Olvera, Mary Vasquez
Mary Vasquez Olvera (1927-2016)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Mary Vasquez Olvera was born in Fairport, Iowa. Her parents - Jesúsa and José Vasquez - migrated to the U.S. from the state of Michoacán in Mexico in 1910. They met in Muscatine, Iowa, where Jesúsa "Jenny" worked in a button factory and José worked on the railroad. They eloped and settled in nearby Fairport, where José continued to work as a traquero. “He used to work at night,” Mary remembered. “The railroad was all that he knew. And it was hard work and the rate was cheap. The earnings were cheap.”
Jenny looked after their six children in a boxcar home in Fairport. She made oatmeal in the morning, tortillas in the evening and scrubbed the clothes and bedsheets. There were no doctors close to Fairport, and, as Mary explained, the family couldn’t afford it had there been one. “We were too poor.” She recalled that her mother "had her own remedies.” Jenny became friends with her neighbor, Antonia Lopez, a Mexican woman who had come to Iowa with her husband. The two women supported each other over the years and the families moved to Cook's Point in Davenport together.
Mary was a teenager living with her family in Cook's Point when her two older brothers, Albert and Ralph, were killed in action during World War II:
“All we got was a telegram. [The policeman] came and asked if this was the Vasquez [family]…we said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Well, here is a telegram for you.’ Then we heard about our other brother, about three months later,” Mary remembers. “My mother was just struck, stunned, more or less. She had a big nine by twelve picture of our oldest brother and she just clutched it to her bosom and my other brother, she did the same thing.”
But when Mary’s family left Cook’s Point after the war, their new neighbors circulated a petition calling for the Vasquez family to leave. Only after learning that Mary’s brothers had died in the war did they change their minds.
After leaving high school during World War II, Mary worked candling eggs at the Black Hawk egg factory. For Mary and her friend Annie Herrera—daughter of Basilisa Herrera—getting to work from Cook’s Point was no easy task. “She [Annie] used to holler at me, ‘Mary, are you ready?’ And then we used to walk to the bus - we had to go over real far from Cook’s Point. Then we had to walk home.” Mary made fifty cents an hour, and at the end of the week she would gave her wages to her mother to help make ends meet.
In 1948, Mary married Augustine Olvera, a machinist at the Rock Island Arsenal. Mary decided to quit her factory job to stay home to raise their four children. “It was hard [and] we struggled,” she said. She became interested in politics. Mary and Augustine were instrumental in founding an Iowa chapter of the American G.I. Forum, an organization that had originated in Texas in 1948 to fight for the rights of Mexican Americans who had served in World War II. Mary led its women’s auxiliary in Davenport. During John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, she started a Viva Kennedy chapter in Davenport to help coordinate events and fundraisers among Iowa Latinos to support his campaign.
(Oral history interview with Mary Olvera conducted by Janet Weaver for the Mujeres Latinas Project, November 7, 2006)