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The Urban Cesar Chavez

Dionicio Morales: A lifelong pursuit of justice and equality, championing the rights of those discriminated against. 1919-2008

Published on LatinoLA: October 3, 2008


The Urban Cesar Chavez


Editor's Note:

We often forget about the courageous individuals who set the stage for many of present accomplishments made by Latinos in L.A. and beyond. Dionicio Morales is one of those pioneers who rose above his circumstances to move his community forward. I met him late in his life, when I was invited to join the board of the Mexican Cultural Institute, an organization Dr. Morales helped found. Just a few weeks ago, I found out that Dr. Morales came to my hometown, Wilmington, and persuaded my father to launch a program to encourage Mexican-American Banning High students to aim for college. That was more than 40 years ago.

Gracias, Dionicio. Descansa en paz.

- Abelardo, el editor

Dr. Dionicio Morales, activist and founder of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF), died Wednesday, September 24, at Beverly Hospital in Montebello, California, from complications due to kidney failure. He was 89.

Born on October 9, 1918 in Yuma, Ariz., Dr. Morales was the son of Mexican immigrants who later moved to California. Dr. Morales later graduated from Moorpark High School in Ventura County and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1930s.

As a teenager, Dr. Morales felt the painful sting of discrimination. This experience led Dr. Morales on a lifelong pursuit of justice and equality, championing the rights of those discriminated against.

Known throughout the Latino community as an "urban Cesar Chavez" for his political activism, Dr. Morales engaged in several causes to protect his fellow Latinos. He was often asked how he could work with Democrats and Republicans, Mexican and American politicians: he would reply, "My dear friend, I have only one political party, 'The Brotherhood of Man,' and one agenda, 'Equality and Justice for all.'"

Early in his career, Dr. Morales served as an enforcement officer working for the federal government's compliance unit, where he would monitor bracero camps and communities to report human rights violations. He was later employed as an organizer and recruiter of Mexican workers by labor unions. These organization skills and collective bargaining strategies set the stage for his life work and the founding of MAOF in 1963. It would become the largest Latino-based, human service, nonprofit organization in the nation.

The first MAOF office was in Dr. Morales' garage in Pico Rivera, Calif. He eventually received the help of other community service organizations, such as the Urban League and the Jewish Federation conglomerate of human service agencies.

A major breakthrough for MAOF came when Dr. Morales met with then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson. As a result of that meeting, MAOF received federal funds to pursue equal employment opportunities. Moreover, at Dr. Morales' invitation, Vice President Johnson attended an MAOF conference in Los Angeles, where he addressed more than a thousand Mexican American leaders. This opened the door to the recognition of affirmative action program opportunities for the Mexican American community. For the first time, major corporations took notice and found in Americans of Mexican heritage equal partners for economic growth and global competitiveness.

Dr. Morales' tireless work brought him more than 120 honors and tributes. In May 2008, through the efforts of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, the East Los Angeles Transit Plaza was named in Dr. Morales' honor. In June 2008, Cal State University Los Angeles bestowed him with an honorary doctorate in the humanities. In September 2008, Dr. Morales received the Spirit of Los Angeles award from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as part of the 2008 Latino Heritage Month opening ceremonies.

Dr. Morales is survived by his wife, Maria; his two daughters, Margarita and Magdalena; his sons, Dionicio Jr. and Tim; grandchildren, Rosalina and Xanath Padilla; and, great-grandchildren Altair, Ehecatl and Cuauht?®moc. Dr. Morales will be laid to rest on Tuesday, September 30.

In lieu of flowers, the Morales family has requested donations be made to the Dionicio Morales Destiny Fund, 1317 Del Norte Road Suite 150, Camarillo, CA 93010.

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