Contagious activism

Community leader Mary Valencia-Wilson gets a grassroots leader award for being involved in all things progressive

Mary Valencia-Wilson, who’s marched with César Chávez—and on the streets of Reno—says that she caught the community spirit from her dad, a union activist in southern California in the 1940s and 1950s.

Mary Valencia-Wilson, who’s marched with César Chávez—and on the streets of Reno—says that she caught the community spirit from her dad, a union activist in southern California in the 1940s and 1950s.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Mary Valencia-Wilson will receive the Sentinel Award at a meeting 10 a.m. Jan. 13 at the PLAN building, 1101 Riverside Drive.

The first thing she pulls out of an old brown scrapbook is a photo of her childhood home in a barrio south of Los Angeles.

“My father and I built it ourselves,” says Mary Valencia-Wilson, 57. “It took years.”

The home in the photo is little more than a cottage, a small four-room building that Manuel Obregón Valencia, a carpenter and AFL-CIO union activist, constructed so that his family could move out of a one-room shack. Wilson, who’d have been about 4 years old when her dad started building, helped carry tools.

“We called it ‘the big house,’ “ Wilson says. “It’s still there.”

Wilson, a slender woman in a sleeveless dress, nylons and low-heeled shoes, sits on a couch in her Reno apartment, smoking a generic brand cigarette. It’s late afternoon, New Year’s Eve. Wilson offers me cookies, big home-baked cookies and something to drink. “Cookies? Beer?” Her coffee table is layered with mail, newsletters and a binder with an Amnesty International sticker.

Wilson pulls another item from her scrapbook, an article headlined, “The Man With The Big Sombrero,” written about her father in 1954 when he was named “Man of the Year” in the the town of Norwalk, Calif. Valencia, an Aztec from Mexico, was the first person of color to receive the award in the town, Wilson says.

“It stunned him,” she says. “He couldn’t believe it.”

Besides picketing and organizing protests for the AFL-CIO, her dad worked with young boys in the barrio. His program, the Aztec Rangers, was a bit like the Boy Scouts. Boys would start by building a toolbox with the help of Valencia. Then they’d work to buy tools to fill it. They’d also go out in the desert and learn survival skills. It was one way to try to guide the boys away from the prevalent juvenile crime in the area.

Wilson’s history of civic activism reaches back decades. She marched with César Chávez in the 1960s to better the lives of migrant farm laborers. As a college student at Fullerton College during the Vietnam War, she participated in anti-war protests.

Since moving to Reno in the early 1990s, she’s been instrumental in helping the Alliance for Workers Rights get a translator into agricultural areas to talk to non-English-speaking farm and ranch workers. She’s helped work for increased diversity in the hiring process for the City of Reno. When Sparks police started ticketing casual laborers on Galletti Way this spring, the indignant Wilson was ready to do whatever she could to instigate change. She’s on the boards of the Alliance for Workers Rights, Washoe Legal Services and the ACLU. She’s the political-action chairwoman for the Reno-Sparks chapter of the NAACP and serves on the advocacy committee for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Local labor and human-rights activists say that Wilson’s the person everyone thinks of when asked to name that individual who shows up to volunteer at everything.

“Mary doesn’t get paid to do this,” says Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers Rights. “She has an activist fire in her.”

He recalls recently not being able to talk Wilson out of picketing at Washoe Medical Center with nurses, who held a 24-hour strike before Christmas.

“She’s out there on the line with the nurses in the cold—and her health is terrible,” Stoneburner says. “It’s a major hurdle just to get out there.”

This month, the Alliance for Workers Rights plans to give Wilson the Sentinel Award, an award that it has handed out only once before to union activist Roger Nordby. Nordby had stuck with a picket—even in the freezing rain—during Syufy’s construction of a movie theater in Sparks.

The Sentinel Award features a poem written on an envelope by Stoneburner’s wife, Kathy, during a picket of the Reno Hilton in 1997. The poem’s speaker is a picket sign: “The words written upon me speak the truth when the truth is hidden by the greed of others—the greed of corporate America. … I am held in the hands of community activists gathered all across our great land. They are the sentinels of freedom and democracy … for all working people.” Stoneburner says it’s not been easy finding individuals who fit these high standards of community activism. The award isn’t meant to be given to a large donor or to an individual who gets paid to do community activism. Instead, it’s for that impassioned volunteer who’s out in the trenches.

“This is a person that every time something is threatening the community, this person’s ready to go,” he says. “When you start thinking about the kind of activist I’m talking about, Mary is that—she lives it. She’s an inspiration to everybody. We should all try to be like that.”

Seven award committee members made lists of individuals that each member thought deserving. Wilson was on every list, Stoneburner says.

“We’re all hardcore activists, and we all thought of Mary.”

An activist’s life isn’t an easy path. Wilson says she learned that at an early age when her father would return from AFL-CIO marches with injuries.

“My dad would come home bloody,” she says. “Bloody from the police.”

During her childhood, Wilson often worked with migrant pickers at several farms south of Los Angeles and in Orange County. She says that John Steinbeck captured the life of these workers perfectly in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, a book she still reads once a year.

But the barrio kids still had time to play. And one game they played at dusk in summer was called “Bogeyman.” When the bogeyman chased kids during the game, that was scary, Wilson says. But the kids were even more frightened by something called the biscailuz.

“That’s when we jumped under the house and hid,” she says.

It wasn’t until she was 10 or 11 years old that she figured out how the biscailuz had gotten its name.

Frequently, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department would search homes in the middle of the night. When the police would arrive at her house, she and her two siblings, her blind mother and her dad would be hauled out on the lawn.

“Then they’d turn over the mattresses and go through the drawers,” Wilson recalls. “My mother being blind, we’d have to put everything back together for her. … And, of course, they slapped up my dad. That was part of the thing to show us they were the big guys.”

In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz, whose name terrified children in Wilson’s barrio, held office from 1932 to 1958.

Nowadays, Wilson takes every opportunity she can get to chat with local police. She appreciates the Reno police and said that the community liaison, Officer Craig Pittman, had always kept an open door for citizens. So has Deputy Chief Jim Weston, she says. Still, Wilson is convinced of the dire need for civilian oversight of the police.

“There are a lot of good policemen,” she says. “But every barrel has a couple of rotten ones. … We need a citizen police review board.”

And, like her father, she’d like to see more resources invested in future generations. A poster on her refrigerator shows a young brown-faced child with the words: “La esperanza del futuro.”

“We do what we do because of the children," Wilson says. "We’re going to go, but we need to leave things in some kind of shape for the kids, try and make it better than when we were here. … That’s why my father did what he did."