Dionicio Morales, founder of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF), and one of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders who dedicated his life to improving the well-being of a growing Mexican community, was laid to rest on Tuesday.
Hundreds, including a number of elected officials and community leaders attended the church services held at St. Mariana de Paredes Catholic Church in Pico Rivera.
Morales died Sept. 24 at Beverly Hospital following complications from a respiratory illness. He was 89.
Considered an elder statesmen by many in the Latino community, Morales had long championed the civil rights of Mexican Americans and immigrants, demanding equal access to education, job training, and child care, to name a few.
An outpouring of condolences from elected officials followed news of his passing.
“Dionicio Morales maintained the belief that civic engagement is the cornerstone of democracy. He was soft-spoken in manner, but mighty in principles and committed his life to expanding the power of the people. Though we mourn his passing, we take comfort in the fact that his work and ideas will continue to yield positive benefits for the people of Los Angeles,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Congresswoman Hilda Solis said, “Dionicio Morales was a life-long community organizer who devoted his life to providing critical programs and resources to the Mexican-American community. He was a strong advocated and dedicated leader for the people of the Los Angeles. Dionicio will be remembered for his lifetime commitment to the Mexican-American community,” said Solis.
Born in Yuma, Arizona, in 1918, Dionicio Morales at a very young age experienced discrimination and prejudice directed at the color of his skin and his ethnicity. Those experiences served to strengthen his resolve to fight for his community, by fighting the ignorance he encountered, rather than surrendering to it.
“Those incidents in his early life shaped his way of thinking that something was not right,” said Martin Castro, President and CEO of MAOF, which services over 100,000 low-to-moderate-income persons at its 28 licensed centers in 7 counties from San Diego to Monterrey. Morales founded the non-profit MAOF in 1963.
“He dedicated his life to fighting for social justice and equality for his people,” said Castro.
It 1973 MAOF opened the first childcare center in East Los Angeles. Today, there are twenty childcare centers in the area.
“Mr. Morales always dreamed of building a dream team, of building for the long haul… the big question of Latino philanthropy comes to mind, of how we [MAOF] will build and change the worldview of how Latinos…,” said Enrique Aranda, Director of Operations of Community Services.
Castro went to work for MAOF in 1979 after graduating from college. “I wanted to give back to the community, to work for an organization that was helping our people,” said Castro, adding that hearing Mr. Morales speak about MAOF’s mission and the importance of being accountable and professional, reinforced his resolve.
“All of these things I learned from Mr. Morales, he was my mentor,” said Castro, who Morales recommended to succeed him following his retirement in 2000.
Enrique Aranda, Director of Operations, Community Services, shares Castro’s fondness and respect for Morales.
“Not only was he a great leader, but he leaves behind a legacy of . . . matching needs with services and responding directly to the need of Latino seniors, youth and families,” said Aranda.
Dionicio Morales’ influence was not limited solely to MAOF, but extended well beyond its walls and into the community, where it reverberated and flourished.
“When you take into account the number of people that have been inspired, their children, parents and other family members . . . then you can say that his impact has been felt nationwide and beyond,” said Filiberto Gonzalez, MAOF’s chief development officer.
Morales, who many compared to civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar E. Chavez, also served as a goodwill ambassador between the United States and Mexico.
Conceived in Mexico and born in the United States, Morales often called himself the quintessential “Mexican American.” He often expressed pride in his Mexican American roots, and actively supported efforts to increase the participation of Mexican Americans, and all Latinos at every level of government, business, and philanthropy.
Now, according to Gonzalez, Mexican-Americans have come a long way in acknowledging their Mexican roots, no longer feeling embarrassed by them.
“I remember as a boy that you would be made fun of if you spoke Spanish in public. So in many ways, he [Dionicio Morales] was a man before his time, because he embraced this openly and freely decades ago,” said Gonzalez.
Morales’ dedication to the community garnered him many honors, including the naming of a new Metro transit station in East Los Angeles in his honor in May. In June, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in the humanities by Cal State University, Los Angeles.
MAOF’s continued service to the community will keep Dionicio Morales’ legacy alive, says Castro.
“There is always going to be a new executive director, a new CEO and president after I leave, but there will only be one founder, and that is Dionicio Morales,” said Castro.
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