Terronez, Mary Ramirez
Mary Ramirez Terronez (1918-2009)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Mary was born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, to Adelida Gutierrez Ramirez and Dionisio Ramirez, the third oldest of fourteen children. She was four years old when her father was recruited to work as a traquero (section hand) for the Rock Island Railroad in Davenport, Iowa. The next year, she set forth with her mother and older siblings, to join her father in the Cook's Point barrio in Davenport, Iowa, where the family would live for the next 29 years.
At eighteen, Mary married Felípe Bravo Terronez, a Mexican railroad worker who had grown up in neighboring Silvis, Illinois. They raised five of their six children in Cook’s Point. During the war, Mary worked at the Davenport Produce Company, candling eggs.
When the City of Davenport evicted the 200 residents of Cook’s Point in 1952, Mary stepped forward to help coordinate an effort to find new homes for displaced residents who faced racial discrimination in many Davenport neighborhoods. Mary worked with the recently formed League for Social Justice, a multi-cultural and inter-denominational organization that advocated fair housing and employment practices in Davenport.
A lifelong community activist, Mary played a significant role in the local civil rights movement, in the boycott of California table grapes, and was an early proponent of women’s rights. She was proud to have cooked for Cesar Chavez when he came to Davenport for a 1969 grape boycott rally. She worked as a job developer for the Area Board for Migrants, a local organization funded by the Dioceses of Davenport and Peoria. In this capacity, she served as a mentor and advocate for younger women in her community. Dolores Garcia, a former Cook's Point neighbor, remembered how Mary helped her press for opportunities afforded by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act at a time when many local factories were reluctant to hire minority women:
(Dolores) She [Mary] would go into a factory and she would sit down and she’d tell the men, “Have you got any jobs open?” "Yeah, we’ve got two or three of ‘em.” “Do you think you could give my people a job?” He’d say, “Well, do they have any experience?” “No, they don’t, but you can show them. They need a job, if you don’t give them a job, who’s gonna give them a chance?”
I had heard that she was out looking for jobs for the Mexican people at Farmall [International Harvester]. So I went to her place where she worked and I said, “Mary… I want to get in Farmall, do you think you can get me in there?” She says, “I don’t know, I talked to the man the day before yesterday and he told me he didn’t have no openings. But I tell you what, you come here tomorrow and we’ll both go over there together.”
She saw that man and she said, “Hey, I got somebody for you.” He said, “Well, what did I tell you a couple of days ago?” “That you weren’t hiring, but look in the book, maybe you are hiring, look in it.” So he opens up the book and he looks around. He says, “She’s awful small.” I might have weighed about a hundred and twenty. “I tell you what, we need an absentee replacement. Do you think she can do it?” “She can do anything, when you set your mind on it, she can do anything.” He said, “Okay, I’ll give her a chance.” That’s how I got in there, by her, Mary Terronez.
Mary completed her GED in 1976; four years later she graduated with an AA degree from Palmer Junior College in Davenport. Her son, John Terronez, followed in her footsteps, leading the state boycott of California table grapes in the 1960s and lobbying the Iowa legislature for the rights of migrant workers employed on Iowa farms.
(Oral history interview with Mary Terronez conducted by Kären Mason for the Mujeres Latinas Project, December 30, 2003; oral history interview with Dolores Garcia conducted by Janet Weaver, September 22, 2005)