the bank and two copies of the bylaws.

Mr. Morales had a solution.

"We haven't talked to the president of the United States," he suggested.

That call led to a face-to-face meeting with Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, and eventually to a job-development grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

That meeting was a watershed moment for the MAOF. In 1968, five years after launching the nonprofit, the agency obtained its first $1 million federal contract.

Mr. Morales would eventually develop relationships with corporate giants, including Rockwell International, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed Martin, that would lead to many jobs for Mexican Americans. One of those corporations, Kraft Foods, continues to be an MAOF supporter. He also made a point to get some of corporate America's top executives on the nonprofit's board.

Today, MAOF still works in job training, but 80 percent of its $57 million budget goes to child care programs that enable parents to work.

"So when you begin to see what Dionicio sees you can't help but be drawn to his cause and that's what I respect most about this gentlemen, he knows what our community needs and he certainly isn't afraid to fight for it," Ms. Molina said.

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and, Copyright (c) 2006 All Rights Reserved.

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters