Mary Espiritu

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Interviewed by
Stephen Casanova
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By Rebecca Millner

In more than 40 years of service, Mary Espiritu De Leon received at least 45 awards and honors, recognizing her commitment to San Antonio's Latino community, and especially its women.

Her role as a spokeswoman and advocate grew out of her own struggle to succeed as a professional Latina at a time when her ethnicity and gender were considered strikes against her.

"I always wanted better for myself than just being a mother and a housewife," Espiritu said. "I wanted a good job, to move ahead and improve myself, regardless of whether I was a Latina."

The United States' involvement in WWII created a need for workers at San Antonio's Kelly Field. Espiritu was hired at Kelly, opening the door to her leadership role in San Antonio's Hispanic community.

At the age of 18, she began working as a stenographer at the base. On her first day, one of Espiritu's supervisors instructed her that part of her job included making coffee each morning. She looked over the job description, and it said nothing about coffee. So the next morning, she didn't make coffee and was sent to the colonel's office for refusing to take orders.

"I told the colonel that making coffee was not what I was being paid for and, if that was something that was expected of me, then I would have to quit," Espiritu said. "The colonel told me I was absolutely right, and from then on I knew that, if I did what was right and was not afraid to speak up, things would be different for me."

Espiritu began moving up the ladder at Kelly by enrolling in training programs. Her goal was to move into higher positions than secretary, which she accomplished by taking advantage of every chance she had to learn more.

"If there was ever any opportunity to do overtime in another department, I would take it," Espiritu said. "I eventually worked my way up to becoming an F-106 inventory manager for the aircraft C5A, the base's biggest planes."

As she climbed the ranks at Kelly, Espiritu began to shift her personal focus toward the empowerment of other Latinas. She started forming women's clubs, including Federally Employed Women.

"We taught that being a woman makes you no less than a man," Espiritu said.

She also got involved with National IMAGE, a group that started addressing needs of Hispanics in federal government jobs and later expanded to equal employment opportunity and other civil rights areas.

Espiritu said one of her big community successes came when she persuaded the national president of IMAGE to speak at Kelly to an audience of Latinos, along with the base's commander. During his speech, the national president addressed the fact that the base did not have a single Hispanic earning a GS15 salary, the highest pay level there, despite some Latinos having more education than Whites there. Within 90 days, three Hispanics were promoted to GS15, Espiritu said.

In the 1970s, while attending the Federally Employed Women's first convention in Washington, D.C., she noticed the majority of the organization's members were Black and White, and none of the speakers or workshop leaders were Latinas. From then on, she was on a mission to change that for the next convention.

Espiritu went to the general in charge of her unit and informed him that she wanted to be transferred to a training unit at the Kelly base for six months to learn how to make official presentations and gain a stronger background as a speaker. The general liked this idea and acted as her sponsor in gaining the needed skills.

"I then got ahold of Hispanic women at other bases and suggested that they take time off, too, and come and train with me," Espiritu said.

Then Espiritu went on to host the next yearly convention in San Antonio, where the keynote speaker was a Latina. Her work in promoting other Latinos at Kelly earned her the nickname "la madrina de Kelly," (the Kelly godmother).

The main focus of Espiritu's work became the betterment of Hispanic women throughout her own community. In the 1980s, she became one of the founders of The Mexican American Business and Professional Women's Association, based in San Antonio, with other chapters around the country.

"I wanted to show everyone that Mexican-American women are out there and working," Espiritu said. "The biggest issue was that these women weren't being recognized for their work, and they didn't have the tools to confront this, or to fight and accomplish things."

Through the association, she taught women how to take action. For example, she said she focused a great deal on women on welfare and how they might get the training necessary to get hired and provide for themselves and their families.

In the late 1980s, the city of San Antonio recognized Espiritu's contributions by appointing her to chair the Mayor's Commission on the Status of Women. The city also honored her for being the president of the local IMAGE chapter, which, at the time of her interview, was a position she had held for eleven years.

Espiritu also raised funds for IMAGE and created a scholarship fund for continuing education students in San Antonio.

As part of her work for Latinas, she also compiled a book, "Hispanic Women Role Models." "When the young Hispanic women read this, they will see that they have options, and they can be anything they want to," Espiritu said.

Although she recalled initially being met with opposition by the principal of the local high school, Espiritu eventually implemented a mentorship program at the school, which she said helped provide young women with training for future careers.

Espiritu retired after 40 years of work at Kelly. Her hard work and dedication were recognized when then-Gov. George W. Bush presented her with The Yellow Rose of Texas, which recognizes outstanding Texas women for their contributions to the state. In 1983, The National Hispanic Women's Institute inducted her into the Hispanic Women's Hall of Fame. And, in 2004, she was inducted into San Antonio's Hall Of Fame.

"Whatever I learned along the way, I shared it with the rest of the women around me," Espiritu said. "There are so many things that we can do to improve the lives of those around us, and I really believe that there is room at the top for us all!"

According to a San Antonio Express-News obituary, Espiritu passed away on Jan. 15, 2011. La madrina de Kelly was 88.

Ms. Espiritu was interviewed by Stephen Casanova in San Antonio on Oct. 14, 2008.