Remembering Sacramento farm worker champion Mary Ellen Montoya
The farm worker movement was saddened to learn of the passing on Feb. 29 of Mary Ellen Montoya, 79, who along with her late husband—famed Chicano poet, artist and activist Jose Montoya—were partners for years in championing Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the Sacramento area.
The Montoyas, Mary Ellen and Jose plus their six children, were inseparably linked with the farm workers’ cause from the earliest years of the movement in the 1960s. That was when the entire family began leafleting and picketing on the union’s behalf in Yuba City, Calif. while they were living in nearby Olivehurst. The UFW played an even greater role in their lives after they moved to Sacramento. It seemed as if Mary Ellen, Jose and their children—Gina, Joe Jr., Carlos, Richard, Mal and Vincent—spent much of the ‘60s and ‘70s on local farm worker picket lines outside supermarkets, feeding farm worker marchers and organizing car caravans to support the grape strikers in Delano.
Cesar Chavez frequently stayed at their home when he was spending the night in Sacramento. He enjoyed the conversations with Jose and Mary Ellen, and fellow Chicano activists such as Joe Serna, who later was elected Sacramento’s mayor. But the iconic civil rights and farm labor leader especially enjoyed the warm hospitality of the large Montoya family, and Mary Ellen’s homemade vegetarian cooking.
Mary Ellen Montoya was raised amidst the verdant fields of her youth in the Fresno County town of Fowler. There the Fowler High School song leader met a yearbook editor and cartoonist named Jose Montoya. They were married while he was in the U.S. Navy. She also became a dedicated educator, serving with the Sacramento City Unified School District for more than 30 years, at Ethel Phillips Elementary School.
In a joint letter to Mary Ellen’s children, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul Chavez noted how Cesar distinguished between people who are of service and those who become servants. “Many decent men and women engage in daily acts of altruism or charity,” their letter observed. “But a relative few become servants, totally dedicating themselves to the most needy among us. By that definition, both your mother and father were true servants.”
Mary Ellen Montoya is survived by her second husband, Andres Perez, six children, 15 grand children and 13 great grand children as well as her sisters Linda, Carmen, Gloria, Sally, Patricia and Melissa, her brother Joey and their children from Gilroy, Calif. as well as numerous cousins, aunts and uncles from the Central Valley.
Services on Monday, March 7, begin with a 10 a.m. to 12 noon visitation and a 12 noon Rosary, both at George L. Klumpp Mortuary, 2691 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento 95818, followed by a procession to St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, 6700 - 21st Ave., Sacramento 95820.