By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register
Maria B. Corona remembers the protests outside her family’s apartment in Quito, Ecuador, in the late 1990s when the nation’s economy was on the edge of collapsing.
The tires burning in the capital’s streets. The road closures. The desperation.
Then there was the domestic violence she says her mother endured for years. Corona can’t forget the screams, the tears, the many times her father would come home drunk late at night.
The economic instability and turmoil in Ecuador was the breaking point for Corona’s mother.
In 1999, when Corona was 11, her mother packed up her two children and their belongings and headed to New Jersey. She left her husband behind.
“She said, ‘I need to get out. I need to get out for my kids,'” Corona, now 33, told the Des Moines Register. “My mom is a damn warrior. She just did it. She figured it out on her own with two kids.”
Corona, now 33, is the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s new executive director and a leader in Iowa’s anti-violence and racial justice movements.
Her mother’s experience as a domestic violence survivor motivates Corona. Those who have worked with her say she has become a force that has built and strengthened a grassroots movement against violence in Iowa, one that emphasizes the intersections between gender, race and immigration.
“I’m trying to transform the way we, as an anti-violence movement, address the root causes of violence. And the root causes of violence are rooted in racial justice, gender equity, housing, stability, mental health,” Corona said.
Her passion, intersectional vision and leadership throughout Iowa make her one of the Des Moines Register’s 2022 People to Watch.
Her vision of change is so large, she talks fast to get it all out, her hands gesturing as she jumps from one root cause of violence to the next during an interview at Ritual Cafe, a Latina-owned coffee shop downtown. Her red, sharp coat matched the cafe’s colorful tones, and her big smile was warm and inviting.
She paused only to say that she knew she was talking fast.
“If we want to be equitable, if we want to actually end violence, then we have to do our work through an anti-racist lens,” she said.
Personal experience fuels her approach to anti-violence
The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence she leads is a survivor-centered coalition that represents 22 organizations across the state. The coalition advocates for legislation that leaders believe will increase safety and healing for survivors of domestic violence. It also provides resources to victims of violent crime, including a legal clinic, scholarships, financial empowerment courses, housing assistance, services for incarcerated victims of domestic violence, and much more.
Corona, who was hired in May, has a lot of goals for the coalition.
As a Latina, as a previously undocumented immigrant and as someone who has both witnessed and experienced domestic violence, she is pushing the coalition to better contextualize violence.
That means understanding why, in some cultures, separation is seen as shameful, Corona said. It means understanding the reasons people cause harm and the failures of the justice system to help victims and perpetrators. It also means understanding the challenges that immigrants in particular might face, such as language barriers or lack of access to government-funded resources.
And, she said, it means being more accessible and intentional. Corona wants to lift up the voices of women of color who experience domestic violence, because they face multiple layers of oppression and violence, she said.
“I’ve lived it, what many of the women we serve go through on a daily basis,” Corona said. “That lived experience fuels my approach.”
Veronica Guevara, the coalition’s director of equity and inclusion, said watching Corona work is empowering and inspiring.
Whether Corona is visiting the state’s domestic violence shelters, advocating for policy changes, bringing organizations together, going to court to support survivors or strategizing legal cases — “her heart is so big, and it is in everything that she does,” said Guevara, 30.
“She has high expectations, and she challenges you to really do your best. But she’s also incredibly flexible and caring and supportive — all the things that you would want a boss to be,” Guevara continued.
“And nothing is too small for her — I’ve just watched in awe.”
Corona’s mother, Hilda Zuñiga, said she sees her own determination now embodied in her daughter.
“I always look to be better. I am so proud; Maria has the courage to help people,” said Zuñiga, 55, who lives in New Jersey.
To see her children happy and successful is “everything I wished for,” Zuñiga said.
Corona brings years of research, activism to the table
Corona’s resume is stacked with academic accomplishments and years of work in social services.
At Iowa State University, she earned her bachelor’s degree in 2011, her master’s degree in 2017 and a doctorate in 2020. There, the seeds were planted for what would come next.
At the university, she organized protests and demonstrations against anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia in Iowa. She co-founded and led organizations and initiatives that worked to advance change for students of color and provided support and community for Latinx students.
“I couldn’t stay silent. I’m very vocal when there’s injustice,” Corona said.
Among her whirlwind of other accomplishments:
- From 2013 to 2016, Corona worked at ACCESS, the Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support, helping survivors of domestic violence who were undocumented. Her time at ACCESS inspires her work today, she said.
- In 2019, she co-founded the Ames Sanctuary Interfaith Partners, which supports undocumented immigrants, helps with application fees for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and provides physical sanctuary for asylum seekers.
- Corona helped mobilize the Latino vote with LULAC during the 2016 election. She was undocumented at the time and couldn’t vote herself.
- During a 2017 internship with Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, she helped create the organization’s statewide Immigration and Customs Enforcement hotline.
- Corona has collaborated with immigrant and refugee leaders across the state to advocate for better COVID-19 response and more relief efforts.
Over the years, Corona has earned over a dozen honors, awards and fellowships for her work in the Latinx community.
“I’m not one to just stop. I’m not,” Corona said. “I’m here to push.”
Targeting legislative change, building a movement
Corona said she wants to build genuine relationships with organizations throughout the state, and she wants to advocate for more formal changes.
Corona intends to fight hard for the 2022 legislative priorities the coalition has drafted. Those goals include more funding and programs to help survivors heal and to address the inequities Corona says are the roots of violence, including racial and gender disparities and unequal pathways to citizenship.
“This is about movement building. It’s about the future generations,” Corona said. “I want the future generation to have what I didn’t have — healing, justice.”
Corona said she is energized by the influence she will have in her new role. She said she can’t wait for her community to feel the same way she does, that they’re about to change the world.
About Maria Corona
LIVES: Des Moines
EDUCATION: Corona graduated from Iowa State University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and international studies, with an emphasis on Latin America social and cultural change. In 2017, she earned her master’s degree at Iowa State in family and consumer sciences, and in 2020, she completed a Ph.D. in human development and family studies, both at Iowa State.
CAREER: After years of research at Iowa State University and working directly with undocumented survivors of domestic violence at ACCESS (the Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support), Corona now serves as executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
FAMILY: Corona is married to Ricardo Corona. They have a 2-year-old , Ricardo K. Corona.
About the Des Moines Register’s 2022 People to Watch
It has become a Register tradition to close out each year and open the next by introducing readers to 15 People to Watch — individuals expected to make an impact on Iowa in the coming year.
This year’s nominations from readers and our journalists totaled nearly 70 people and posed hard decisions for staff members charged with winnowing them to just 15.
The final 15 include people in business and the arts, those who work with small children and climb mountains, those who argue for a living and those who deliver much-needed care. We hope that you are as inspired by reading about them as we were in profiling them.
Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.