Tribute to a Warrior for Her Community

by on August 24, 2020 · 10 comments

in Civil Rights, San Diego

Maria Aceves works on children’s art project, “Journey to Our Dreams”

By Joni Halpern

As a resident of San Diego County, you should be introduced to a woman more important than the President of the United States, more relevant than any celebrity, more powerful than any person of riches.

Her vast talents could not be purchased.  Her dedication to excellence, even in the smallest of tasks, was relentless.   Her loyalty could only be earned.  But if you were the target of injustice, the person who suffered from the unwarranted, heedless acts of those who thought you had no advocates, she was the best friend you could ever have.

She came from humble beginnings, a little place near Guadalajara, working from youth in a home-operated business preparing the foods her mother sold.  She had a keen intellect, but she was never allowed to proceed very far in school.  Instead, she went to work, turning over her earnings to her mother, keeping only enough for transportation and a few necessities.  She could see her future, dismal and uninterrupted by even the smallest surprise of opportunity young people crave.  She married, and only months after the birth of her first child, necessity forced the new family to enter the United States without papers.

For all of us smug Americans who were born here, who have never had to envision running to another country for the chance to provide the most basic necessities for our families, there were derogatory terms we used back then to describe women like her.  We  called them “wetbacks.”

Clinging to her husband with a babe in arms, this young mother  swallowed her terror in big gulps and crossed the Rio Grande to reach promising shores where she and  her family could build a life.  Years later, politicians gave us a new term for people like her –  “Illegal aliens” – to make it easier to separate them from the sympathy of American citizens, many of whose own ancestors had come to this country for the very same reasons – Italians, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, Irish, and so many more whose only claim to the term “legal” alien was the demand for white-skinned labor that temporarily excluded them from laws labeling immigrants as human contraband.

Nowadays, a young woman such as she would be considered a criminal opportunist, her husband a rapist or gang member, her baby a useless burden.  Even after she obtained a green card, and eventually American citizenship, she still felt the scorn of many of the white Americans she encountered.

You might not have felt this way if you had known her in any of the low-wage positions she filled in our job market.  You might have been charmed by her geniality and kindness if she waited on your table.  You might have looked forward to her visit when she collected the rent at the apartment complex she once managed.  You might have moved into one of the eighty spic-and-span apartments she cleaned after the previous tenant left.  You might have been the bus driver whom she greeted with a smile and a touch of humor in the wee hours of the morning, as she went to her housekeeping job at a La Jolla assisted living facility.

You might have been one of the rich elderly residents there whose eyes lighted up when she came to clean your room,  bringing with her the warmth and concern that made you feel worthy of love.  You might have been a student at San Diego State University, where she supervised the preparation of deli sandwiches by students who would go on to bigger and better jobs.

No task was too insignificant to do well, she taught her five children, whom she ultimately had to support on her own.  No paycheck, no matter how inadequate or unfair, could persuade her to abandon her commitment to do her best and finish everything.  Others might falter, lose interest, make excuses for less than their best.  Not her.  It wasn’t in her.

Beyond her dedication as an employee, however, she was a warrior for justice.  She understood that the only place in which poor people could fight is the public arena.  They are not invited to the closed-door meetings with people in power.  Though they may be the most important stakeholders in the formation of public policies that affect their lives, they are never invited to the table.  She despised this exclusion, not by shouting radicalism, but by the time-honored method of organizing her community members and delivering their voices to the corridors of power.

She had a great talent for organizing.  People looked up to her.  They believed her.  She did not lie.  She feared retaliation by people in power, but never gave in to it.  She was fiercely determined to bring justice to her community.  She organized Sherman Heights tenants who were being scattered to the East and South County by the gentrification that accompanied the creation of Petco Park and the surrounding high-end hotels and businesses.  A neighborhood that had been like a family gathering place for low-wage workers raising upstanding families was eviscerated.  She worked with friends to write an Op-Ed published in the Union-Tribune about the terrible toll suffered by the low-income community that had called Sherman Heights home.

She became a volunteer, serving as spokesperson and leader for a grassroots organization, the Supportive Parents Information Network (SPIN), composed of very low-income parents.  She enrolled in English classes and worked hard at pronunciation to make herself understood as she testified in front of councils and commissions and met in the offices of legislators and public officials.  Even before she was fluent in English, she would prepare her statements in Spanish and then work with someone to translate them into English. She then would spend hours pronouncing the English words until she could make herself understood.  If an English word proved too hard to pronounce, she would ask for a substitute.

When she spoke, she never talked about her own suffering.  She spoke about the suffering of her community.  She worked with youth of all ages from the low-income community, helping them start and complete projects to make their voices heard, providing homemade burritos and caldo de res at her own expense, but reminding them of the importance of the task at hand.

