Muñoz, Sister Irene
Sister Irene Muñoz (born 1936)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Social justice activist, Sister Irene Muñoz grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood in West Des Moines. She recalled that her neighbors were “Croatians, Italians, African-Americans, Anglos, Hispanics, [and] Jews.” Her father, a vocal and respected member of the community, worked at the local cement plant and was active in his union. Tracing her activism to her father and her religious faith to her mother, Sister Irene pursued the path of a nurse, a nun, and an outspoken advocate for human rights.
In 1956, she joined the order of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) in Davenport, Iowa, and completed her training as a registered nurse. Responding to Vatican II, Sister Irene traded in her religious habit for street clothes and stepped out of the cloister to live the life of the people among migrant workers in Muscatine. She compared her experience to “a baptism of fire, or a splash of cold water in your face.”
I was on cloud nine [before I was sent to Muscatine], wanting to be a saint and go to heaven directly because I said my prayers and I did this penance and I did whatever it is I needed to do. But when I saw the reality of life, I thought, this is life, this is reality…It was all adjusting to a new way of living, a new way of observing people who were living in really substandard housing and working so hard…I thought this was too much. It was overwhelming. I think at one time I got very rebellious, wanting to be—I have been always a fighter for social justice, but even there I could see where you’d get to a line where you’d want to burn all those shacks…[because] then they’d have to build new ones.
Sister Irene lived in Muscatine for fifteen years, from 1967 to 1982, where she advocated for the rights of migrant workers and their families employed on local farms. Most were U. S. citizens from Texas who traveled north each year to cultivate tomatoes in Muscatine County. As a native Iowan of Hispanic descent, Sister Irene understood the difficulties the migrants faced and how the little-known fact of their U.S. citizenship was - in her words - "the best kept secret."
Through the Muscatine Migrant Committee, Sister Irene provided medical services to migrant workers through the newly established Friday clinics. She witnessed heartbreaking struggles; among the most vivid was a pregnant woman who had not received any prenatal care in Texas and died of a hemorrhage in childbirth. “I thought, dear God, there is something wrong here."
As a frequent visitor to the migrant camps, Sister Irene saw first-hand the converted chicken coops and hog sheds that were sometimes home to migrant workers during those years. These visits were not without an element of risk - as her longtime friend and fellow activist Ernest Rodriguez recalled: "Sister Irene, she used to have run-ins with the farmers. I think one of them even had a shotgun to throw her off - he didn't want her on his property."
Sister Irene used her experience to push for change. She lobbied the Iowa legislature for reform of the Iowa child labor law, which until the 1960s excluded the children of migrant workers from its provisions. She fought to establish basic standards for migrant housing and provided valuable information to Governor Robert Ray's Spanish Speaking Task Force. Her brother Tomás Muñoz, Father Valainas, and Ernest Rodriguez were among those who served with her on that task force.
Sister Irene's activism challenged many of the sisters in the CHM:
We were probably one of the first few to actually be hired by somebody, to be involved, and so when we’d come back to our assemblies in the summertime, they were talking about, well, should sisters smoke or not smoke? I thought, oh, God, Molly, do you hear that? We’re working out there, life and death issues, and we’re talking about smoking or not smoking…when we brought up the [lettuce and grape] boycotts, it was hard. We’re all sitting there and Molly and I stood up there and said, “Well, sisters, you know we’re having this lettuce boycott and did you notice we’re having lettuce today?” Oh, sit down! …Rabble rousers, they called us.
Sister Irene encouraged migrant workers who settled permanently in Muscatine to exercise their citizenship rights and participate in the most fundamental expression of those rights - the right to vote. She was active in the Democratic Party, participating in precinct caucuses and efforts to get-out-the-vote. A founding member of the Midwest Council of La Raza, Sister Irene also served on its Board of Directors.
Looking back on her years in Muscatine, Sister Irene recalled that when she and her sister, Sister Molly Muñoz, first arrived in Muscatine “they called us the ‘good’ nuns, and when we left, they called us the ‘damned’ nuns . . . I had a grower once tell me, 'Well, Sister Irene…you should be in your chapel saying your rosary.' ”
After fifteen years, Sister Irene left Muscatine to work in Ottumwa, Iowa, where she continued to help new immigrants find their feet in Iowa. “I think there is justice for Latinos if we can continue to create leadership,” she said. “We have to work toward it.”
(Oral history interview with Sr. Irene Muñoz conducted by Iskra Núñez and Janet Weaver for the Mujeres Latinas Project, August 3, 2005)