Asalia “Sally” Faz O’Donnell (born 1956)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Asalia "Sally" Faz O'Donnell was born in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. South Dakota was one of the stops on her family’s annual migration stream, which took them from Texas to Florida, Colorado, and the Midwest.
By the time Sally reached middle school, her parents had decided to “settle out” of the migrant stream and live permanently in Agar, South Dakota, a small town north of the state capitol. In Agar, her father worked on a ranch during the day and cooked in a restaurant at night. “We were trying to get a little bit away from the field work then,” she remembered. When Sally’s family lost their South Dakota home to a fire, they moved to central Nebraska. To make ends meet, her father worked in a meatpacking plant and when the children started school, Sally’s mother worked in a turkey processing factory. In the summer, the entire family worked in the local potato shed.
After graduating from high school, Sally attended technical college in Hastings, Nebraska. A year later, she married and moved to Sioux City. Her husband, a Vietnam veteran, worked for Iowa Public Service, an energy company serving most of northwest Iowa (later part of MidAmerican Energy), where he was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “After he got on with the company…we felt that IPS at that time was not treating their Americans and Hispanic minority families fair,” Sally remembered, “and I was picketing MidAmerican or IPS and I was six months pregnant!”
Living in Sioux City under her married name presented new challenges. Her surname confused neighbors and acquaintances who insisted that O'Donnell could not “really” be her name.
I just had that happen to me three weeks ago. My name plaque [at work] says S. O’Donnell. And this person comes in and he looks at the name plaque and he looks at me and he goes, 'Well, where is Miss O’Donnell?' And I said, 'That’s me.' And he started laughing. He said, 'This is a joke, right?' And I’m looking at him and I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Well, you’re not really Irish, are you?' And I’m like, 'No, but I’m married to an Irishman and I’ve had that name for 27 years.' And he just started laughing and goes, 'That can’t be your name.' He just would not accept it! And I said, ‘Well, that’s my name and you’ll just have to accept it or if you don’t like it, you’ll just have to leave. I can’t help you if you don’t want to even acknowledge me.'
“Even around the neighborhood, people would look at us,” Sally explained. “And we’d be talking and a neighbor would come over and say, ‘What did you say your name was?’” When she spoke Spanish in public, passersby admonished her to speak English. On one occasion, a local bank refused to help her deposit a check.
The other thing that we did also was that just after my mother had passed away, somebody had left a note on her tombstone, 'For whites only,' in the cemetery [in Wood River, Nebraska]…It was just six months after my mother had passed away. And it happened because, on the back of the headstone, my father had put a saying that we’re not buried here, we’re planted here, because they loved to grow things, and so we will bloom forever. He had it in Spanish. I guess some of the community didn’t like that. We called in a friend of mine who worked for the Justice Department at that time and he gave us information. We talked to the trustees of that cemetery. They made a statement in the paper that they do not agree with that statement and that the cemetery is for everyone. They really set down the rules. But that was really heartbreaking.
Throughout her time in Sioux City, Sally volunteered and worked for different organizations—including the Spanish Speaking Peoples Commission, La Casa Latina, and Women Aware. Through these organizations, she offered assistance not only to Latina women, but also to all Sioux City women in need. “It’s just empowering women to do what needs to be done,” she said. “I feel like our jobs will go on forever, just trying to improve the community, improve the state, and improve the world—but you have to start.” Ultimately, Sally believed that “no matter what position we have or what we do, it’s important to help that person who really needs it.”
(Oral history interview with Sally O'Donnell conducted by Kären Mason for the Mujeres Latinas Project, March 7, 2005)