Hola America and Hola Iowa present the Hispanic Heritage Month Special Series: Orgullo Hispano, Latino trailblazers that inspire us in the communities of Iowa and Illinois.
From the very first couple of minutes of my conversation with Mary Campos, I clearly understand that this is no ordinary elderly woman. In fact, I would never guess that this woman was actually born at the beginning of the last century. Her life is a story full of experiences that can fill the pages of a book, but more than anything her experiences are great lessons of a lifelong fight against injustice and discrimination.
Mary Campos was born in 1929 in McAlester, Oklahoma. That same year there was a great disaster in McAlester, OK, when a coal mine exploded taking many lives. After the mine explosion many people were left without jobs, that is why the Campos family made their way to Mason City, Iowa from there they eventually came to Des Moines, Iowa.
“I was 5 years old when we came to Des Moines,” Campos remembers.
At first it was not easy for her family to survive in a new town. While her father spent his days looking for a job, her mother sold tamales. Yes, the times were tough, but obstacles are in place so people learn to overcome them and Mary Campos always found solutions to her problems.
When she was a little girl she decided she wanted to attend a Catholic School. She asked her mother about it, but being a family of few means, her mother responded that the family did not have money to pay for Catholic School.
“She told me to go and talk to Father and the sisters,” Campos shared. And so she did. The school gave her a scholarship and she was helping around the school if needed in return. Since her childhood this woman was different from others because her personality did not understand the words ‘cannot.’ Mary Campos learned from an early age that nothing is impossible in this life.
“I graduated from school in 1947. I was 17 years old. But there was no money for college,” Campos told us.
She might not have had that college experience that shapes people’s minds, her experiences are a bit different, but nonetheless many of those experiences she would remember clearly for the rest of her life.
One of those memories burned deep into her memory. One summer Campos, along with her mother, took a Greyhound bus to California. The United States at that time was divided by discrimination and the southern states were not very friendly to people of color.
While on the bus young Mary noticed three people of color on the back of the bus. Two servicemen and a young lady were sitting on the back of the bus.
“I was a young girl and they caught my attention,” Campos said. She kept looking back and at some point she simply got up and went to the back of the bus so she could have a conversation with them.
Suddenly the bus stopped abruptly. A few seconds later, passengers, surprised by a sudden stop, heard the bus driver telling Campos she could not be there and she had to go to sit with her mother. She did what she was told, but no matter how she looked at it she could not understand why some people could not sit where they wanted to. In fact, Campos shared that knowing that those two African American men voluntarily decided to serve and protect their country not just for them, but everyone else living in the United States, hurt her. Her young mind did not comprehend why she was not allowed to talk to them.
“This memory is very strong in my mind,” Campos confirms.
She said that on that day she could not even eat because she was so appalled by the racism she witnessed that day.
When Campos returned home to Iowa she started looking for a job. Unfortunately, in those days it was not easy for a strong willed young Hispanic woman to find a job. When she applied, some employers clearly told her that they were not comfortable with the fact that she was Mexican simply because they did not know how their customers would react to this fact.
With a little help from God and a little of the luck, Campos found a job. In the next few years she married and had her daughters. Then a new opportunity knocked on her door, a doctor asked her to work with him in his office. After discussing the matter with her husband, she went to work for the African American doctor. Campos remembers that many people commented to her how she could work for an African American and the doctor heard people ask him how he could hire a Mexican to work for him. Those comments did not affect her strong personality and Campos stayed with this employer for many years.
The years passed Mary Campos found herself divorced and with three kids to support. She started to be involved with the community. Campos started to advocate for women and children rights. She quickly learned she greatly enjoyed working with the community. Her work with the community led her to form many great relationships with diverse people. All her life Mary Campos strongly believed and worked for justice and against discrimination, but over the years she also became passionate about politics.
“My work is in justice and discrimination, but I also fell in love with politics,” Campos said. “Since I don’t have a husband to take care of I wanted to dedicate myself to this.”
Because of her life long dedication to community, politics and helping immigrants Campos received many awards and recognitions, but one of the most important to her is the one she received in 2005 from the Mexican Government. She was awarded the “Ohtli” a prestigious award given by the Secretary of Interior from the Mexican Government. She received it for her work with immigrants. She also received the “Lifetime Achievement” award from the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute.
Even now Mary Campos does not stay still. She still helps many immigrants by preparing residents to become citizens. But her dream is to see young people and minorities to continue studying, to become lawyers and doctors and fill the positions of power.
Her life was full of experiences that could make others put their hands in the air and give up. Others are not Mary Campos. She has a strong will and personality. She has a strong sense of what is right and just. Her experiences and her life are a story to tell and one that teaches many great life lessons.
Most recently in 2017 the ACLU of Iowa honored Mary Campos with the 2017 Edward S. Allen Award.
She was inducted into the inaugural class of the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame in 2017.
She received an Honorary DMACC Nursing degree from DMACC President Rob Denson in 2019. And these are just of the few accolades she has received throughout her lifetime of activism.