Director Laurie Coyle candidly discusses how her film ADIOS AMOR became a poetic love letter to migrant mother and activist Maria Moreno, and her transformative role in the 1960s farmworkers movement

Director Laurie Coyle candidly discusses how her film ADIOS AMOR became a poetic love letter to migrant mother and activist Maria Moreno, and her transformative role in the 1960s farmworkers movement
When Laurie Coyle noticed Maria Moreno was missing from the popular narrative surrounding early farmworker activism, she decided to change that and give Moreno the justice she deserves. Coyle spoke to GOOD DOCS about Moreno’s historical treatment and why she feels Moreno is the ultimate "shero." Interview conducted by 

By Madeleine Mount-Cors


Could you give me a brief summary of 

ADIOS AMOR tells the story of Maria Moreno, a trailblazing migrant mother who led an early movement for farmworker justice. The film begins with my discovery of Maria's long-lost photographs and follows my quest to find her and understand why she was left out of the history books. Although ADIOS AMOR starts as my search, it's really Maria's journey at the end of the day.

What sparked your interest in Maria Moreno’s life? 

As a filmmaker who has been working on historical and biographical documentaries for years, I was excited to discover the Maria Moreno photographs. They were beautiful and remarkable in their intimate portrayal of a courageous migrant mother who found her voice and became a leader. They challenged our preconceptions of motherhood in the Cold War era, and they upended mainstream histories that told us the farmworkers' movement began with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Like Maria, who said in a 1961 speech, "I am talking for justice." I feel motivated by justice to establish Maria Moreno's place in history and shine a light on so many women who have worked behind the social justice scenes. I also want to share on widely accessible platforms (public television, community centers, and classrooms) the rich complexity of how historians interrogate the past. Who shapes the narrative? Whose stories do we recognize and record?

Archival research is always a treasure hunt, but there's a special serendipity in discovering someone you weren't looking for. I doing research for a documentary about Cesar Chavez when I came across hundreds of photographs of an unknown female activist. She certainly wasn't anonymous, but nobody seemed to know who she was, and that mystery hooked me. Having worked on many, and in one case directed, documentaries about "illustrious" men, I sensed that Maria Moreno was the "shero" I had been looking for.

Since the film's release, I have witnessed the power of Maria's story to inspire women to speak their truth. It's our turn to listen and act. What are farmworker women and their families facing today? How can we support their struggles for justice? How can we provide today's students—especially first-generation students from immigrant families—with the tools they need to harvest their histories and empower their education?

What is the background for the film’s title?

ADIOS AMOR translates as "goodbye, my love." The title comes from a 1960s documentary that I found at the National Archives. In the footage, the camera wanders through a lush grove, filming the workers harvesting, packing, and hauling oranges. High in the trees, hidden from sight, a solo voice sings a plaintive melody, "Adios Amor." It struck me as a fitting metaphor—history is less a harvest of low-lying fruit than an elusive voice that calls us to follow.

Adios Amor is also the refrain of No Llores Mas (Cry No More). This song was popular at Maria's time, especially among migrant workers who had to travel long distances and leave their families behind to support them. The life of a migrant worker is full of sacrifice, and the song is full of longing. At some point, I realized that Adios literally means "to God," and that certainly speaks to Maria's path later in life as a missionary.

Did you feel any personal connection to Maria’s life? Were you already involved with or interested in migrant farmworkers in the United States and workers’ rights?

On a personal note, ADIOS AMOR represents a homecoming for me. When I was in fourth grade, my parents uprooted our family of eight from the East Coast and moved to the Bay Area. In those days, there were traces of the farms that had been the heart of the Santa Clara Valley. The public library in our town was built in the middle of an apricot orchard, and we would collect the apricots that fell to the ground, but we knew nothing about the lives and struggles of the workers who grew the food on our table. Then my Dad met Cesar Chavez and began volunteering at the farmworker clinic in Delano during the grape strike. My mom stopped buying table grapes, juggled night classes, and protested the Vietnam War. 

I worked my way through college as a waitress and took a semester off to travel in Latin America, where I learned Spanish and a great deal about social inequity and U.S. intervention. In Berkeley, I interned at the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) on a project about transmigration between Mexico and the U.S. I also joined the Olga Talamante Defense Committee that advocated to free a young Chicana who had been arrested and tortured in Argentina for doing human rights work. After graduating, I worked as an oral historian focusing on women workers' untold stories and co-authored a book about garment strikers, Women at Farah: An Unfinished Story. My first documentary was about junkyard workers who were the victims of a radiation spill on the US-Mexico border.

When I met the Morenos, I felt the immediate connection of having grown up in big families, even though our lives were very different. My search for Maria became their search—sharing childhood memories, visiting their mother’s birthplace, embarking on a pilgrimage to the desert that had sustained them during their mother’s exile from the labor movement. 

How did you go about uncovering Maria Moreno’s life and legacy? Who did you meet and work with? What methods did you use to find photographs and audio recordings of her?

I started filming at the same time I started searching for Maria. I had no idea where that would land me, and there was a good chance that I was going to end up with a 15-minute experimental documentary about “the woman who got away.” I first visited the man who had taken the photographs of Maria, George Ballis. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and they’d given him two months to live. He was weak but told me, “Let’s go for it.” I headed down with my crew to the Sierra Foothills, where he lived with his wife, Maia. Since he got tired quickly, we spread the interview over two days, but I came away with enough inspiration to fuel the rest of the production. 

It was like an archeological dig: reading all the relevant books I could get my hands on, poring over their appendices, searching for primary documents on and offline, visiting archives and attics. I posted flyers in California’s Central Valley, had a PSA on the radio, fieldwork that took me through California down to the Arizona-Mexico border, cross-country to Detroit and D.C. Tips and phone calls, lots of dead ends, plus some discoveries that felt nearly miraculous. 

I tracked down Ronald B. Taylor, the only author to mention Maria Moreno in a book. Maria’s fellow union organizer, Henry Anderson, had an encyclopedic recall of events that had transpired sixty years ago—even more remarkable than the treasure trove of materials in his attic. I uncovered things about Maria’s work as a union organizer that her own family didn’t know, such as Maria and other Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) union leaders being sued for screening a banned documentary called Poverty in the Valley of Plenty. That lawsuit still has resonance for documentary filmmakers today!

I had been in production for almost a year before I made contact with Maria Moreno’s family. I had been in production for three years before I found the audio recordings of Maria. That was a game-changer. Everybody talked about what a powerful orator she was, but the recordings had gone missing thirty years earlier, and I was trying to figure out how to make the film without them. Hearing Maria tell her own story changed everything, and I feel so much gratitude to Ernest Lowe and KPFA radio for making these recordings. 

What was your most meaningful memory from this process of historical tracing?

There are so many memories I’d love to share over a cup of tea or tequila! What stays with me is the light in my characters’ eyes when I showed them the photographs or played the audio recordings. It’s as if they got to meet their younger selves all over again and reconnect with the deepest meaning of their lives. Something healing and affirming.

What was Maria Moreno’s impact on the labor movement? How does her story relate to major advocates of farmworker rights, such as César Chávez and Dolores Huerta? 

In terms of Maria Moreno’s impact on the labor movement, it’s important to take into account the question of representation. She was an indigenous Mexican American woman and an American citizen. Her mother was Mescalero Apache, and her father was an orphan of the Mexican Revolution. Her family came from Texas and moved to California during the Great Depression. Thousands of Mexican American families became Dust Bowl migrants, and yet we really only hear about the Okies and Arkies that came west. So Maria’s story enriches that history and makes it more inclusive.

Maria’s predecessors, Dorothy Ray Healey, Caroline Decker and Luisa Moreno, weren’t farmworkers, and neither was Dolores Huerta, so it’s significant that she was the first female farmworker in our country to be hired as a union organizer. The Okie, Filipino, Black, and Mexican American members of her union, AWOC, elected a migrant mother with a second grade education to represent them because she was truly a compelling orator. Maria built bridges amongst these farmworker communities who had lived in segregated camps and worked in segregated crews. This was before second-wave feminism or the March on Washington.

Maria’s leadership was short-lived, but she and her comrades planted a seed that sprouted a few years later when Filipino AWOC members went on strike against California grape growers in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), founded by Cesar Chavez in 1962, joined AWOC’s strike shortly thereafter, and—as the saying goes—the rest is history. 

Why do you think Maria Moreno was left out of farmworker history? Do you think her conflict with her bosses in AWOC or with Chavez affected her erasure from labor history?

There's a saying that history belongs to the victors. Maria's union elected her to represent them at the 1961 American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Convention. As AWOC’s official delegate, Maria persuaded the Federation to fund farmworker organizing, but George Meany, the President of the AFL-CIO, wasn’t happy about the numerous strikes that AWOC was calling (over 130) and the legal costs that were mounting up. He sent in a labor bureaucrat named Al Green, who had no connection to farmworkers. Green fired Maria and other outspoken, militant, or political AWOC members like Henry Anderson, Research Director. It was as if they disappeared—Henry was given 24 hours to clean out his office, and ordered not to tell his fellow workers. 

