Aguilera, Maria Mercedes
Maria Mercedes “Mercy” Aguilera (1936-2013)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Mercy Aguilera was born and raised in Davenport's Cook's Point barrio. Her mother, Manuela Sanchez Mendez García, was born in Brownsville, Texas; her father, Jesús "Joe" Mendez García, was from Santa Cruz el Grande in Jalisco, Mexico. They married in Texas and lived in Illinois and New York before settling in Iowa, where they raised fourteen children. “They just wanted us to grow up to be good people and work,” Mercy said of her parents. “That’s what was instilled in us. To be good people and go to church and get a job and take care of yourself and your family.”
Like many children living at Cook's Point, where there was no running water, one of her chores was carrying water from the outside pump:
After leaving school in ninth grade, Mercy headed to Chicago, where some of her older sisters lived and worked. “At that time, you could have any job you wanted [in Chicago],” Mercy remembered. “Name your price. I remember one time I was making fifteen dollars an hour because no one else wanted to do the job.” Her sisters helped her get a job as a cable lacer at the Rock-Ola Jukebox factory and encouraged her to open a savings account at a credit union. When Mercy had her first child in 1957, her sisters took turns babysitting so that she could continue working.
Mercy married Peter Aguilera in 1960 and the couple returned to Iowa when Pete secured employment with the at International Harvester plant. But Mercy found her own employment options much more limited in the Quad Cities than had been the case in Chicago. Despite her years of experience, many factories dismissed her applications. When she applied to work at International Harvester’s Farmall tractor plant, they refused her application on the basis that they believed Mexican women were too short to work on the assembly line.
The man at the front desk [of the factory] didn’t think I could get hired because I was too short. I said, “Okay. Thank you for your time. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he said, “Oh, I don’t think Mr. King [the man in charge of hiring] will be here tomorrow, he’s so busy.” So I says, “Well, let him do his business in the office, but I will be here. I will wait for him. I have all the patience in the world and I have nothing at home right now, so I will come.” I went about nine o’clock in the morning. I’d eat my breakfast and I’d go and sit in there ‘bout til eleven o’clock and then I’d have lunch and I’d go back [and wait]. I was there about one week and he said, “Why don’t you try next week?” And I said, “No, I’ll be here tomorrow. Same time, same station.”
Mercy Aguilera's persistence paid off when she became one of the first Latinas to work at the Farmall plant.