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Dionicio Morales, 1918 - 2008

Activist founded U.S.'s largest Latino human services group

September 29, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Dionicio Morales, an early giant of Eastside activism who came out of the agricultural fields of Moorpark to create the nation's largest Latino human services provider, has died. He was 89.

Morales died of natural causes Sept. 24 at Beverly Hospital in Montebello, said his daughter, Magdalena Morales.

In 1963, Morales created the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation to provide social services, such as job training and child care. Along the way, he also became a mentor to many future community leaders and an eloquent crusader for social justice.

In the 1970s, at a time when Mexican American men overwhelmingly held the reins of neighborhood activism, Morales also opened doors for female leaders.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina recalled being a young activist at East Los Angeles College, demonstrating over issues such as the Vietnam War, when she first met Morales.

"We were so anti-establishment. We didn't trust people. But he was really a man all about empowering the community," Molina said. "He really believed that every person should have a job, and that once you had a job, you could do anything."

Molina said that many years later, when she was an up-and-coming politician, Morales would turn to her for help with his projects. He was hard to turn down.

"He would lay out what he wanted to do, and it was one of those things you couldn't say no to. He would say, 'I have all these trailers for child care, but I need county land,' " Molina recalled. "I'm there thinking, 'I don't know if I could do that, but geez, it would be a good thing.' "

Over the years, Morales was honored many times for his work as a leader who -- along with others such as United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal and Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar -- was an early player in Eastside affairs.

Morales was born Oct. 9, 1918, in Yuma, Ariz. He traced his social consciousness to the 1930s, when Mexican Americans were largely segregated. He grew up sleeping in a tent near Moorpark with other Mexican Americans who worked in apricot and walnut groves.

He experienced firsthand the need for healthcare in his community after a tuberculosis outbreak killed several family members and friends who were too poor to go to a doctor. By 1959, Morales was a union organizer in the garment industry.

Although he was known as a fierce advocate for Mexican Americans, Morales could also be a critic, arguing at times that the community lagged behind other immigrant groups in building institutions to better themselves. He said he learned this the hard way when he first tried to create his social service foundation.

"I learned from that experience that if I was going to succeed, I would not go to our people," he told The Times with typical frankness in 2000. "I would go to corporate America or the government -- regrettably."

That's just what he did. In 1963, he sat under an avocado tree towering over his Pico Rivera home and pondered ways to launch what would become the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation. He decided to call President Kennedy at the White House.

"I said, 'I want to talk to the president about economic development for Mexican Americans,' " Morales recalled. "And they said, 'You've got the wrong number. You need to call the Mexican Embassy.' "

Morales called the embassy and was told that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was meeting with the ambassador to discuss the same issues. Morales became a local hero of sorts after he persuaded Johnson to come to Los Angeles and meet with members of the Mexican American community. Johnson eventually helped him secure funding for his foundation from the Department of Labor.

Today the foundation serves more than 100,000 people, most of them of low- or moderate-income earners, with a wide range of social services, including immigration assistance and English classes. Morales took pride in the fact that more than 8,000 of those clients are children. The group's reach stretches through the state from Salinas to San Ysidro, covering seven counties.

Charlie Ericksen, publisher of the Hispanic Link news service in Washington, D.C., called Morales "the most consistent Mexican American civil rights leader that I've been associated with. He was always one who genuinely felt for the small people in the world."

Frank Quevedo, chairman emeritus of the board of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Morales had a Don Quixote-like idealism but also a practical how-to quality. "He could marry big ideas that were a long way off with how to get the job done today," Quevedo said.

Morales stepped down as president of the foundation in 2000, but he never really retired and was always conjuring up new projects.

Magdalena Morales said she would teasingly call her father Cartman, after the bossy, eternally plotting character on the animated television show "South Park." "He was conniving for a good cause," she said with a laugh. Even as he lay hospitalized the day before he died, she said, he was still making speeches.

Magdalena Morales, who is working with others on a documentary about his life, said her father lamented that there was much left to do: "He would say, 'I wish my body wasn't giving out on me. I still want to do so much.' "

In addition to his daughter Magdalena, Morales is survived by his wife, Maria, 81; daughter Margarita Padilla, 60; sons Tim, 55, and Dionicio Jr., 39; two granddaughters; and three great-grandsons.

A funeral Mass will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. at St. Mariana de Paredes Catholic Church, 7922 S. Passons Blvd., in Pico Rivera. A public memorial will be held Oct. 3, with the location to be determined.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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