The erasure of Maria Moreno’s name began immediately. Dolores Huerta had attended the 1961 AWOC conference, where Maria was elected official delegate to the AFL-CIO convention. Asked about it later, Huerta said, “A group of farm workers jumped into their car and drove across the country, pigeonholed all the delegates to the AFL-CIO convention, and got them to vote for the money.” In 1962, Chavez and Huerta launched the National Farm Workers Association. Why didn’t they recruit a charismatic organizer like Maria? Among the explanations I heard was that Cesar was a devout Catholic and Maria was a devout Pentecostal, whose faiths fought “like cats and dogs.” I also tracked down a letter and a tape recording in which Chavez talks about Maria Moreno’s “big mouth.” No doubt gender played a role, as well as the rivalry between the NFWA and AWOC.

I think there’s a tendency to see history in a really telescoped way as if the farmworker movement started with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. In fact, there were unions organizing farmworkers in California as early as 1903, if not before. Why don’t we know about them? In part because our country, in general,  suffers from historical amnesia, but also because Chavez and the United Farm Workers wanted everyone to focus on the fact that they were the first to succeed in winning collective bargaining for farmworkers. 

That was something that the earlier unions fought for. There’s this notion that we don’t care about these other movements because they went down to defeat, but it’s important to understand the lessons that they offer us and also to honor those who struggled and not bury their legacy. It also bears noting that today most farmworkers continue to struggle for basic rights.

We all want to anoint our heroes, but it’s not about displacing one famous leader with another. It’s about engaging history as an ever-evolving dialogue with the past, thinking about whose voices are represented when histories are shaped. By including my search for Maria Moreno, ADIOS AMOR aims to inspire viewers to launch their own journeys of discovery and to engage them in the adventure of digging up the past. I am currently working on a lesson plan that incorporates historiography perspectives and tools for students to pursue their own history harvests.

In your opinion, what was the most telling part of Maria’s life that spoke the most to her character as a person, with many roles as a mother, worker, organizer, activist, and spiritual figure? 

From the over 75 screenings we’ve had with the film since its release, I’ve seen how Maria’s story moves audiences to laughter and to tears—people who may have no connection to the farmworkers or labor history. Her story is so universal because it speaks to anyone who’s had a mother! And everyone who has had to reinvent themselves, whether it’s crossing a border, sailing an ocean, losing a job, rebuilding after a fire or a flood. It’s about resilience built on a solid foundation of faith, family values, and commitment to justice. 

The more personal and heartfelt a story is, the more deeply the themes resonate. I’m fascinated by how Maria’s story resonates differently with different audiences, how viewers zero-in on one theme or another. Who out there grew up in the desert next to a water tank? At the same time, who wouldn’t give anything to revisit their childhoods? Folks relate to ADIOS AMOR on an emotional level, whatever their life circumstances have been.

How is Maria Moreno’s life relevant today? What can she still teach us?

Maria Moreno completely rewrote the rulebook, and that’s an inspiring message for women today. We have shared ADIOS AMOR with hundreds of farmworker women through an impact partnership with the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Alliance of Farmworker Women). They featured ADIOS AMOR at their summit meeting with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) as both groups prepared their strategies to advocate before Congress. Our partnership with Lideres Campesinas, a statewide organization of farmworker women,  combines screenings with storytelling workshops. ADIOS AMOR inspires women to speak out. It is also a cautionary tale about what happens to women when they don’t have support structures in place to protect them. 

Today a growing number of farmworker women are stepping forward to testify about their experiences. Farmworker women remain today at the forefront of struggles to improve migrant housing and advocate for just wages, immigration reform, banning pesticides, and ending violence against women. In response to the rising #MeToo movement, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Alliance of Farmworker Women) published an open letter in fall 2017.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Films about farmworkers tend to focus on highpoints like strikes and picket lines. ADIOS AMOR shifts that focus: the heart of the story is farmworker culture, how Maria’s faith, family values, and working-class culture sustained her, her husband, and their family. For example, Maria’s son Abel talks about going to school and having to hide to eat the burritos Maria had packed because the other kids would make fun of them. Nowadays, burritos are probably more popular than hamburgers in the U.S.A! Her daughter Eva tells the story of the big bird that dropped a rabbit in front of their truck. Maria pulled over because they had nothing else to eat and taught her children how to skin and cook a rabbit. A story told with laughter and tears. It’s an intimate portrait of how Maria and her family got by but also the beauty of their lives, the songs they sang, the home movies they occasionally captured. 

One young man from the Emerging Rural Youth Organizers Retreat stood up at our preview screening. He said, “Thank you for showing the Central Valley in such a loving way—we rarely see our lives depicted in the movies, and when we do, it’s usually negative.” Audience members often come up to say they plan to go home and ask their parents to share their stories. Maria’s story is labor history, but it’s also something much more.