For almost 15 years, she worked with SPIN on every action undertaken to bring low-income parents and children into the public dialogue:  A march for affordable housing; a reader’s theatre written and performed by low-income single mothers to publicly illustrate the problems they face; a three-year effort to get banks to offer a special deposit account for low-income customers who had been excluded from banking and relegated to payday lenders and check-cashing establishments; a children’s art project titled “Journey to Our Dreams” in which youth of all ages depicted their hopes of a better future and the obstacles they faced in attaining it.

She went to Sacramento on crowded buses with other parents to testify before legislators, organizing the participants and the supplies.  The nonprofit budget was too small to feed participants at restaurants or house them in motels, so she was the one who ensured the proper items of food and hygiene were present, making sure the distribution was fair.  The participants always stopped in Los Angeles on the long trip, sleeping on the office floor of a nonprofit organization.  Her back aching and knees hurting from long years of physical labor, she still slept on the floor with them.

On one occasion, she made a 24-hour train ride to Sacramento with six young people, ages six to 16, who were scheduled to testify at a state legislative committee considering cutting essential benefits to thousands of poor families throughout California.  She and another volunteer had care of the children.  All the way up, she helped the children rehearse their presentations, making sure they stayed within time limits and emphasizing the need for excellent conduct while waiting their turns to speak.  It took seven hours for the children to be allowed to speak, but they waited patiently with perfect conduct, not wanting to disappoint her.  Not one speech exceeded the allotted time, and each child was able to answer questions put to them by legislators who spoke with them after the hearing.

This woman was sometimes denigrated by people in power, but she was never deterred.  In one meeting to address San Diego County’s national standing as worst in the nation for providing food stamps to eligible families, then-Supervisor Bill Horn tossed aside her concern, saying “I don’t represent your neighborhood down there in South County.”

“You think because I look like this, I live in South County,” she said, passing one hand over her visage of brown skin, deep brown eyes, and rich, dark hair. “I live in San Diego. There are many people like me who live in your district. But you do not see them.”

If you were her neighbor or her friend, or even a stranger in need, she found ways to help.  There were people she knew who respected her and would step in to help others if she asked.  She was a no-nonsense person whose reputation was built by acts of authentic kindness, loyalty, and love, never undertaken for the sake of appearance.

She was only 67 years old when she died on August 22, 2020, but she had devoted her life to accomplishments of service, mercy and justice that went far beyond those of any public leader, celebrity or person of riches.  She was worn out, but those who knew what she had contributed filled the little house where she died.  Every one of her children now carries that same core of character that she had.  Every person she ever helped mourns her. Every friend she ever had feels the void she has left among us.

“No me olvidas,” she said again and again before she died.

As if that were even possible.

Godspeed, Maria Aceves, dearest friend, devoted mother and grandmother, warrior for her community.  If we see you after we die, we will know we have reached the heavens.




{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page August 24, 2020 at 11:13 am

Beautiful tribute. It is a shame that a soul like this had to fight for her and others to have what many of us take for granted. It’s hard to lose complete faith in the human race when there are people like Maria Aceves among us.


Joni Halpern August 24, 2020 at 2:46 pm

Geoff, thank you for your kind comments, but most of all for your appreciation of a life so well lived. Stay well. We need people like you.


retired botanist August 24, 2020 at 2:38 pm

Wow, I’ll second that. I only wish that our Congressional subcommittees, like the USPS inquiry I listened to today, could read this testimonial and learn something. What a life in service and giving to fellow humans is really all about. Its work, hard and selfless work, not posturing and stumping and whining, not bragging and self-aggrandizing, not hoarding and self-promoting.
Indeed, this is what a role model is all about. Bless her heart and may her children carry on her good works and shining example! Thanks for the uplift :-)


Joni Halpern August 24, 2020 at 2:56 pm

Friend, it is comforting to know there is someone like you in the world, someone who understands what a life lived in the service of others really means to all of us. I assume you would not know that if you yourself had not lived in such a way.


retired botanist August 24, 2020 at 5:18 pm

Thx, Joni, that’s very generous of you, but I don’t even begin to fill shoes like those of Ms. Aceves, tho I strive to do good where I can, and endorse and acknowledge heroes like her who do so much more. Its the legacy she leaves behind her that gives me hope there’s a legion out there, people who knew her, people who worked with her, perhaps in the corners, on the fringes, out of the limelight, who will pick up the baton and continue to set the bar for behavior we should all emulate. What a hopeful way forward that would be. :-)


Joni Halpern August 24, 2020 at 10:50 pm

Indeed, my friend. I join in your hope.


lauradinob August 24, 2020 at 7:33 pm

Thank you Maria Aceves, for making the world a better place. We won’t forget you!


Joni Halpern August 24, 2020 at 10:51 pm

Thank you, my friend.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman August 24, 2020 at 10:11 pm

A beautiful tribute to a cherished friend by a wonderful writer. RIP Maria Aceves!
Thanks for this story of one Mexican woman’s contributions to her community on this side of
the Wall.


Joni Halpern August 25, 2020 at 5:05 pm

Thank you, Frances, for helping me celebrate Maria Aceves’ life. And thank you for your own contributions to our community.


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