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Dionicio Morales: Fighter for--and Critic of--His Community

He's worked hard to secure human services for Mexican Americans. But the longtime activist says the group needs to work harder to help its own.


The Pico Rivera garage that four decades ago served as headquarters for Dionicio Morales' fledging Mexican American Opportunity Foundation is where he now withdraws to work on a book.

In the book, he plans to spell out how the nonprofit foundation became the largest Latino human-services provider in the nation--with corporate and government support. He also plans to focus on a somewhat controversial theme: his belief that Mexican Americans have a long way to go in measuring up to other immigrant groups in building self-help institutions.

The 83-year-old will now have more time to complete his work. Earlier this month, he retired as president of MAOF after a lifetime of providing services--including child care and job training--to thousands in communities from East L.A. to Salinas.

The Montebello-based organization that Morales first pondered in the late 1950s under an avocado tree that still towers over his spacious house now has 700 employees, an annual budget of $59 million and 36 facilities throughout the state. For his lengthy community work, Morales was recently honored at a Century Plaza Hotel fund-raiser as an often-overlooked social activist who, with others like Cesar Chavez, former U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal and journalist Ruben Salazar, was an early player in Eastside affairs.

"He's one of those salt-of-the-earth people," says county Supervisor Gloria Molina, who in 1987 helped lobby county officials to name a portion of Belvedere Park after Morales--an honor rarely afforded someone who is still living. "When I was a young activist, he was to us big time."

With a social consciousness that traces back to his youth in Moorpark in the 1930s, Morales says that even though he is retired, he plans to continue addressing deficiencies in the Mexican American philanthropic picture--such as the group's low public profile and relatively weak formal giving habits.

He also emphasizes that there is a specific need to focus on Mexican Americans--as opposed to the umbrella group referred to as Latinos. "Hey, the Cuban people are doing great," he says. "They're a vociferous group. . . . My concern has always been people of Mexican American descent."

Two years ago, University of Houston's Arte Publico Press published his autobiography, "Dionicio Morales: A Life in Two Cultures." It's a life that covers his parents' emigration from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1918 to poverty and racism in Moorpark, and events like the "Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial" in the 1940s and the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.

But he says some of his ideas, such as his unwavering focus on Mexican Americans, were considered too radical by the publisher and were cut out. That focus comes from a personal understanding of the group's experience in the United States.

Morales spent much of his childhood sleeping in a tent like other Mexican Americans who worked in the apricot and walnut fields near Moorpark. As a young man, he saw the need for health care in his community after a personal brush with tuberculosis--which killed seven of his brothers and sisters and 13 other relatives and friends who were too poor to see a doctor.

Morales says his sense of social justice was born of such practices as that of the Ventura County community's movie house in herding Mexican Americans into one section of the theater. There was also the field trip with his high school band to Ocean Park Dance Pavilion in Santa Monica to see trumpeter Henry Busse. Morales says he had to stay outside when the cashier informed his teacher that Mexicans were not allowed inside.

By 1959, Morales--who has four children with wife Maria ranging in age from 31 to 50--was a union organizer in the garment industry and working to establish a human-services foundation. Tony Gallegos, a contemporary of Morales who later served as chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, remembers being drafted by Morales to speak up on civil-rights issues.

Another episode that helped inspire the foundation took place at Pioneer High School in Whittier in the early 1960s. Morales says sheriff's deputies unnecessarily beat Mexican American youths and their mothers during a confrontation. In reaction, Morales firmed up plans with other men like then-Pico Rivera Councilman Frank Terrazas to start the foundation.

Some had doubts that he would succeed. Among them, Morales said, was Juan Acevedo, a Mexican American PhD graduate from UCLA. Acevedo advised Morales that he already had tried to build a similar organization and had failed. Morales says that Acevedo told him the failure was, in part, due to the fact that he had strong indigenous features--and pointed out that Morales himself was also dark-skinned and might be discriminated against in some circles where he would need help. "He really was a man of ideals, but his appearance was against him," Morales says of Acevedo. "And he was very candid about it."

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