Hispanic heritage- Dionicio Morales a Mexican American legend and a biographical tribute
Prologue Conceived in Mexico-Born in the United States. Providence bestowed on him two cultures, a fusion of which he has embraced throughout his life. A bicultural heritage, which he has generously shared with family and friends, always enhancing and promoting the respect among the diverse American communities. His cause is well illustrated by his autobiography: Dionicio Morales: A Life in Two Cultures.
‘Don Dionicio’-as he is respectfully addressed by his many friends and colleagues-is a man of destiny and a legend in his lifetime. ln the Hispanic-American urban communities, he has become an inspirational leader and a beacon of hope.
A descendant of the proud Tarascan culture that inhabited the States of Guanajuato and Michoacan and the adjacent territories in the El Bajio lowlands of central Mexico, seeking refuge from the ravages of the Mexican Revolution of r9ro, the Morales family embarked for the promised land to the North-not unlike other immigrants, past and present, who make up the diversified citizenry of the United States. Don Dionicio’s father, Severo Morales, reminiscent of pioneers before him who crossed the Great Plains to reach California, crossed the Chihuahua desert to establish a beachhead in Moorpark, California for his family. Subsequently, he was followed by Dionicio’s mother, Narcisa Arenas, and accompanying relatives, who crossed the Sonora desert, primarily riding the railroad boxcars, encountering every conceivable ordeal, made their way after crossing the border on foot to Yuma, Arizona. Broke and starving, with Narcisa in advanced pregnancy, they were given shelter in an lndian reservation by the Quechan tribe of 1st Nation Americans.
The Quechan community embraced Narcisa and provided all the necessary comforts, shelter and nutrition, enabling her to give light to a healthy first born-born in the new country of their guest for a better life. He was named ‘Dionicio’in honor of the patron saint of the community on whose name day he was born. This event was embedded in Dionicio’s psyche by his mother who was eternally grateful to the Quechan and who forever remembered the community in her prayers. The moral he always has lived by since his birth, “the brotherhood of man eclipses political boundaries and national agendas,” was learned by the example of this selfless, Ioving and caring community.
Once in Moorpark, an agricultural community in Ventura County, California, Dionicio experienced the hatefulness of white supremacy-prejudice based on pigmentation of skin and ethnicity. His setbacks were also offset by the lust and equitable treatment he and his family experienced from their patrons and neighbors. ln this polarized society of love and hate, Dionicio chose love and determined at a young age to defeat the forces of hate. He mused, if America is to survive based on its ideology of justice and equality for all, it must eradicate the cancer of prejudice that is a social epidemic. The cure, he concluded was enlightenment, the defeat of ignorance. Education was the equalizer.
An episode in his teenage years as a student of his local high school defined his lifelong pursuit of justice and equality for all and to champion the rights of the less privileged members of society, particularly his brethren who were discriminated against by virtue of the color of their skin. Dionicio became an accomplished trumpet player and became the rest trumpet of the Moorpark High School band. As a reward, he was invited with the school dance band to attend a performance by Henry Busey, the famous trumpet player who was his idol, at Ocean Park Dance Pavilion in Santa Monica, a landmark venue at the time. Upon arrival he was refused entrance because “Mexicans” were not allowed. Nonchalantly his instructor and fellow students gained entrance and he was made to wait for them at the entrance for their return. Humiliated and freezing in the cold, his anger provided him with a new strength. And he resolved, right there and then, to champion the rights of his people, another persons of color, to prevent a similar assault and degradation to their human dignity. He did not know it at the time, but this was the birth of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOD which he subsequently founded in his adulthood.
Dionicio received the formal education that his undergraduate schoolteachers had discouraged, because he was Mexican, and prepared himself for his life-tong task. However, before he completed his college education, in the 1930’s, before launching his crusade, he had to overcome a life threatening illness, tuberculosis (TB), which was a widespread disease at the time. Several of his friends and relatives had already succumbed to TB and his medical providers had given him a grim prognosis, a slim chance of survival. He was advised that TB was the disease predominantly afflicting Mexicans. He reached deep into his spiritual arsenal bestowed upon him by his mother and sought the guidance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the brown skinned virgin Mary that had appeared to a Mexican lndian in ther5oo’s and who had become the symbol of respect and appreciation for their ethnicity, a pride of being Mexican. He prayed to the Blessed Mother and his prayers were answered. Within two years of convalescence, following lung surgery Dionicio conquered the disease, to which he and his mother attributed as a miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
An event, which provoked young Dionicio into action, took place in Moorpark at the local theatre. He was forcibly evicted, by a former classmate no less, who was the attending usher, for daring to sit in the Anglo section. This public humiliation, reminiscent of his degradation at the Ocean Park ballroom, finally forced him into an activist strategy. Enlisting the participation of a sage man in the community, Don Luca Perez, together they sought the protection of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. Together they ascertained that discrimination on the basis of race or national origin was prohibited in California and each offense was punish-able by a substantial fine. Armed with this knowledge and institutional support they organized a protest and before it became necessary to manifest their complaint, the theatre management, advised of the movement, capitutated. From that moment on there was no discrimination in seating arrangements. Dionicio experienced the taste of victory for the first time, and the lesson learned: strategic alliances, l-legal research, plan of action and collective leverage.
Armed with an undergraduate education, Dionicio engaged in several causes designed to protect his fellow Mexican-Americans. Among these was the protection of immigrant contract workers from Mexico, known as Braceros. As an enforcement officer working for the Federal government’s compliance unit, Dionicio would monitor bracero camps and communities to report human rights violations. This was Dionicio’s first exposure to native Mexicans. He became familiar with their lifestyle, but had not yet fully understood their soul.
ln 1950, Dionicio had his first lob for a community-based, non-profit organization. He was effectively an ombudsman for the barrios in San Antonio, Texas. Nothing had prepared him for the extreme degradation of human dignity, rampant prejudice and discrimination, and reckless disregard for the basic safety and well-being of the Mexican-American residents. “People had to pay 25 cents for a tank of water.
The barrios may as well have been located in the impoverished areas of lndia, he concluded. “And, if you think San Antonio is bad, you should go to the rural areas. They have been victims of subhuman treatment,” a close confidant advised him. Dionicio learned to organize the neighbor-hoods, like action cells, in order to counter the violations of human rights, which eventually succeeded.
Upon his return to California, Dionicio honed his skills in protecting the rights of workers. He was employed as an organizer and recruiter of Mexican workers by labor unions. These organizational skills and collective bargaining strategies set the stage for his life work: the organization in 1963 of a community-based, non-profit service organization-The Mexican American 0pportunity Foundation (MAOF).
ln its early years, MAOF survived through the efforts and subsistence of Dionicio and his wife, Maria, ever the partner and inspiration at his side, always sharing his ideals and altruism. Were it not for her, MAOF would have remained nothing more than a dream, far from a reatity. Dionicio sought the help of other community service organizations, such as the Urban League and the Jewish Federation conglomerate of human service agencies. Several close friends and community leaders loined Dionicio in the early days of survival. His first entr6e into the African-American community, in an effort to seek assistance, was New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. And finally, through perseverance and sacrifice, the big break came, in the person of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, the author of the Great Society.