Dr. Anna Marie Ochoa O���Leary
Labor Leader and Scholar
“You know how, when you’re cooking, you put in an egg and it holds the rice and everything together? That’s what we women are. We’re the egg of the family, just trying to hold together all these falling apart things. Each family is like a union and the first type of union is the family because women are organizers, leaders, thinkers, politicians, teachers, negotiators, planners, and doers.” – Dr. Anna Marie Ochoa O’Leary
Anna Marie Ochoa O’Leary was born to working-class parents on April 15, 1954, in Clifton, Arizona. Her father, Ernesto, earned his living as a shoemaker, and her mother, Luz, was a homemaker. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Clifton was a relatively peaceful and close-knit community. Like generations before them, cohorts of children could expect to know each other throughout their entire lives, from kindergarten through adulthood. Compared to today’s urban environments, Clifton’s rural and isolated setting provided a place where children grew up amidst a rich social safety net. With neighbors and extended kin always on the lookout for each other, they could freely explore their environment: climb mountains, ride their bikes across town, swim or fish in the San Francisco River, and ride horses, Anna’s personal favorite. During the school year, Clifton High School Trojan football and basketball games provided the opportunity for everyone to socialize while supporting the team. The long summer evenings were filled with picnics and baseball games, adult leagues and little leagues, and bands of neighborhood children playing “kick the can” under the streetlight. Back then, neighborhoods and families helped define one’s identity, and today still provide a place that many fondly remember. The downside of this nostalgic setting was that many young people never envisioned a future elsewhere. Copper mining dominated the community’s economy.
After graduating from Clifton High School in 1972 in the top 10 percent of her class, Anna was involved in community activities in Clifton and Morenci, such as helping organize fundraising activities for the local Catholic parish or for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), where she served as secretary of the local chapter for a brief period of time. Restlessness accounted for her somewhat unfocused foray into post-secondary education; regardless, she earned her Associate of Arts degree from Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher in 1980 and made the President’s list with a 4.0 grade average. After this success, a Bachelor of Arts degree was her next academic goal. By that time, she had married Dr. Jorge F. O’Leary, a man from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, son of a Mexican Yaqui Indian mother and an Irish father.
Anna and Jorge, who worked as a company physician for Phelps Dodge, set upon raising a blended family of five children in Morenci, Arizona. Continuing her education came about the hard way: by commuting from Morenci to
the University of Arizona in Tucson, 170 miles away, often with children in tow. Anna had little time or interest in student life. Courses had to be accommodated between child-rearing responsibilities until 1982, when she received her B.A. in political science. Content for a while with this accomplishment, she then settled into the rhythm of life in the Morenci mining community, which was short-lived with the start of the 1983 copper strike.
In 1983, one of the nation’s most important labor conflicts disrupted the peace enjoyed by the Clifton-Morenci communities. That same three-year labor strike first defined Anna. A David-and-Goliath story unfolded in this bitter management-labor confrontation. Thrusting the dispute into the nation’s limelight was her husband’s termination for vocally supporting the strikers’ cause and defying the company’s order to refuse to see striking miners who sought medical care at the company-owned hospital. However, his dismissal only served to strengthen the community’s resolve as strikers and supporters rallied in support of Jorge and Anna O’Leary. This was when Anna first learned of the Morenci Miner’s Women’s Auxiliary (MMWA). She joined the group and became one with its long history of union support and community organizing. The organization was later featured in a PBS documentary.
Early in the struggle, Phelps Dodge invoked the Taft-Harley Act that limited picketing by striking union members, but the injunction didn’t stop the women—sisters, wives, grandmothers, daughters, girlfriends, friends, and relatives of the miners—from staging the strike. Their growing presence on the picket line and in the speaking circuit transformed the MMWA from a striker’s support organization to a political action organization. Through their outreach and organizing, MMWA became a formidable adversary. As one of the presidents of the MMWA, Anna helped direct and organize efforts to reach out to supporters, raise funds for strikers’ families, and educate the community, state, and the nation about the company’s tactics to break the strike. During one of their labor rallies, award-winning Hollywood actor and union supporter Ed Asner gave an inspiring speech and paid tribute to the women. He said, “Security is a precious gift we can give to our families, but a greater gift is showing them we can stand up for what we believe in.”
At the high point of community organizing activity, Anna and other MMWA members went on public speaking and solidarity tours at the invitation of such organizations as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), where they presented the case for continued support for the strikers
and their families. Anna also spoke at the international convention Forum 85, a United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where, as a Ford Foundation scholarship recipient, she attended as an NGO delegate. Upon her return, she was elected to the Clifton City Council. However, her term came to an abrupt end within weeks. It was 1986 and three years since the strike began. With more families forced to move away, community unity and support drastically diminished. Anna and her husband were compelled to move to Tucson (where they presently live and work), but not before fulfilling their commitment to see the strike to the end. In the fall of 1986, the 13 unions on
strike were officially decertified.
Anna’s experiences with the MMWA motivated her to seek a Master of Arts degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona. Her 1994 master’s thesis explored the history of Mexican-origin populations in the copper industry and the concept of la familia. Central to the development of the thesis was the question of how a community—where principles of social cohesion and fellowship seemed to thrive—could end up so fragmented. Later, her post-graduate work analyzed the prevailing economic forces that weaken communities’ abilities to resist disintegration, and in particular, the key role of women in negotiating the harmful consequences of familial and communal breakdown. The education of women was seen as an important factor in strengthening this capacity.
In 1996, Anna received a research award from the National Science Foundation for her dissertation, “Investment in Female Education as an Economic Strategy Among U.S.-Mexican Households in Nogales, Arizona,” which aimed to determine factors important to Mexican-origin households as they considered investing in the education of family members, especially women. This research was in part a personal response to the obstacles and lack of direction that she herself experienced. Later, she focused her attention on migrating women, and, consistent with the themes that flowed from her experience, she examined how elements such as cultural and social identity operate to reaffirm one’s disposition to support and sympathize with those less fortunate. Anna received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology in 1999 from the University of Arizona.
Today, Anna is an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Mexican-American and Raza Studies at the University of Arizona. Her commitment to teaching resulted in a Chicano Studies textbook published in 2007 by Kendall Hunt Publishing Company. Her path-breaking research and scholarship on Mexican women and immigration enforcement and transnational migration on the U.S.-Mexico border places her on the forefront of new research about a pressing matter that impacts us all. For this work, she was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship for 2006-2007. She continues political advocacy work through several nonprofit, community based groups, such as the Arizona Border Rights Foundation, Fundación México, and a national advisory board organized by Mexico’s Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior (CC-IME), representing the Mexican-origin communities in the Tucson consular district. Within this advisory group, she heads the border issues commission that, among other things, provides a voice for those less able to resist the same destructive economic forces that undermined her own community’s power and ability to survive.
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