In Memoriam: Maria Ochoa

Close up of Maria Ochoa's face.

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by Patrick Dixon.

In late April we lost a friend when Maria Ochoa passed away after a two-year fight with cancer. I first encountered Maria when our office held an event with the Georgetown Women’s Alliance in September 2016, a panel discussion on women’s leadership in labor and community organizing. While the event was a success with an accomplished panel Maria, who was at the time working on the Georgetown campus as an organizer with SEIU Local 1199 representing housekeeping and building maintenance staff, was in high form. In answering questions she immediately grasped both the underlying assumptions and concerns that were being raised by questioners. Irrespective of the subject matter she had an anecdote or an example that related to and cast the question in a new light. Through more than a decade as a labor and community organizer she was able to leave students with a vivid depiction of the opportunities and hazards of her chosen profession.

This was in part because Maria was always a great raconteur and didn’t seem to believe in cutting a long story short. She would wave her index finger in accordance with the tenor of the scene being described, at times signaling an imagined character to yield, rhythmically undulating as she laid out a sequence of events. A diverse cast of workers, unionists, and community activists from California to Texas to Washington made appearances. In one story Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash made an unexpected cameo appearance. When communicating through messenger services Maria employed the full array of options, her entreaties replete with GIFs, memes, and emoticons. There was a graphic for every occasion.

Realizing we both had familial connections to remote and distant rural towns we became friends and attended underground punk and thrash shows around the District, art exhibits, and public debates. On one occasion we saw The Hickoids, an Austin cowpunk band, The Upper Crust, a Boston rock ensemble dressed as 18th century aristocrats, and The Grannies, an act that doesn’t lend easily to description. In between performers Maria would traverse back and forth to the university campus as she collected petitions from custodians on the night shift at the business school, her interventions timed to coincide with workers’ break times. When I tried to object that I hadn’t finished drinking my jar of sweet tea she hid it beneath her coat and told me to drink it on the way. As university police objected that she couldn’t park her car right in front of the building she explained that she was on important official business and they seemed to accept it. When that vehicle was later replaced I told Maria any vehicle with a backup camera eliminating the need to turn one’s head amounted to a ‘fancy new ride,’ knowing that the suggestion that she was climbing into some upper social strata was anathema. “Shut up mister!” She was more than capable of trading barbs.

After her work with SEIU came to a close Maria went on to organize with the NNU before returning to Los Angeles to be closer to her family. For some reason she listed me as a reference when she applied to work Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. Beyond a few letters for students this was not a service that was often requested of me. When called upon I explained that we’d been so impressed with Maria’s work that we had booked her again to teach a short course to students in campaign strategy, but also that she was deeply and widely knowledgeable on a whole range of subjects that were completely unrelated.

Are there any clear areas that she needs to improve upon, I was asked. If you’re going to hire her, I told her future colleague, you need to know that she won’t want to waste any time. What that means is if you act like a commander and she thinks your strategy is misguided, you’re going to know about it, not because it’s going to get back to you but because she’s straight out going to tell you.

You don’t make it over a decade as an organizer without being able to stand up to people, and from a managerial perspective at times that might make things challenging. But then you have to look at the other side of it too. As a director you can deploy her within your community and within your campaign and she is going to be implementing all of her experience and talent on your behalf, visiting people morning, noon and night, and bringing her power to bear against whichever landlord or boss or council member that might be obstructing your goals. That power is now gone but for those of us who crossed paths with Maria the memory will always remain.

This is just one person’s recollection and Maria’s colleagues at SAJE wrote a powerful testimony here on Facebook.

I also spoke to KI alum Esmeralda Huerta from Brandworkers in New York City, who worked closely with Maria. Esme wrote:

“The first time I met Maria she was tearing into a Georgetown manager during a grievance meeting. This guy had been causing issues and making workers’ lives miserable; he was a snake and sneered at workers who filed complaints against him.

But Maria was fearless; she tore into the manager and made the worker in question feel powerful. I was there, interpreting, and couldn’t help but break out of my role in laughter at seeing this scary person reckon with Maria. Maria is the type of person we should all strive to be. She was intensely funny and brave, incredibly opinionated and caring. She had great taste in music, food, and friends. Maria held her ground and engaged with people through their entire identity, even when she had a million things going on at once. I remember coming to dinners at her house and seeing how she shone the spotlight on each of the friends she invited. Maria encouraged me to have faith in organizing even when the job hadn’t always been very kind to her. She treated me like a full-fledged organizer and like my opinions had worth, even though I had so much more to learn from her. The world is brighter because of Maria. We are lucky to have had such a strong person brightening up our lives and bringing us together.”

I’m confident that I can speak for everyone at the Kalmanovitz Initiative in saying that we are grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Maria during her time here in Washington, DC.

Patrick Dixon is a Research Analyst at the Kalmanovitz Initiative.