John Terronez (1938 – 1997)
Written by Alyse Burnside and Catherine Babikian
John Terronez was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1938, the son of Mary Ramirez Terronez and Felipe Bravo Terronez. Fifteen years earlier, his parents had come to Iowa from central Mexico, and settled in the Mexican barrio of Cook’s Point. There, they lived alongside many other immigrant families, who had also come north to work on the railroads and factories along the Mississippi River. When the city of Davenport closed the barrio in 1952, John’s mother, Mary Ramirez Terronez, took action: she worked closely with local organizations to find new homes for her neighbors. In the process, she provided an example to her son, who became a lifelong advocate for civil rights in Iowa, the Midwest, and across the nation.
After graduating from high school, John served in the Korean War, and then returned to take up a position with the U.S. Postal Service—just as other activists in Davenport, such as Ernest Rodriguez and Henry Vargas, were establishing a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). When John heard about the efforts of LULAC Council 10, he immediately became involved. “My experiences with LULAC,” Terronez later remarked to a Quad City Times reporter, “taught me how to be part of the community and how to run an organization.” In 1963, John was elected president of Council 10. Five years later, he was elected state director of Iowa LULAC, a position that came with increased responsibility and enabled him to reach a larger audience.
Returning to the Quad Cities from a national LULAC meeting in 1968, John brought the message of boycotting California table grapes, a movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, to Iowa LULAC members. Together with Ernest Rodriguez, John established and co-chaired the Quad City Grape Boycott Committee. He brought together a coalition of local activists; St. Ambrose University students and professors, civil rights groups, migrant agencies and LULAC. The Grape Boycott Committee coordinated local picketing of supermarkets and spoke out against the mistreatment of agricultural laborers across the country.
“He [John] got Cesar Chavez to come in and appear at the Eagles Hall,” remembers Ernest Rodriguez. “We had a big rally there. Naturally, if you have Cesar Chavez come in you get all kinds of newspapers and media attention. I’ll never forget that John did most of the public relations.”
“John had a lot of moxie,” said Ernest. “He was smart and aggressive and could really think on his feet.” The U. S. Department of Justice - impressed by John's leadership skills and voluntary work through Iowa LULAC - asked him to consider taking a position with its Community Relations office.
In 1970, John accepted the position of Conciliation Specialist with the Justice Department for the six-state Midwest region, a job he would hold until his death in 1997. He used his position to advocate for the rights of Latinos at both the state and national level. “He would get two parties together and get them to negotiate to find a middle ground,” remembers his sister, Phyllis Fillers. His natural aptitude for conflict resolution brought him to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 and to Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots.
John urged the Immigration and Naturalization Service to provide legal counseling for undocumented immigrants and helped a Chicago suburb win a $100,000 federal grant to go towards bilingual education. In a 1972 interview with a Chicago journalist, John remarked, “Recognition coming to the Spanish-speaking people has been, in the words of that old cliché, too little and too late. But the door is beginning to open up a little bit.”
John played a key role in establishing Iowa Governor Robert Ray's Spanish Speaking Task Force in 1974. In its report, Conóceme en Iowa (Know Us in Iowa), it recommended the formation of the Spanish Speaking Peoples Commission (later known as the Office of Latino Affairs), which advocated for the rights of Latinos in Iowa.
John Terronez died in 1997 at the age of 58.