For those who are familiar with Maria Marroquin, the charismatic director of the Day Worker Center of Mountain View, it's hard to describe her without using platitudes.
"Honestly, I'm guilty of comparing her to Mother Teresa during introductions," says Craig Sherod, the center's board chair.
Marroquin has been executive director of the center since 2005, and was the center's manager before that. Prior to that, she informally organized the workers on the street. She was the driving force behind the 2009 fundraising effort to buy the center's building at 117 Escuela Ave., which was transformed from an abandoned building into a thriving center.
Under her leadership, the center recently broke its record for job placements -- 950 in a single month this year -- has a nest egg in the bank and a staff of three.
It wasn't always such smooth sailing. At one point, Marroquin was accused of mistreating workers by St. Vincent De Paul, the charity which had run the center in one of its several church locations until 2004, though there was no proof. The charity left the operation behind in a conflict that had numerous workers and the community rallying behind Marroquin and making her executive director.
"It's not a job for Maria, it's her life," Sherod said. "I have to remind her to take a vacation. She used some of her vacation time this year to do a hunger strike."
In March, Marroquin participated in the hunger strike in support of immigration reforms, fasting for 11 days. Marroquin arranged for hunger strikes to continue across the country, an effort that undoubtedly was helped by her being in her second term as director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network.
"That's become my mission in life," Marroquin said of her work to improve the lives of immigrants. "There's still a lot of misperceptions." Sometimes people come to the center and express concerns about bringing a worker to their homes. Marroquin responds by saying, "I would put my life in their hands."
In 1997 Marroquin took a vacation to the U.S., visiting family members who were well established in Redwood City. "I immediately fell in love with this country," she said. She ended up staying after her six month visa expired, making her an undocumented immigrant. She worked various low-paying jobs, selling cookware and tamales door-to-door, working simultaneously at a thrift store and at the San Francisco airport. After an immigration raid happened shortly after her graveyard shift at the airport ended, she said she felt she needed to quit.
"I decide to quit that job because I was really scared," she said. "I had nightmares. It was so horrible, kind of like a horror movie."
She was soon working as a house cleaner at the Day Worker Center's original location in Los Altos, when the stage was set for her to become its director. The Center's lease expired in October of 2001 and the workers found themselves on the street. Marroquin would bring coffee and bread to the workers every day and keep a list of who was next in line for work, doing it all without a paycheck.
"I was everyday going to the street, helping the workers in the morning making the list of workers waiting for jobs, (asking) who was here first? I would negotiate with the employers. It was kind of crazy. I look back and think, 'What was going on in my mind?' But I did it."
"She understands the people she supports because that's who she is," said Yo Ann Martinez of KQED, which recently selected her as one of four "local heroes" for Latino Heritage Month. "That makes her a way better executive director."
"She has always been a very charismatic, strong and powerful woman, a pillar of the family and now the Day Worker Center," said her 32 year old son, Angel Santuario, who she raised as a single mother since his father died from a stroke when he was a boy. He recalls her working two jobs in the U.S. at one point, 16 hours a day, to help pay a family member's medical expenses.
Marroquin is from Huauchinango, a small city in the rugged mountains of central Mexico known for its waterfalls, flowers and numerous churches. Marroquin says she is no longer the strict Catholic she was raised to be, attending Mass every Sunday and reciting an hour-long "Rosario" every day at her mother's insistence.
Marroquin's mother came from an established, wealthy family which she recalls was often visited by Catholic church elders. Her mother was a teacher, a profession which Maria herself would later take on in Mexico in an elementary school, also working for a teachers union. Her father came from a quite different background. He was a laborer who had made a trip to the U.S. in the Bracero program as a farm worker, and met Marroquin's mother while working on her family's property. Marroquin's mother taught him how to read and write. A handsome man, Marroquin says her father looked like a cross between Richard Gere and Clark Gable.
When Marroquin was 12, her father died in accident while working on a train track, killed by a piece of heavy equipment. She easily recalls the date "It was 43 years ago yesterday," she said on Sept. 6. "I thought I would never recover from that pain. He was wonderful. We were partners in many things."
Perhaps it is fitting that today Marroquin works with laborers like her father. They learn to read and write in English at the center, and receive free food, donated goods and other services, along with a welcome from Marroquin, whose warmth and magnetic personality Sherod credits with much of the Day Worker Center's success in fund-raising and attracting volunteers.