image- Adios Amor
Migrant mother Maria Moreno became the first woman farmworker in America to be hired as a union organizer. Maria talks to other farmworkers who were Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression. Photo courtesy George Ballis/Take Stock

If you have never heard of Maria Moreno, you are missing an important chapter in American history.

Moreno was a key figure in the national migrant farmworkers labor movement in the 1960s. After a flood in Tulare County stopped work for Moreno and many farmworkers in 1958, they were denied assistance due to county law at the time. One of Moreno’s 12 children went temporarily blind from hunger, which prompted Moreno to take action.

Through her activism and powerful oration, Moreno helped organize enough awareness about the issue that the county revised its law. After giving speeches and collecting signatures, Moreno was voted to the head of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in 1959. This preceded the formation of the National Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The two unions were merged in 1965 to create the United Farm Workers of America. 

Now, a film containing recently uncovered archival photographs is putting the spotlight on this important but lesser known figure in California’s history. “Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno” is a documentary detailing Moreno’s life as a mother, migrant farmworker and union leader. The film will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Half Moon Bay Odd Fellows Hall. Director Laurie Coyle and Puente de la Costa Sur Executive Director Rita Mancera will host a panel discussion after the screening. 

Coyle first found the photographs of Moreno while looking through the Take Stock archive in San Rafael years ago. She became fascinated with Moreno, who even in photographs came across as an outspoken and charismatic woman. She began raising funds for the film in 2010. 

“At the end of the day, the film is about getting the audience excited to undertake their own searches,” Coyle said. “It’s not just about me searching for Maria Moreno, it’s about that whole notion of digging up the past.”

Coyle’s film includes interviews with many who knew Moreno, from her children to journalists and fellow union leaders. It premiered in San Jose in 2018, and was selected for multiple screenings, including the 2018 Heartland International and the San Diego Latino Film Festival. It will be aired on PBS nationwide this Friday. 

The work of photographers George Ballis and Ernest Lowe made the film possible. Ballis, who died in 2010, was a reporter and photographer in Fresno. He eventually became editor of the Valley Labor Citizen, and began documenting Moreno’s life as the head of AWOC. Ballis would go on to document roughly 30,000 images of the United Farm Workers of America union. Lowe was an early advocate for documentary radio in the 1960s, and used both audio and photos to tell the stories of migrant farmworkers. 

“It’s an opportunity to learn to experience a very intimate story about the people who put food on our table,” Coyle said. “Although the story happened over 50 years ago, farmworker organizations have expressed they are still struggling with the same problems.”

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